Talking to Kids About Gender Identity
Last Sunday we had Tobias Jackson Cahill here at UCC Longmont to speak to us about how to better support people who are non-binary. (Non-binary means they don’t identify as either male or female.) As I talked with Tobi about the service, we pondered together whether the kids should stay in the sanctuary. The concern wasn’t that the topic would be too hard for the children, it was that it would be awkward for the adults. Tobi wisely pointed out that most adults don’t have experience talking to their kids about this; it might be better for the adults to be able to listen first, then broach the topic with their kids on their own terms.
In the end, though, I decided to keep the kids in the sanctuary as originally planned but for pretty much the same reason: parents don’t have experience talking to their kids about this. Making it a community conversation rather than something the children were sent away from was a step towards taking the awkwardness out of it. Now it’s something we’ve talked about in church—how much more normal can it get?
That being said, gender identity and gender expression are topics that are often hard for parents to address with kids. For one thing, most of us are still learning the vocabulary. Gender identity and gender expression refer to whether a person is male or female or non-binary. It’s a more inclusive way to talk about gender because it allows for a person’s experience of who they are. Depending on our age, geographical, cultural or religious background, these conversations might have been taboo in our childhood households, they might be new ideas to us or we may even be unlearning harmful things we were taught about people who don’t fit the traditional gender roles of male or female.
I’m in the first camp of not having these conversations as a child myself, which means I’ve had to work through all the feelings of awkwardness and weirdness that come with talking about new things. This means I can say with certainty, it’s not nearly as hard as you think it’s going to be. More than that, it’s worth it. Here a few tips I can offer from my experiences:
- Stay grounded. Recognize what’s making this conversation hard for you. Is it that you don’t know the words to use? Or that gender is associated with sexuality? Or maybe that there’s stigma or shame attached to these ideas? Or, it might even be a deep-down fear that your kids aren’t “ready” for this talk. I’ve had all of those reactions about a variety of hard topics in parenting, teaching and pastoring. Simply putting it in perspective as, “Oh, yeah, that’s how I experience these conversations,” helps. Once you know that it’s not the topic itself that’s a problem, you can stop avoiding it.
- Start by talking about “likes” and “dislikes” rather than anatomy or psychology, especially with young kids. It isn’t hard for kids to understand that “some boys like ‘girl stuff’” and “some girls like ‘boy stuff’” and we shouldn’t hate them for who they are. Books like, “Sparkle Boy” or “Princess Boy” do a great job of this. I’d recommend reading those yourself first just to see how easy it is when it’s phrased through that lens.
- Point out the things you or your children like that don’t necessarily fit gender stereotypes. Chances are, there’s something you do that was traditionally thought of as being for the opposite sex only. Are you a man who likes to cook or is great with babies? A woman who is a pastor, lawyer, doctor? Does your daughter wear pants or shorts? Bring it up. It doesn’t have to be a big lecture, you can just say, “It’s pretty cool that your doctor is a woman. Can you believe they didn’t used to let women be doctors?” Granted, this isn’t exactly the same as talking about someone who is non-binary but it’s a start. It paves the way for kids to recognize that gender stereotypes 1) aren’t fair and 2) change over time. The more we question those ideas, the easier to is to see that the line around gender is actually pretty arbitrary.
- Introduce new vocabulary. If you’ve only recently learned the words non-binary, or gender non-conforming, or queer, or transgender, you’re not alone. Our entire vocabulary as a society is evolving as people learn to claim and describe their experiences with gender. It’s awkward to us because it’s new but we can save our kids from that awkwardness by giving them this vocabulary young. I’ve heard people say that it’s too confusing for kids to understand what “non-binary” means but honestly, I think it’s more confusing if they spend most of their life only knowing “male” or “female” and then have to learn “non-binary.” Kids are natural categorizers. Categories help them make sense of the world. So give them the categories that they need. If they’re raised to think there are two genders, the idea of non-binary will be hard to incorporate later. But if they have some exposure to the idea that some people aren’t a “boy” or a “girl,” their brains will have space for this third category—and that will help them adapt to new words and nuances and we all learn more together.
- Admit you have questions, too. In the podcast interview I did with Ericka Anderson on preventing sexual abuse, Anderson tells parents to admit to their awkwardness. If you try to pretend like you know everything and this conversation is completely normal for you but you’re really struggling and wish you could be anywhere else, kids pick up on that. It’s far better to just say, “this is something I’m learning about, too. When I was growing up, I was taught there were only two genders but now we know that’s not accurate. So it feels funny to me to talk about this but that’s just because I don’t have a lot of practice.” Now your kids understand the reason for your awkwardness and don’t assume it’s because the topic itself is bad or taboo. It’s just new.
I hope that helps and I’d love to hear how your conversations at home are going—not to mention any tips you have for parents, teachers, pastors and other loved ones as we all learn together! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, find more posts on the blog here at ucclongmont.org/blog and listen to the podcast In Other Words: Talking to Kids about Stuff that Matters