A dad came over to where I stood chatting with a fellow mom as our younger kids played on the school playground after morning drop-off.
“Did you see that?” he asked. We were unsure what he was referring to. He went on to reveal — with obvious contempt — that the boy who had been seen at a recent school event in a dress had just walked into our kids’ kindergarten classroom in a flamboyant rainbow frock. Apparently “he” had been reintroduced to the class as a she.
“So what?” I asked.
“I mean, I don’t care,” he backtracked, “but you’ve got to wonder if his parents are pushing that on him, you know? He’s 5 years old.”
“I would just worry about how the other kids treat him,” the other mom said.
I nodded. On the outside looking in, I was also concerned about what might happen on the playground. I wondered, knowing that my son was friends with this child, if my own boy was being kind and accepting. I wondered what I should tell him, how I should approach a subject as daunting as gender identity. I didn’t even know if it was something I should bring up, lest I draw more attention to the situation and cause harm.
I had no doubt in my mind that this child’s parents had come to the decision to reinforce her gender identity at the school after much soul-searching. I knew the mother. She was good and kind, and it should go without question that she would only want what was best for her child. It takes a brave sort of woman to see a child through transition at this age with that sort of unflinching support. My job of teaching my son acceptance was easy in comparison.
Except that didn’t make it simple. I felt certain that in the face of a tough question, I would falter, say the wrong thing, use the wrong pronoun accidentally. For all my good intentions, I know I am still woefully undereducated in the lexicon of gender identity. I didn’t want to misguide my son into saying something hurtful or ignorant. I didn’t want to screw this up.
When I picked my son up from school that afternoon, I decided I wouldn’t press the subject. I felt like I needed to get counsel from friends who were more knowledgeable than I was, to make sure I could answer his questions without stumbling. So I asked the normal questions as we drove home about what he had learned, who he played with, and how the day had unfolded.
“There’s a new kid in my class,” he said. “Her name is Lila.*”
“That’s nice,” I said, not making the connection.
“I’m just kidding,” he said. “It’s just Jake, but he’s a girl now.”
He laughed like he would at a joke, and I took a deep breath. I couldn’t control my curiosity. I had to know more.
“Do you play with Lila?” I asked.
“Yeah, we did painting together today. Me and Lila and Adrian were at the table, but Adrian got in trouble.”
“Did he say something mean to Lila?”
My son looked confused. “No,” he replied. “Adrian kept taking out paper when he wasn’t supposed to and he had to sit out.”
“Did you play with Lila at recess?”
“Is everyone nice to her?”
He nodded, bored with subject. He wanted to move on and tell me about the microscopes they used to look at leaves, just like the kind real scientists use. He didn’t understand why I was so interested in Lila, because to him, it was no big deal. He didn’t need to mull it over in the hand-wringing fashion the adults on the playground did that morning.
Jake is Lila now. It was as simple as that. I didn’t have to explain to my son that he needed to respect her gender identity. I didn’t need to have in-depth preparation to help him cope with a classmate’s transition. He had accepted it and moved on without ever considering that this should cause some kind of existential crisis.
I realized that he didn’t need to be taught to accept others. Kids aren’t born with gender expectations. They aren’t inherently hateful towards those who identify differently than themselves. My son was born open-minded, and my job is simply to keep it that way. That is a job I can handle.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below: