I smiled as I scanned my youngest child’s outfit as he packed his backpack for kindergarten: purple leggings with iridescent stars and space pugs (yes, little dogs in space suits), a sparkly twirly dress, and a Star Wars t-shirt. “Make sure you wear your tennis shoes so you can run fast at recess,” I reminded him.
Just the week before over breakfast he had mentioned casually that, “Lots of kids think I use she/her pronouns.” He followed up before asking for more milk on his cereal. “But I just tell them that I use he/him.”
I passed the milk and let myself marvel at his sparkle, his bravery, his articulate self advocacy, and his leadership. If only we adults would be willing to follow and learn from these kids who are showing up in the world as themselves.
Many kids today are growing up in a world with more expansive understandings of gender identity and gender expression than generations before. At the same time, studies show that rigid gender roles continue to be ingrained in our expectations, institutions, language, and culture. This isn’t without consequence for kids, as decades of research link belief in rigid binary gender roles and norms to lower health, education, and economic outcomes.
I see you.
This past Wednesday was Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to honor the contributions of transgender and nonbinary communities. It is also a day to bring awareness to the work that still needs to be done to protect trans lives. The stakes are high. 2020 was not an easy year for any young person, but data show that trans and nonbinary youth (who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as outside of the male-female gender binary) are experiencing an especially acute mental health crisis during the pandemic.
The good news for us parents is that we have an incredibly powerful and protective role to play. Visibility – being seen, known, and loved – starts with us. We should absolutely join the American Academy of Pediatrics to voice objections and take action against anti-trans bills sweeping the nation while pushing for policies that honor and affirm trans and nonbinary lives. But we can also do something very influential close to home, including making our family a safe place for kids to explore who they are and who they want to become.
Support at home is a protective super-power for gender expansive young people. All of the leaders in child health and development make it clear that if nonbinary kids experience family support from the beginning, they don’t experience any higher rates of anxiety, suicidal ideation or suicide than their cisgender peers (whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth). A group of researchers recently interviewed teens exploring their gender identity to learn more about the kinds of family actions that matter most. While there was nuance in their answers, the throughlines published in the Journal of Adolescent Health were crystal clear: simple acts of caring make a remarkable difference.
If you have already done a lot of work around gender possibilities, you may not need the roadmap and reassurance that this kind of research can provide. For parents who feel overwhelmed, uncertain, scared or angry as their kids explore identities and expressions beyond the binary, let this research support your process and, most importantly, help you turn towards the extraordinary child in front of you.
This is what support can look like.
As kids work to discover who they are and give parents glimpses into their evolving identities, it’s not uncommon to either over-respond or under-respond in these tender moments. If disrupting gender norms evokes stress, shame or discomfort, feelings can quickly hijack the thinking brain. So how can we be prepared to provide the all-important support that kids need when they start to share their evolving identities? If you aren’t certain how you might respond, start with this list of suggestions:
Stepping back: Communicate support early and often.
We can create on-ramps for these kinds of conversations well before they are more personal. For example, we do our kids (and ourselves) a huge favor when we work to disrupt strict gender roles and gender bias within our family systems. This ranges from sparkly star-pug tights for kindergarteners to stopping the use of arbitrary and routine gendered language to talking respectfully and openly about pronouns. We can also integrate trans lives and stories into our homes through books, art, poetry, and media. The benefits go far beyond helping nonbinary kids feel more comfortable. Disrupting rigid gender roles and norms creates positive outcomes for all kids.
In the moment: Breathe and listen.
If your child does share something or do something that makes you feel overwhelmed, slow down your response and listen or observe more than you speak. Take a deep breath. Take another. If you don’t know what to say, ask simple questions and give them time to share.
Slowing down helps us prioritize connection over conflict and helps ensure that worry, fear or anger don’t take over. Letting stress drive often leads to painful interactions that require significant repair to get the relationship back on track.
For parents who are excited to see their child bust through the gender binary, slowing down can be useful as well! Effusive enthusiasm that overwhelms your child or over-amplifies the significance can steamroll what your kid might actually want or need.
Prepare and practice simple and supportive responses. Getting it “right” doesn’t require perfection, or a lot of words.
We should never be expected to deliver meaningful lines when we’ve never had a change to review the script in advance. That’s why it is worth practicing simple and supportive responses beforehand. Practice with your parenting partner, friend or in front of a mirror. Try responses like these…
“I don’t have words for everything right now but this is what I do know. I love you and I am so grateful you shared this with me.”
You might benefit from an internal script you say to yourself. Something like,
“I am not sure where this is going but I do know what my kid needs to hear right now: that I love them.”
Trust that you have time.
If you start with simple acts of caring, it builds the trust you need to develop more meaningful conversations over time. Time allows for tremendous opportunities:
- To advocate for your child at their school or in your community.
- To get support or advice from friends, professionals, and loved ones.
- To access written resources, videos, and education.
- To do the work to sort through your feelings and inherited beliefs.
- To be able to engage your child and family in more complicated conversations.
- To access gratitude for what your kid is teaching and showing you.
We can even name the need for time if we are feeling uncertain:
“I have some questions. I am going to do some learning on my own and some learning with you, if that’s okay. I will look for resources, but are there any you recommend? I’d like to check in with you about this in a couple of days, okay?”
“You have been thinking about this for a lot longer than I have. I promise I am going to catch up but I might need your patience as we go.”
Absolutely certain about love.
Back to my sparkle-pug-tights kindergartener. Noticing his fantastic style, another parent once asked us, “Are you sure you want to let him go to school like that everyday if he isn’t sure that’s how he will always want to dress?”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. It’s not that I hadn’t imagined every worst case scenario that could happen in a kindergarten classroom when someone doesn’t fit strict gender clothing rules. But I had also been witness to the joy and confidence of a kid who knew exactly how he wanted to show up in the classroom.
When we avoid, control, catastrophize, or steamroll big conversations or even small interactions around gender, we tend to write a story that extends long into the future. Too often, those stories center our own fears and hopes instead of the infinite possibilities of what’s best for our kids. The reality is that our stories are always works-in-progress. We can never be entirely sure of where we are going.
But we do have consistent opportunities to give something very protective and powerful to our kids that serves them well beyond what they are wearing to school that day or what pronoun they are using: absolute certainty that they are loved for all and everything they are.
A few more resources check out:
- The Trevor Project
- The Revolutionary Truth About Kids and Gender Identity – Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd
- Parenting a Gender Diverse Child – The American Academy of Pediatrics
- Gender Spectrum