Talking to Elementary School Kids About Transgender Identity
Left to their own devices, most kids wouldn’t be bothered when a friend appears as a different gender than they used to be. Unfortunately, adults’ toxic attitudes about gender nonconformity can create real danger for transgender children.
Amber Briggle’s nine year old son Max was born Gracie. I asked Amber how her son’s friends reacted when Grace transitioned to a form of gender expression (dressing like a boy and using “he”) that matched his gender identity in first grade. Amber says, “Honestly, his friends DON'T care about it. He had a ton of friends when he was still "Gracie" and he hasn't lost any of those friends now that he's Max. He gets invited to sleepovers, and plays on team sports.”
Now the Trump Administration has rescinded the Obama Administration’s federal guidance intended to ensure trans and gender nonconforming students are protected by Title IX. This guidance sent a message to public schools that they had a duty to protect students from discrimination based on their gender identity. But the new Administration is sending a different message that empowers discrimination.
The 2015 US Trans Survey found that trans and gender nonconforming students often face horrifying experiences in K-12 school. 54% of respondents to the survey were verbally harassed, 24% were physically attacked, and 17% left a K-12 school because mistreatment was so bad. 41% of trans youth attempt suicide today, says Amber Briggle, because of the state sanctioned bullying and systemic discrimination that they experience every day.
Adults play a crucial role in our children’s lives to give them healthy attitudes about gender and reduce discrimination at the root. I asked Dan Rice -- Director of Training at Answer and Advisor to AMAZE, a YouTube playlist full of resources for young people to learn about sexuality, relationships, gender and body image -- how parents can approach the conversation about gender identity with their elementary school age children.
When To Start The Conversation
Dan notes that most kids understand gender at about age 3 (which means they have an understanding of themselves as being male, female, or even non-binary, even though most do not have the language to express this particular identity).
So, it's helpful to start having these conversations at an early age. If your kids hear about the "bathroom bill" or the new Trump order in the news, you can use some of the language below to help talk about what it means to be transgender.
How To Start The Conversation
Rice advises to start by talking to children about the fact that there are lots of ways to be a "boy" and lots of ways to be a "girl." Helping them to understand that it's not just our bodies that make us a boy or girl - but what we feel in our hearts and how we think about ourselves in our minds. We can then explain that just because someone looks like a boy or looks like a girl doesn't tell us how they feel on the inside. We can also help break down gender stereotypes that dictate that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, or that there are certain toys that are for boys, and certain toys that are for girls. We need to help young people understand that people who are transgender are exactly the same as everyone else, but may have a feelings about their gender that do not match their body. They are people - just like everyone else, and they deserve respect just like everyone else.
Evaluate Your Attitude
It’s funny, but I think at age 40 I have more strict definitions of gender than my kids seem to! I find myself classifying things as "boy" or "girl" when they don't. Rice notes that more people are coming out of the closet about their gender identity, and “our society is starting to see that it is not quite as binary as we had constructed it to be.” Amber Briggle notes, “I hesitate to say that my son transitioned, because he's always known who he is. It was me that really transitioned, because it took me nearly 5 years from the moment he first uttered the words "I'm a boy" to the moment I finally accepted that fact. We thought Max was a girl so we called him Gracie. It turns out that looks can be deceiving, and that he was actually a boy all along. He's still the exact same person on the inside that he has always been, and the only thing that really has changed is the language that we use.”
Start (and Keep!) Learning
Finding trustworthy resources is a great way to start learning. The HRC and transyouthequality.org have resources for talking with young people about transgender issues - as well as a glossary, which frankly, I need. Dan Rice advises that the best thing to do if you're unsure of language around gender is to ask. It is less offensive to ask a person's pronoun than it is to assume their pronoun.
AMAZE has two great videos for young people 10-14 who want to know more about what transgender or gender identity means:
Expressing Myself, My Way
And finally, I love this piece of advice from Amber, a mom who’s been there: “I don't like for people to say my son was "born in the wrong body" because his body is just perfect the way it is. I also don't like to say he was "born a girl", because he wasn't. It just took him until he was 2 years old -- when he finally was able to speak and put sentences together -- for him to be able to tell us.”