I grew up in the wooded suburbs outside of Seattle. I didn't know anyone who was gay or transgender, and when my mom talked to me about sex, gender identity and sexual preferences did not come up. Now I'm raising my own daughter in a very different environment, one where people talk openly about gender identity and sexuality; a time when we celebrate Pride month in June. There is more to talk about, and that's a good thing. But how do I actually have that conversation, and do it right?
There is just no actual manual for parenting but Shauna Tominey's Creating Compassionate Kids is the next best thing. Her book offers insight on how to have a meaningful conversation with kids of varying ages about a variety of important topics. Tominey includes sample conversations and much needed guidance and support. Pride month is the perfect time to talk to kids about gender identity, and I asked Tominey for advice on the subject.
Is that a boy or a girl? Exploring gender through conversations with young children
Is that a boy or a girl?
Can girls be astronauts too?
Why is he wearing a dress?
Does she have two mommies?
Can a girl turn into a boy?
Can a boy have a baby?
Children have endless questions. Sometimes their questions surprise us. Sometimes they make us laugh. Sometimes they leave us speechless. Children’s questions help them learn about how they fit in with the world around them as they develop their identities. One aspect of a child’s identity is their sex and gender.
By definition, sex relates to anatomy—the body parts we are born with. Gender refers to social roles—the way we identify or express ourselves. There may be some ways that children follow traditional gender roles and some ways that they do not (e.g., a girl who loves to wear dresses and also loves to play in the mud; a boy who is comfortable talking about his feelings, enjoys playing dolls with his sisters, and loves to wrestle with his friends). Our society is growing more accepting of children and adults who do not fit in with traditional gender roles, but life tends to be easier for those who fit these roles most closely.
As our understanding of sex and gender evolve, knowing how to talk with children about these topics is essential to helping all children feel comfortable with who they are whether they fit traditional gender roles and identities or not. Conversations about sex and gender are easy for some parents, but may feel uncomfortable for others. It’s important to realize that having a conversation with a child about gender will not lead them to choose a different gender identity if that’s not who they are.
There are many conversations we can have with children—some that address gender directly, some that do not—that help lay the foundation for positive self-esteem and empathy. Here are a few conversation strategies, adapted from Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children to help you get started or to enhance the conversations you are already having.
1. Help children feel comfortable being who they are. Have regular conversations with your children about their feelings as well as likes and dislikes. What makes you feel sad? Happy? Disappointed? Excited? What are your favorite colors? Favorite things to do? Let your children know that you care about their feelings and interests. Share that talking about feelings is important for everyone and that it’s okay to have likes and dislikes that are similar to and different from others.
2. Provide your child with a wide range of role models. Participate in community events and read storybooks together that show your children that people have different likes, interests, identities, and life experiences. Seek out stories that include people who fit traditional gender roles and identities and those who do not. Having diverse role models can help your child find people they relate to and develop greater understanding and empathy for others.
3. Expand the language you use to talk about gender and address gender stereotypes. Have conversations with your child about sex and gender. Share with your child that most children feel like who they are on the inside matches who they are on the outside, but there are some children who don’t feel that way and that it may be especially hard for these children to feel accepted. Help your child recognize gender stereotypes that you see around you (“That commercial only shows women nurses, but men can be nurses too.” “This book only talks about boys and girls. How do you think that makes children feel who don’t feel like a boy or a girl?”). Expand the number of pronouns you use in daily conversation (“Maybe he, she, or they would like to be included too.”).
4. Let your child know they are loved no matter what. Tell your child regularly that you love them for who they are as they grow and change no matter who they are or how they feel. How you treat your child will become a model for how they expect to be treated and how they will treat others.
Through conversations, help your child feel safe and supported being who they are so that they, in turn, can help create a society where others feel the same.