Caitlyn Jenner and her Vanity Fair cover photo may have sparked a slew of questions about gender and what it means to be a transgendered person, but, for a lot of people, gender identity was a big ol' elephant in the room until a very famous person made it an acceptable topic of discussion in many households. It's not like Jenner invented the idea of identifying with a gender other than the one in which she was born — and it was high time the rest of us became acquainted with what it all means.
Of course, it's one thing for a group of adults to get together over dinner and chat about gender identity, and quite another to be sure you are speaking to your children about it in a way that is informative and sensitive, but that they can also understand.
If you've decided the best thing for your family is not to discuss this, or if you're against it, that's your decision to make. But if you want to broach the topic with your kids and aren't sure how, there are ways to do it that don't even involve a big, dramatic "talk."
"Raising kids with an open mind and awareness of gender and sexuality issues is less about formal conversations and more about everyday interactions with them," says BBB, who has a doctorate in Human Sexuality, is a professor of gender and sexuality and blogs about sexuality, gender and other similar issues at Birds, Bees & Bonobos. (BBB chooses to remain anonymous on her website because she says she doesn't want to embarrass her children, who may not feel comfortable knowing their parent blogs about sex and sexuality.) "I think of it as deconstructing the world around them — in a way that’s appropriate to their level of thinking."
If you want to raise children who are aware, understanding and accepting of LGBTQ issues, BBB advises incorporating that awareness and conversations about it from the time they are born — in ways that are far more organic than you probably think.
"When you talk about parents and families, don’t always default to talking about mothers and fathers/husbands and wives," BBB says. "When you’re playing pretend or playing with dolls or stuffed animals, pretend that there are two mothers or two fathers (or one mother or father or a grandparent — because families come in so many different forms). Similarly, when you walk into a toy store, point out that it doesn’t make sense that the toys are divided into a girls’ section and a boys’ section."
That same rule applies when you're in a clothing store. Your 4-year-old may be convinced, for example, that only girls wear dresses. Without engaging in a long, drawn-out discussion that will put them to sleep, very simply correct them and let them know boys can wear dresses, nail polish, tiaras — whatever the heck they want, too. And the reverse is also true: Star Wars T-shirts and combat boots are only for boys? Not in a million years.
In the case of preschoolers, BBB says the first step is to talk to them about their own genitals and give them an understanding of whether they've been born with a penis or a vagina — and what that means. In the case of girls, it will probably be necessary to give them a mirror. A (brief) discussion can then follow about how not all people born with a penis feel like boys, not everyone with a vagina feels like a girl, and how that's A-OK.
"The idea is that you should never need to have a lengthy, formal conversation with your preschooler for them to absorb your values and beliefs," BBB says. "That isn’t to say that you won’t need to respond to what they’re learning from their peers and other adults or that issues won’t come up that you’ll want to talk to them about. It’s just that you shouldn’t have to sit down with your child and explain to them all about LGBT issues. It should be as much a fabric of your lives and their being as the other values that you instill in them."
Dr. Marcie Beigel, a teacher and behavior therapist with over 15 years of experience working privately with families and children in homes across NYC, stresses that small children are often not confused by gender — they're the ones who feel clear about who they are and what feels good to them. She also agrees that the less you say, the better, sometimes. "It is really more about a question of tolerance on the adults' side and managing our own desire to explain versus considering how much information a small being needs," Beigel says. "Often we need to talk less and experience more."
As for what magical age is the ideal one at which to bring up these issues, both experts agree it's an ageless topic — one in which experiences are often undervalued in favor of lengthy discussions.
"There is not a certain age to talk about LGBT concepts, because LGBT is simply a part of life that children will see, experience and know from any age," Beigel says. "The more integrated gender variability, possibility and openness is in your life as an adult, the more integrated it will be in your child's. That is the goal, as opposed to it being something to bring out of the closet to be shared. If you want a sensitive and open-minded child, consider how to expose your child and allow them to experience the range of gender identities, roles and fluidity. For small beings, it is more about exposure versus the talk."
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