What does it mean to be a girl? for example. What does it mean to be a boy? Picture: GoodFreePictures

Washington - Naya is an almost 3-year-old I met recently who, in the course of an afternoon, wondered the following things: Why does the blue marble look green when viewed through yellow plastic? How is cheese made? Do things always fall down when you drop them or do they sometimes fall up?

Spending time with an almost 3-year-old is an excellent way to realise how hard it is to deconstruct concepts that adults take for granted.

What does it mean to be a girl? for example. What does it mean to be a boy?

When I first met Naya, I didn't know what gender Naya was. And neither did Naya's parents. They knew what was on Naya's birth certificate, of course. But as for what was in Naya's brain? They were waiting for Naya to tell them.

All good parents want their kids to be happy. A lot of good parents now are having conversations about how gender and expectations fit into that. How do you raise girls to be tough and boys to be sensitive? Or, how do you raise girls and boys to be whatever they truly are - not just what they've absorbed from centuries of culture telling girls to be dainty and boys not to cry?

Naya's parents, Jeremy and Bryan, had thought about all of this, maybe more than most. Jeremy had worked with transgender and intersex people. Their stories about the traumas of childhood - being forced to live as boys, for example, when they felt like girls - began to haunt him once he became a parent. And so did the aisles of Target, an assault of segregated pink and blue.

He started to worry. Would Naya, at that point a newborn, feel pressured to conform to the stereotype of a birth certificate's sex designation?

Jeremy and Bryan didn't publicly share Naya's birth-certificate sex, and they posted an announcement on Facebook: "If you interact with our kid, please make an effort to use Naya's name, rather than a gendered pronoun." 

Jeremy acknowledged this all might seem complicated, but he explained that "much of our culture and many of our traditions are based on telling people (directly and indirectly) what they can and can't do, or should and shouldn't do, based on their gender rather than their capabilities. And we know this has tremendously negative consequences for both kids and adults."

Jeremy and Bryan found themselves explaining that some people have penises and some have vaginas, and some have neither. Sometimes, having a vagina means feeling like a girl, but not always. They used their friends and relatives' pictures to explain: Grandma is a woman, she likes to be called a she. Daddah is a man, he likes to be called a he.

And Naya, they emphasized, could choose whatever Naya wanted.

Jeremy says he would have been happy with any choice Naya had made. There is no right answer, he believes, and they still don't talk about what's on the birth certificate. 

His goal was only ever to provide Naya with a breadth of experiences, and the chance to think about who she really wanted to be. There could be more conversations in the future. But he and Bryan had spent years telling their kid that it was important to respect the way people saw themselves.

The Washington Post