A woman recently wrote a thoughtful note to me, which included this: “Our state has changed many laws recently with regards to transgender-ism. Is that a word? My kids are in the public schools and this is creating lots of questions and conversations at home. I know you write a blog. Can you tell me a certain entry where I can start?”
First, transgenderism is a word for some. Sadly, those who believe that transgender does not truly exist, or stems from mental illness, are generally the ones who use it. Therefore, you can easily imagine that trans folks reject it, besides that to put “ism” on “transgender” makes it sound like it is a belief system, akin to Catholicism or Buddhism.
You asked for a certain place to begin on my blog, but as I re-read your note I thought about the need to give an assist to parents in how to talk with their kids, and I could not recall a piece where I had specifically done that. So, here goes.
It is interesting that you wrote this week, when Texas is again in the news with its legislature considering another bathroom bill. Regardless of where a person lives, there will be transgender women and men, and gender fluid and queer folks, and very likely trans kids in the school system, so it is wise for all people—and perhaps doubly so for parents of school-aged children—to be educated and able to speak on this.
Parents will want to answer their children, using simple words and in a straightforward manner, about anyone who might look different. For my part, I did not grow up around African Americans, so they were foreign to me. In our area, we had farm workers from Mexico, and their language confused and bemused me. For my folks to be able to answer my curiosities was beneficial, and even better that they always stressed respect for all people, no matter how different we might be.
And that is a great place to start. Every human being deserves our respect. They only lose it when they act disrespectfully—not because they look “weird,” or practice a different religion, or have skin color or a language that doesn’t match our own—but who act disrespectfully, breaking rules or hurting others. In school, almost assuredly the trans boys and girls act as respectfully as the cisgender (gender identity and body sex match) girls and boys. So, we begin there. Each child has the right to be in school, to be in society, and to have the same rights and privileges under the law, and to be treated honorably.
Okay, Mom, and how about it, Dad: what makes a boy want to be a girl, or a girl think she’s a boy? Is there an easy way to answer that to a five- or ten- or fifteen-year-old? Yes, there is.
Always wanting to address our children in ways appropriate to their ages and ability to grasp concepts, a parent can begin as simply as this: “Sometimes, a person begins growing up and they feel like they are different from the way everyone sees them. When they were born, the doctor looked at them and said, ‘It’s a boy,’ or, ‘It’s a girl,’ and the parents gave them a boy’s or girl’s name and then dressed them that way. But, as they grew up—maybe when they were really young, like two or three, or maybe a little older—their boy name felt wrong to them, or their girl clothes felt wrong to them. They told their parents about it. Usually, a transgender person will explain, ‘You think I’m a boy, but I’m really a girl. That’s how I feel.’ When the child is able to pick a correct name for him or her, and wear the kind of clothes that feel right, and play with whatever toys they enjoy playing with, and have their hair cut or grow out how it looks nice for them, then they feel good about themselves and can grow up happy and healthy the same way you are.”
What if a child now asks, “But why do they feel that way?” I suggest something like this: “It is a hard thing to understand why some boys feel like girls and some girls feel like boys. There are lots of things in life where people feel strongly, and that’s what makes all of us special. You are good at painting. Your sister is athletic. Your older sister wants to go to college to learn how to create buildings. I’m left handed, but all of the rest of the family is right handed. Your cousin Becky has Down Syndrome. She has a hard time speaking so we can understand her, but she’s the sweetest person. All of us are different. All of us are equally valuable. We don’t have to understand why things are, just to enjoy each other and be nice to everyone.”
The rest of the conversation depends on the age of the child and the next questions they ask, and things like bathrooms.
Let’s talk about bathrooms. If a child expresses concern—“I don’t want one of them in my bathroom”—remain calm and remind your children that when they go to the bathroom they only want to do their business and get back to class or lunch or recess. The trans kids feel exactly the same way.
Sadly, there are many alarmists out there, and parents who are filling their children with every bogey man idea about transgender folks. Children easily adopt parents’ ideas and practices as their own. Behavior toward trans kids—and towards immigrants, and people of a different color, and those who dress and sound “weird”—often is deplorable, downright mean, and totally unfair. The more children who are taught to respect all people will then go to school and be the friend to the “different” student, sometimes the one friend this child needs so as not to be driven to despair. (I still cannot digest the eight-year-old boy who recently hung himself to death.)
Depending on how curious your child is with questions about transgender persons, you can even say, “You want to know how I learned about this? I asked a person who is transgender. She is as old as your grandma and grandpa! In fact, she has four of her own kids and seven grandchildren. All of them love her just the same as when she was a man. And now she teaches why some people are transgender, to help us understand. Most of all, she told me that she wants everyone to know that transgender kids and adults are regular people who want to have a good life like everyone else.”
I hope this is helpful. I hope even more that you can have this conversation with your children.
Now, what if your child brings up the topic in this way, “Mom and Dad, you think I’m a girl, but I’m really a boy”? I will address that in my next post.