(And how to show support for your young child if you think they are trans or non-binary.)
Has your child started to tell you that they are a different gender than you thought? Or has your child asked to use a different pronoun than what you have been using or assuming? Maybe you started to read through some advice online and got more confused than when you started. Let's talk about myths and some truths to undo them.
Myth #1 Kids can't know their gender until they are teens
I can't tell you how many times I have heard this in the news, media, and from parents of cisgender kids. But, that's just not true. Kids start to understand gender by the time they are 18-24 months old. And many children understand and can name their gender and explain it in the age range of 3-5 years old.
If you are asking the questions:
"How can you be so sure that you are a boy?"
"Are you sure this isn't just a phase?"
You may think you are being helpful, but it is actually questioning a child's innate sense of truth about who they are.
Some kids are super direct "You think I'm a boy, but I'm really a girl." or
"I'm not really a boy or a girl, like blue and pink, but something like lavender."
When you hear comments from your child like this. They are not just "trying it out for a day." They are actually trying to tell you who they are on the inside.
If a child is simply choosing to wear a dress when their biological sex is male, there can be boys that simply want to wear dresses and that's ok. That doesn't make them transgender. Look for clues of what your child is telling you. Simply having friends that are boys and playing with toys that are associated with the male gender, does not make someone male.
With cisgender kids when we tell them to line up with all the girls or go play with the boys over there, they know who goes where. We have different bathrooms assigned by gender. Kids are very aware of this at a fairly young age. There is also a difference between understanding their gender and actually having the vocabulary to articulate it to their parents. So if it comes out in a strange way, be patient and listen to your child.
Myth #2 The child must be insistent and persistent with their identity in order for the adults to allow them to transition.
What if you are actually stifling this child before you allow them to express themselves? What if you are telling them while they wait and are miserable that who they are is not ok in this world? So, then maybe they decide instead to hide this part of themselves because they feel it will not be accepted. They shouldn't have to suffer first and prove that, in order to allow them to express themselves. If your young child is asking for you to use different pronouns with them - then you need to respect that. They shouldn't have to tell you over and over and over who they are. Listen and converse with your child about their gender. Ask them how they would like to express this and if they would like to keep it just in the family at first before officially transitioning in public. The big important thing is to listen to what your child is saying and ask what they need.
Myth #3 If the child decides later to de-transition it will be devastating for everyone. The fact that some kids have de-transitioned means that no one should be allowed to transition.
No. Just no. It seems that this is the big fear that keeps some parents from affirming their children in the gender they understand themselves to be. Here's the real thing, most kids that play and explore in gender-diverse ways, still identify in that same way years later. Your daughter playing with tools or climbing a tree doesn't make her a boy. And boys that wear dresses and play with dolls aren't necessarily trans girls. It's how your child describes what they feel on the inside that is important. And it's important that you listen to what your child is saying and stop assuming it's a lie. What they are telling you in this young child moment is the truth for them at that moment. Some children and adults are truly gender fluid. That means that they can feel male on one day, female on another day, and non-binary or no gender on another day. This does not mean that they were lying about their gender on the previous day. They truly have a fluid and flexible gender. So this child might need help with using different pronouns and seeing what fits them. But, in all of this, we must listen to what our children tell us and stopped overly questioning them. The more you simply shoot questions at a child, the more they will feel that what they are telling you is not allowed and might start to hide what they are truly feeling just so they can be accepted by their family. This is not affirming or helpful.
Myth #4 I think this is just a phase. They will grow out of it, so I should ignore it.
I feel one of the things missing in the conversation around trans gender and non-binary kids is a lack of respect for the child telling us who they are. When a child tells you who they are, believe them. The first time that they tell you. (Can you see a theme here?) And the next time that they tell you - listen again. I think in general, there are many parents that end up with lying children later because they aren't listening. When children are allowed to grow up as the gender they identify with, they are confident and secure. This can make all the difference in their lives.
Kids have a very strong sense by 6 years old of who they are, what their gender identity is, and how they are showing up in this world.
Just because some people are adults when they come out as transgender and some don't have the words to explain it until they are older, doesn't mean that kids can't or don't understand their gender at a younger age.
So what are some helpful things you can do as a parent?
1. Follow up questions -When your child says something that might indicate they are transgender or non-binary, ask a follow-up question.
"Tell me more about that"
"What does that mean for you?"
And then you. . .
2. Pronouns "What pronouns would you like to use today?" You might give examples of pronouns related to different people the child knows.
If your child is non-binary, it might start out as asserting a different gender from their biological sex. Then on a different day they might assert again a different gender. I think it's important to give these kids some examples of non-binary pronouns and people that they can identify with.
3. Hairstyles, Clothing, Names Allow the child to try different clothing and hairstyles and affirm that all of them are fine and you are accepting of any way that they want to dress or wear their hair. You might ask if there is another name that fits them better or try out different names for a time during play. Remember play is an important way for kids to try things out and how they want to express themselves. Pay attention.
When kids have a safe space to hold all their feelings and bring them to the table, they will start to open up and feel calm and even when it's a struggle with others, they will know that you are supporting them at home.
I am a cisgender music educator who is passionate about making trans and non-binary kids feel safe by helping all children grow up with books and music that are gender diverse. Click here to learn more bout the Gender Rainbow book series.