When my son told me he was transgender at 11 years old, I wasn’t sure what he meant. It’s not because I have lived under a rock—I am an educated woman, a former registered nurse, and this was my third of four children. I wasn’t even new to parenting. But I was frozen in place by what being transgender implied for his social life, health and future.
You see, I automatically equated transgender with surgical procedures. And, I am ashamed to say, it also brought to mind late 80s tabloid talk shows on cross-dressing. None of that seemed to match what my fifth grader was telling me. I needed to listen. I also needed to figure out what transgender meant before I explained it to my youngest child, niece and nephew, and other kids in our life.
Because being transgender is considered an exception, it can be easy to brush the topic under the carpet for when our children are older. But we aren’t talking about just a handful of people. According to the 2021 Census, approximately 1 in 150 people aged 15 to 34 in Canada were transgender or non-binary. If your child’s cousin, babysitter, or classmate were to share that they are trans or non-binary, you’ll want to be prepared to answer the big questions kids may have.
Since my son came out, I’ve not only had to explain why the child I once brought to the dentist as a girl is now to be addressed as a boy, but I’ve also had to teach children and adults of all ages what exactly transgender means. Here are some pointers on how to have that conversation with your own kids.
Start with what gender means
Gender isn’t about body parts. Yes, we assign a gender to our kids at birth once we confirm the body parts between their legs, but gender is more about our roles in society. Gender is also not about sexuality. At all. So, there is no reason to put off talking about gender with your children until high school because there will be no ‘birds and bees’ talk to include in the conversation. You can talk about gender with kids as young as three years old.
Gender is an identity, and it is also an expression. Our gender identity is what we know to be true about ourselves deep down inside. For most of us, this aligns with what the doctor or midwife announced at our birth. But for some people, it doesn’t. Essentially, transgender people are challenging traditional gender rules. If you’ve ever told your child, “girls can play with trucks and boys can wear nail polish,” you were teaching them about gender diversity.
Transgender people struggle with having to put on the act of the gender they were given when they were born because it doesn’t align with what they know about themselves deep down. Some kids are adamant as toddlers that we got it all wrong. Some trans and non-binary teens get exhausted by putting on that performance and often display mental distress because of it. That distress can range from social isolation and anxiety around body changes to self-harm and a sense of hopelessness.
Gender expression, on the other hand, is all about how we choose to show off our identity—how we dress, style our hair, walk and talk. This can be fluid and change or stay relatively constant. I am a cisgender woman, meaning that my female identity fits with my birth label. I happen to like to dress femininely most of the time, but you will sometimes catch me wearing clothing typically reserved for men, such as jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt. That doesn’t mean I am confused about my identity; it just means that’s what I felt like wearing. The same applies to trans and non-binary kids. They might wear clothes from the boy’s and girl’s sections, and they might mix them up and combine them while breaking gender norms. It’s important to know that transgender children, and often non-binary teens, typically only change their gender expression, name, and pronouns and not their physical bodies.
Know that children understand gender by kindergarten
Children understand the difference between men and women according to their gender expression by the ages of two or three, and they can identify themselves as a boy or a girl at that point. Sometimes their concept of gender will fluctuate, but by the age of five, children typically have a consistent gender and start taking on the gender roles used in their community. They will see toys and clothes as gendered. For example, they’ll say a race car is a boy’s toy and a tutu is a girl’s clothes. As children age, their sense of identity solidifies. If that identity is not what they were assigned at birth, children can become anxious or distressed; that is why affirming a transgender child is so important.
Since gender identity is formed as early as between three and seven years old, waiting until after grade 5, or worse, high school health class, to discuss gender identity is too late.
Ignoring that transgender people exist doesn’t make things better for anyone. Kids are smart, and if you purposefully avoid discussing something, they will assume the topic is bad or off limits. We risk teaching them there’s something inherently bad about gender diversity by omission. Making transgender a taboo subject can destroy the self-esteem of a child who feels differently from male and female stereotypes
It creates “othering” instead of belonging and a ripe situation for bullying.
How I explain transgender to kids
In our family, we typically say, “We got things wrong when Mitchell was born and automatically assumed that he was a girl, but once he was old enough to understand himself and explain it to us, he told us he’s a boy. He now dresses in a way that makes him feel comfortable so that people see him as a boy. We use a boy’s name and say he and him when we talk about him.”
We also add: “Some kids also figure out that neither boy nor girl fits them properly, and they like to use both or neither label. You might hear those kids ask you to use they and them pronouns when you talk about them. They sometimes say their gender is non-binary, and that means it doesn’t fit into only boy or only girl boxes.”
That’s it. You don’t need to explain anything about a trans person’s body because not all transgender people have things changed on their bodies. Also, when we meet people on the street, in the grocery store, or at the library, we don’t ask about their body parts; we address them according to how they introduce themselves.
Talking about gender with school-aged children can be an easy way to support the transgender community because the sooner kids understand that trans people are just like them, the more inclusive and safer our world will be.
Tammy Plunkett is a mother of four queer kids, author, and speaker on the topic of parenting transgender children.