With transgender, non-binary, and gender identity becoming so prominent in society, it’s difficult for a parent to avoid conversations about the topic with their children.
It’s expected for children to have questions about men transitioning into women, women transitioning into men, or a man who decides he wants to be addressed by a traditional woman’s name. These questions come from curiosity, but children may become malicious or judgmental.
In many cases, their parents haven’t had a conversation with them about the topic. Either they didn’t think they needed to talk about it or didn’t know how.
But children as young as three notice differences and categorize people and families in their heads. So it’s never too early to talk about all the different ways families appear worldwide.
Here are some tips for getting started:
- Talk about gender expansively from the beginning. Refer to other people and children with gender-neutral language unless you know their genders. An increasing number of non-binary people are using gender-neutral pronouns (they/them instead of he/his or she/hers), so getting children used to using more gender-neutral language is likely to set them up for more success using they/them pronouns in the future. Instead of “Oh, she is so cute,” you could say, “That baby is so cute.” Instead of “That daddy is taking good care of that little boy,” you could say, “That parent is taking good care of that child.” It’s as easy as that.
- Talk about families expansively from the beginning. Seek out books with two dads, two moms, single parents, or gender non-conforming caretakers, like “Guess How Much I Love You“ Don’t make a big deal about it, but when you discuss the books with your little one, include language that introduces them to the idea that different families have different structures: “Some families have one dad and one mom, some have two dads or two moms, some have grandparents raising kids, some have just one parent raising kids, some have parents in different houses, some have more than two parents, and some have grown-ups where they aren’t a boy or a girl, so they’re just ‘parents’ and aren’t a ‘mom’ or a ‘dad.’”
- Share stories about transgender and non-binary families. If your child is watching over your shoulder as you scan social media, point out different kinds of families you see on your Facebook, TikTok, or Instagram feed (and if they aren’t on your feed, work to follow these families, so you get the chance to talk about them). At dinner or in the car, mention different stories of families you know who have trans people in them. If you’re close to a trans friend or family, ask if it’s okay to share some of their story with your child. If the person or family approves, lead a discussion about their trans history and explain a bit of their story, highlighting positive traits you’ve observed from the family. Remember that even at an early age, children may receive negative messages about those who don’t conform to gender norms, so it’s essential to have a broad scope of information.
- Don’t judge your child’s learning. While teaching your child about this topic may not understand all this right away. Some parents may feel they have failed because their four-year-old came home from school saying that pink is for girls or that boys can’t have long hair. While it can be disappointing to hear your children parroting gender-normative messages, remember that black-and-white thinking is developmentally normal for preschoolers. Stay calm and offer a counter-message: “Actually, all colors are for all people! Girls can like blue, too—remember you have that blue dress that you love?” or “Our friend Liam has long hair, right? And he’s a boy!” Relate the topics to their lives and provide gentle additions to what they’re hearing via media or from friends.
- Integrate questions about gender into occasional everyday conversations with your kids. This is important because some children are working on transitioning at school and elsewhere behind your back.
“Do you feel more like a boy or more like a girl? How do you know? Do you like to be called ‘she,’ ‘ he,’ or ‘they’? Do you know anyone who feels like a ‘they’?” Remember that discussing gender is not harmful. Simply asking those questions won’t cause your child to be confused about their gender—it will just encourage them to be more thoughtful about how they approach gender and will provide more opportunities for you to talk to them about transgender and non-binary people. Trans writer and dad Stephen Stratton wrote an essay about how to introduce trans issues to your children for Gays With Kids. In the article, he shares, “You can, at any age, shift the way you talk to a child about gender. You can examine your own internalized beliefs about sex and gender roles. You can embrace your gender expression and encourage your child[ren] to do the same.”
There likely will be times when you start feeling out of your league. For example, your child may ask questions you don’t have answers to.
This isn’t a bad thing to get used to—a lot of parenting involves children asking questions you need to search Google for answers. It’s okay, to be honest. Tell them you don’t know, and then lead a discussion where you and your child share what you think might be true.
Later, you can research the answer, ask friends for help, and can engage your child in the process of learning. By doing so, you’ll be showing them what it means to be open and curious about something new—and by teaching them about trans people, gender identity, and families, you’ll be making the world that much better for different families.
You’ll also be preparing your children to adapt to the world in which they live.