My husband and I have always been pretty open with our daughters about their bodies and how they work. We talk a lot about the changes they can expect as they grow. My husband and I try to use age-appropriate terminology and avoid “cutesy” words for their body parts if we can help it.
These days, though, the subjects of gender and sexuality have started to pop up pretty regularly in our conversations.
From a very young age, our girls have known that the concept of “family” is very different for everyone. I remember beaming with pride when I overheard a conversation between them in the bathtub. My older daughter was telling my younger daughter, “Sometimes a family has two mommies and two daddies, and that’s okay because they love each other.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder.
In more recent months, though, the hot topic has changed from just sexuality (or who you’re attracted to) to understanding gender and its role in the girls’ and their friends’ lives. We talk about the concept of gender as who a person identifies in terms of male, female, both, or neither.
Our town is somewhat homogeneous as far as demographics are concerned, but I’m sure that one day they’ll find themselves with a classmate who may not fit their preconceived notion of what a boy or a girl should be. My kids may even end up having a friend who used to wear dresses and have a feminine name, but one day asks to be referred to as “he.” As far as I’m concerned, the best time for those situations to be handled is before they happen.
In my career, people have challenged my understanding of gender and sexuality, and all for the better. Because of this, I’ve found that it’s easy to have conversations about this subject at home with my kids. I also know that it’s not always as easy for others to talk about something they may not be familiar or comfortable with. These particular topics can be polarizing for many families.
I’ve picked up a few tips that have helped me keep our family discussions open and rewarding:
Let your kids start the conversation.
Kids don’t always hear what we’re trying to say. The best talks I’ve had with my daughters about sensitive topics have come from one of them initiating the conversation with me. Just last night, my 10-year-old was telling me about her day at school. She told me that she didn’t like the word “gender” because it implied that there were only two options. This comment led to a really great conversation about society, labels, and people’s thinking. I don’t know that she would have been as open to discussing this if I had been the one to bring it up. I really appreciated the fact that she was the one who did.
My 10-year-old understands the implications of the words “gender” and “sexuality,” but my 6-year-old doesn’t. The conversations I have with her are guided by what people feel on the inside versus what they look like on the outside. One evening, she told me, “Mommy, I think I’m a boy now.” My response was to ask her what she thought that meant. It was refreshing to see how well she understood gender at her age level. Visual aids are a great way to help younger kids understand these concepts as well. Which leads me to…
Use your resources.
- Outright Vermont. They do amazing work all around the state, providing education and outreach to schools and youth organizations. This group also hosts safe spaces for all kids to talk about gender and sexuality.
- Trans Student Educational Resources. Their website offers links, graphics, and workshops to help initiate and continue conversations about gender and sexuality in schools and homes.
- Gender Spectrum. This site is designed to provide tools for education and creation of gender-sensitive environments at home, as well as in a multitude of public settings.
Listen and respond without judgment.
Sometimes, as parents, we need to set aside our personal beliefs in order to help our kids navigate the world around them. Our kids are growing up in a completely different society than we did. We need to help them understand it and thrive in it. Curiosity is part of being a kid. We need to foster that urge and make it okay for our kids to come to us with any questions they may have.
Encourage them to be allies.
Sadly, LGBT youth are at higher risk of being bullied and threatened than their cisgender counterparts. Even here in Vermont, the incidence of bullying in LGB school-age kids is more than twice that of those who identify as heterosexual. More than SIX TIMES as many LGB youth have attempted suicide than those who consider themselves straight. Our kids are in a perfect position to stop this. It’s our job as parents to teach them to be kind and defend ALL of their classmates. The people around them won’t always fit a certain mold.
I love the talks I’ve had with my daughters about these particular topics. I’m also excited to hear more about other parents’ experiences. What works for you when it comes to talking about gender and sexuality with your kids?