How to start talking about gender diversity with kids of all ages

Date

Elizabeth Sutherland

The 'trans talk', like all talk about gender and sexuality, is not just a one-time deal. Don't let that daunt you.

The 'trans talk', like all talk about gender and sexuality, is not just a one-time deal. Don't let that daunt you. Photo: Stocksy

With Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox gracing magazine covers, Miley Cyrus proclaiming 'Gender is Over' on her shirt and the appearance of trans characters on Glee!, parents can no longer assume their children are unaware of transgender lives or issues surrounding gender diversity. This is unequivocally a good thing: all kids can benefit from a better understanding of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Trans, intersex and gender diverse kids are obviously the greatest beneficiaries of an opening of hearts and minds. Given these are some of the most vulnerable people in our community, with over two thirds of gender diverse young people reporting that they experience abuse or violence, acceptance is not only overdue but a life-and-death imperative. Increasingly, the responsibility for making life safer for the group affectionately dubbed 'rainbow children' lies not only with so-called experts, but with the broader community. And that's where the parents of Australia come in.

I'm the mother of a seven-year-old. She and I have had a continuing dialogue about gender that has been inclusive and open-minded and, well, fun. Generally this has been an extraordinarily easy process – kids are, by nature, accepting. Learning that some people might change their gender presentation over their lives is hardly mind-boggling for people who have just discovered that milk comes from cows or that some people take out their teeth at night.

Even so, many parents who want to raise open-minded and caring kids are unsure of how to even start when it comes to gender diversity. As a culture we lack language to address these issues. Watching Orange is the New Black might familiarise you with Laverne Cox's acting chops, but it's hardly a parenting solution.

Advertisement

So how do you have the 'trans talk' with kids?

Six and under:

It is never too young to start! Don't assume these things are too complex: any time you talk about bodies or clothing, you are talking about sex and gender.

  • DON'T use language that excludes gender diverse people. Avoid saying 'opposite sex' as it tells kids that there are only two (binary) sexes. Referring to a penis as something all boys and men have tells kids that physical sex characteristics are completely linked to gender. Learning these two things as a young child can mean having to undo that thinking later in life. At worst, it can cause pain and confusion for gender diverse kids who are not yet able to express their feelings.
  • DO use language that includes everyone. Saying 'most girls' have a vulva and 'most boys' have a penis is easy (and accurate).
  • DO talk about gender. For example, discuss why some colours might be assumed to be for girls, some for boys. Keep it light-hearted. Let your kids choose clothes and dress-ups, and let them play around with gender presentation if they want to.
  • DO give simple, factual answers. If they ask about what transgender means, tell them 'some people feel their body doesn't match who they are inside, so they change to match it up better'.

RESOURCES:

There are some fabulous picture books you can read with young kids. Try 10 000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart or Jacob's New Dress by Sarah Hoffman.

If you think your child might be gender diverse, speak to a friendly GP or pediatrician about a referral to a gender clinic or specialist psychologist. The Royal Children's Hospital gender clinic has some useful online resources.

7-12 years:

Kids in this age bracket spend more time away from parents and have freer access to popular media. It's important to provide them with age-appropriate information about gender and sexuality so they can make better sense of the mixed messaging around them. Keep in mind that trans and gender diverse kids are increasingly 'coming out' to their peers and going through gender transition at school.

  • DO continue to talk about gender. Notice how trends dictate things like hair length and clothing styles, and talk about how individuality is important too.
  • DO model respectful speech about trans people. Use the pronouns that people choose for themselves.
  • DO challenge any gender or sexuality based bullying, even (or especially) if it is your child doing it.
  • DO respect boundaries. Point out diversity in the community around you and the world at large, but if they have gender diverse peers or people they know, discourage invasive or personal questions. Talk to your kids about boundaries and why it's important to respect privacy.

RESOURCES:

Getting sexuality and gender education off on the right track can make things a lot easier in the long term. A brilliant resource for primary aged kids is Sex is a funny word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. It explains intersex and trans identities in terms simple enough for a seven year old, but comprehensive enough that many parents will learn along with their kids. It's also a great general resource about relationships, bodies, touching, and all the bits that often get left out of 'birds and the bees' style sex ed.

Teens:

If your kids are teenagers and you haven't ever talked about gender diversity with them, don't worry, you're not alone. Your children will undoubtedly already know that trans people exist, however, and they have already been influenced by the attitudes of their peers. Hopefully you're reading this because you think trans children and adults deserve equality, and you want your kids to be inclusive. Maybe you just haven't had the conversation yet because you thought they were too young, or you didn't know where to start. That's understandable -- but if this is you, a heads up: your kids probably think you're closed-minded.

Yep: unless we explicitly tell teens that we accept gender diversity, they tend to assume we don't. After all, the adults in their lives are often the rule-makers and the reinforcers of the status quo. They're unlikely to see you as someone who understands and accepts LGBTI people if you don't talk about it.

But even if your kids think you're the epitome of uncool, they are still watching and learning from you. It's not too late to start a conversation.

  • DO model positive talk about diversity. Kids are listening to us; overhearing you talk about a celebrity like Laverne Cox will teach them just as much as what you say directly to them.
  • DO teach respect. We don't usually talk about other people's genitals or how they have sex so we should honour trans people's privacy.
  • DO talk inclusively about puberty and hormones. 'Most girls have periods' and 'most boys get deeper voices' are powerful ways of acknowledging that trans and intersex teens exist.
  • DO model a gender-critical approach: if you shave your legs or wear makeup, you can talk about how this is part of feminine gender presentation in our culture.
  • DO let your kids explore their own gender presentation. Don't be alarmed if their preferences change as they work out what they're comfortable with.
  • DON'T assume that your own children and their friends are all cisgender (that is, not trans) and straight. Let them tell you who they are - and respect them by using the correct pronouns. If you're not sure - ask!

RESOURCES:

Teenagers are ready for some more in-depth resources about gender, especially how it relates to sexuality.

A very comprehensive sex education resource is available online at Scarleteen (although it's American). Both Safe Schools Coalition Australia and Minus 18 have great information, especially OMG I'm Trans.

For teens looking to connect with other gender diverse young people, YGender can help.

The 'trans talk', like all talk about gender and sexuality, is not just a one-time deal. Don't let that daunt you. Having these conversations with your kids can be rewarding, enriching and sometimes hilarious. What you can be sure of is that they'll never be sorry to have had a parent who helped them embrace diversity.

 

Elizabeth Sutherland is a teacher and writer from Melbourne. Find her on Twitter: @mymilkspilt