For a parent who doesn’t personally know a transgender individual, it can seem difficult to talk to children about the topic of gender identity. Here are some tips.
How do you explain what being transgender means? Shouldn’t you wait until they’re old enough to understand?
Educator, writer, and trans advocate Kristin K. Collier recommends that rather than talking about trans issues in particular, what we need as parents is a shift in perspective. “If we want greater safety and acceptance for transgender people, and ultimately for people of all gender identities, we need to start talking about gender identity as potentially fluid.”
After all it’s adults, not kids, who have hangups about gender and gender identity.
Think about it: Even before a child is born we assign them a gender based solely on biological sex, then immediately start piling expectations for who that child will be based on that assigned gender identity.
Pink or blue, sweet or rowdy, princess or superhero, dolls or trucks. And why? These are adult definitions of gender, not children’s. It’s parents that need to do the work of letting go of these rigid ideas we teach to them. To that end, how do we begin to talk about gender identity with children as an ongoing conversation, rather than as an abstract “trans issue”?
A simple way to start is by understanding that there is a difference between biological sex (body parts), gender identity (how someone feels inside), and gender expression (how we choose to show our gender to others, such as clothes and hair.) Sometimes these things match up, and sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay.
There is not one right way to be a boy or to be a girl, and kids already understand that from a young age. If adults can accept that gender identity can be fluid, we give all kids the chance to express themselves more freely — whether they’re cis, trans, non-binary, or not quite sure yet.
Collier also recommends that, “The topic of gender identity should not be saved for sex education in upper elementary, but instead should be included in our conversational topics around children from at least the age at which they are aware of their own gender identity, about three to five years old.”
Collier continues, “We need to make an effort to share the accomplishments of transgender people of all ages just as we would the accomplishments of cisgender people (their sex assigned at birth matches their gender identities). Transgender people need to be included in our world view, and then they will become a part of our children’s perception of the world. We should be vocal about and supportive of human rights for everyone, including people of all gender identities.”
Collier recommends that parents familiarize themselves with personal stories of trans individuals and their families, such as the book Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt; Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen who has been open about her personal experiences; and documentaries like Raising Ryland; and Katie Couric’s recent documentary on National Geographic, Gender Revolution.
“Educate yourself,” says Collier. “Get more of sense of what you don’t know. Many of us are unaware of the privilege that is ours when we don’t have to face disapproval and danger on a daily basis while being ourselves. Read the stories of transgender youth, parents, and members of our communities. Realize that most of us know or are related to someone who is transgender, so your efforts to educate yourself will support many.”
She also recommends connecting with local community crisis centers that serve trans youth, who are kicked out and/or physically assaulted at home at much higher rates than cisgender children. And to be vocal in your support and acceptance, then not only will your children follow suit, but others in your community will as well.
“People do what their neighbors do, and the parents of trans youth are often fearful of a lack of acceptance for their whole family. It is up to each of us to set a tone of embracing diversity so that whole families can come out of the closet when one of their members is trans.”
Kristin K. Collier is an educator and writer from Eugene, OR and author of “Housewife: Home-remaking in a Transgender Marriage.” She has been teaching Compassionate Communication since 2004. Her words have appeared in The Sun magazine, and her poetry is a frontispiece for Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s People of the Sea. “Housewife: Home-remaking in a Transgender Marriage” is available on Amazon and at all major bookstores.