How to Talk to Kids About What It Means to Be Gender Fluid
All the terms residing under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella can be confusing, especially for anyone who grew up being told boys are boys and girls are girls. It's our duty as parents, however, to understand all of the topics our kids face as they grow up in a modern world.
Gender expression and identity is a hot topic that teens are often more familiar with than their parents. Rather than leaving them to draw their own conclusions, read up so you can support them and help them find the answer to one of life's trickiest questions: What does it mean to be me?
Why Should We Discuss Gender Identity With Kids?
If you're like most adults old enough to remember landlines, you grew up being told that there are girls, boys and that's it. Conversations about gender identity were virtually nonexistent. Thanks to years of activism by the LGBTQIA+ community, it's now much easier for people to explore their gender identity and sexuality without fear of discrimination or hate.
Note that we said easier, not easy. Exploring such a personal aspect of one's identity, particularly during adolescence, is always challenging. Some kids identify with one gender or another automatically. For others, it's confusing, stressful or downright scary.
As adults, we owe it to our kids to have open, honest conversations about these topics. In doing so, parents have the opportunity to:
- Teach kids the difference between gender identity, gender expression, physical attraction and emotional attraction.
- Learn what our kids have already encountered, and find out how they feel about it.
- Encourage them to be kind and respectful to everyone, regardless of their gender identity.
- Give them an opportunity to share questions or concerns about their own identity.
Leaving kids to "just figure it out" isn't a great tactic. Suicide is already the second-leading cause of death in young people, and LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to consider taking their own lives compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers.
Helping our tweens and teens understand gender and sexuality is the easiest way to foster a mentality of acceptance and support — both toward themselves and toward each other.
Explore Your Own Feelings About It First
We all want what's best for our kids. Hopefully, that means we want them to lead healthy, happy, full lives that reflect who they really are, not who we imagined them to be. That can be difficult to embrace, especially if it conflicts with our personal or religious beliefs.
If that's the case, think of it this way: Our ultimate goal as parents is to love our kids, and we can't do that if we don't understand them or the reality they live in. Discussing gender identity and sexuality with an open mind is crucial to protecting their mental health and that of their peers.
If you're not well-versed or comfortable talking about the complexities of gender issues, don't sweat it. Just do your homework to set the stage for a meaningful conversation.
Read up about all the terms in the LGBTQIA+ acronym, plus the differences between gender expression, gender identity, sex and sexual orientation.
For a crash course:
- LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual and other gender/sexual minorities.
- Sex assigned at birth is one's biological sex.
- Gender identity is the gender a person feels bests represents them.
- Sexual orientation defines who one is physically attracted to.
Anyone who doesn't identify as the sex they were assigned at birth can be described as transgender. While some identify as male or female, others feel like they can be either or both. This is called being gender fluid.
Being nonbinary is another term for being gender fluid.
Make the Conversation a Safe and Helpful One
The point of discussing gender identity, like being a boy, a gir,l or gender fluid, isn't to have all the answers. It's simply to emphasize two things: that gender and sexual diversity exist, and that you accept and love people no matter how they choose to express themselves.
These conversations don't have to be intense heart to hearts. Look for natural conversation starters, like a preschooler asking if someone's a boy or a girl or a second grader noticing their classmate has a feminine name but wears clothes typical of boys.
Answer their questions as best you can, share your own values, and be open to theirs.
Break It Down Into Age-Appropriate Terms
For young kids, understanding an "in-between" gender can be more confusing than someone identifying as male or female. Most kids know their own gender by the age of 3. You don't have to break down every detail for little ones. Instead, keep things simple and concrete.
If a child asks if someone's a boy or a girl, for example, you can simply tell them, "Being a boy or a girl isn't just about how you look on the outside. It's also about how they feel on the inside. We don't always know if someone's a boy or a girl just by looking at them, so we can call them 'they/them' or ask how they'd prefer to be called."
For an exercise, make a list of gendered and neutral words, and ask them which words feel right to them. Then, explain that just like feminine or masculine words feel right to them, neutral words may feel right to someone else. Not so complicated at all, is it?
Emphasize Empathy and Respect
If you can only pass on one lesson, let it be this: People are people. Whether they're a girl, a boy or gender fluid, they're a person who deserves to be seen accepted for who they are.
Lead by example. If someone you know comes out as transgender or gender fluid, start using their chosen name and pronouns right away. Intentionally denying someone's identity is not OK, but if you use their old pronouns once in a while by mistake, don't worry about it. Just correct yourself and move on.
Kids are observant. If you consistently make it a priority to support and affirm people around you who are gender fluid or fall elsewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, your kids will do the same.
What to Do If Your Child Is Gender Fluid
Even early on, some kids show signs of being transgender or gender fluid. Some early signs that a child is exploring their gender identity include:
- Bathroom behavior typical of the opposite sex, like a girl consistently trying to urinate standing up
- Preferring clothes or hairstyles typically assigned to the opposite sex
- An intense desire to play with toys typically assigned to the opposite sex
A child's early gender expression doesn't always forecast their future gender identity. There's no need to define them overnight. Your child may continue to explore their interests and identity for some time. Eventually, they'll let you know what feels right all on their own.
Whatever you do, never:
- Restrict your child from expressing their chosen gender to avoid making others uncomfortable
- Shame or punish them for exploring their identity
- Keep them away from gender-diverse peers
- Make fun of their gender expression or allow family members or friends to do so
- Blame them for experiencing prejudice from peers
Always use positive words when speaking about your child, both to them and to others. Allow them to explore their own preferences, and demonstrate your interest and admiration for their identity.
One of the biggest factors that determine an LGBTQ+ child's future mental health is support from parents and caregivers, so focus on what makes your child feel happy and secure.
More LGBTQIA+ Resources for Parents
If you think your child or teen may be gender fluid or transgender, talking to a therapist is an important step to take. A therapist specializing in gender identity can help you and your child prevent and address social challenges, discrimination, anxiety and other common struggles that LGBTQ+ individuals face more often than their peers.
Talk with your child's doctor to get a referral to a local specialist, or try online, LGBTQIA+ friendly therapy.
For more advice on how to discuss complex topics with kids, keep reading: