Liv Hnilicka, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, posted on Facebook about her interaction with a family while she was waitressing, calling the way the father handled his daughter's curiosity about Hnilicka's gender identity a "stellar parenting moment." The post has gotten people's attention and has been shared over and over again.
It's not uncommon for kids to act less than tactfully when they're confronted with something or someone that might be unfamiliar to them, and as parents, it can be hard to know what to do in a situation like that, especially if we allow our potential embarrassment to trump our better judgment.
Well, this dad handled it pretty close to perfectly. He didn't treat Hnilicka like an unpleasant situation to be avoided or begrudgingly, blushingly dealt with. He treated her like a person (such a novel idea!). By approaching her and letting her know that his daughter had a question, and then asking her how she wanted to proceed, he kept the entire encounter from becoming all about him or his daughter.
For years we've heard the tired excuse bigots trot out when they want to excuse their bigotry: "But how will I explain this to my children?" The implication there is that children will be so completely traumatized by the horrifying fact that there are people different from them that we must, at all costs, protect their precious innocence. We can't possibly treat transgender and gender-nonconforming people with respect and dignity, because children won't understand.
Anyone with a brain knows that's not true, but this little girl's reaction is further proof. Our kids take their cues directly from us, so it should come as no surprise that since this dad was so kind and chill, his kid was too.
The fact is, at one point or another, you will have to talk to your child about something you don't yet have or aren't sure how to build the vocabulary for, and that conversation has the potential to be very difficult. That's why we dread them so much. It's why, in the moment, most parents will have a knee-jerk reaction: issuing stuttering, red-faced directives to "shush." The only problem there is that this reaction has the potential to send the opposite message you're attempting to send. So how do you handle a situation like this as magnificently as this dad?
First, stifle the instinct to get your kid to shut up as quickly as possible. Seriously. If your child says, "Mommy, is that a boy or a girl?" and you immediately say, "Shhh, that's not nice!" then you've just sent the message that gender nonconformity (or a different skin color or differently abled bodies) is inherently bad. Something to be ashamed of. It might not be intentional, but in attempting to spare the feelings of that person, you've pretty much done the opposite.
Next, respond in a child-appropriate way. If a child asks "is that a boy or a girl?" try a sincere "what makes you ask that?" Chances are they'll say something like, "A boy, because he has short hair." That's a great time to point out that both boys and girls can have short hair. Kids are bombarded from birth with gendered messages and think in binaries, but don't underestimate them. They're capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for.
In some instances, you can do what this dad did and approach the person yourself first, respectfully. Let them know your child is curious about them, and ask them how they would be most comfortable proceeding. They may welcome the opportunity, as Hnilicka did, to interact with your kid, or they might rather be left alone.
Above all, talk to your kids about this stuff anyway, not just when you find yourself in a sticky situation. Kids benefit from multiple perspectives and hearing about people with different experiences from them. It could prevent them from seeing them as "other" in the first place. There are tons of great storybooks out there, and if you pick one up, who knows? You might learn something.
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