By Trystan Reese, Director of Family Formation
“What do you mean? Your dad had a baby? That’s impossible!”
As a transgender parent, I know my kids get asked a lot of questions about their family. Most of these questions come from innocent curiosity, but occasionally malice sneaks in. And often when it does, the children asking are from families that pride themselves on being inclusive and welcoming. So, what’s happening here? Why do kids from accepting homes still have misunderstandings about trans families?
In many cases, their parents simply haven’t had a conversation with them about the topic. Either they didn’t think they needed to or they didn’t know how to. But kids as young as three are noticing differences and categorizing people (and families!) in their heads—so it’s never too early to talk about all the different, beautiful ways that families appear in the world. 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 for sure what their genders are. An increasing number of non-binary people are using gender-neutral pronouns (they/them instead of he/his or she/hers), so getting our kids 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 “That little girl has a bow on her head,” you could say, “That little baby has a bow on their head!” 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 that have two dads or two moms or single parents or gender non-conforming caretakers like in “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 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. Ask trans families close to you if it’s okay to share a bit of their story with your child when you go home. If the family gives their approval, 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 be receiving negative messages about those who don’t conform to gender norms so it’s important for them to have a wide scope of information.
- Don’t judge your child’s learning. I hear from a lot of parents who feel they have somehow 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 perfectly 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. “Do you feel more like a boy or more like a girl? How do you know? Do you like to be called ‘she’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’? Do you know anyone who feels like a ‘they’?” Remember that gender is not fragile. 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 a beautiful essay about how to introduce trans issues to your kids for Gays With Kids. In the essay, he reminds us that “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 own gender expression and encourage your child[ren] to do the same.” He also includes some great trans-specific or trans-inclusive kids’ books at the end of the article that you should definitely check out!
There may be times when you start to feel out of your depth. Your child may ask questions that you don’t know the answers to, for example. This isn’t a bad thing to get used to—a lot of parenting involves kids asking questions you have to solicit Google’s help in answering. It’s okay to say you don’t know and then lead a discussion where you and your child share what you think might be true. Later, you can look the answer up, 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 and families, you’ll be making the world that much better for families like mine.