Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Quick-Start Guide to Gender-Healthy Parenting

As a follow-up to my last post on kids and gender, I thought I'd write a brief guide to what I feel is the best way to approach gender identity - both your child's and other people's - with kids. What I mean by "gender-healthy" is that your kid feels safe and comfortable with hir gender identity and expression, and understands how to extend that same respect to others. I write this as a person who has a lot of experience with both helpful and harmful attitudes toward gender. I am not a parent, and most importantly, I am not your child's parent. But I have been a child and there are many children in my life, and I have tried to write a guide to how I would most like to see those children treated.

Be prepared for your child to be transgender.
No, I'm not suggesting that your child is going to become trans because of any parenting decisions you make. But that's exactly it: if your child is trans, they just are. Already. If you wait until you know your kid is trans before you start thinking about how your parenting would affect a trans kid, you've waited too long. And try to realize that this applies no matter how much of a princess your daughter is or how much of a jock your son is. There's a good chance that a child with a vagina who loves Disney Princesses is a girl, but maybe she's the next FTM drag queen in training. I used to ask my mama to do my hair up in pigtail braids so I could pretend to be Dorothy Gale, but I screamed if anyone tried to style my hair any other time. My point is, there's a lot more to gender than what you see on the surface. Assume nothing, and for God's sake don't be the mom who uses imitation of Judy Garland as proof that your child is not going to grow up to be a gay man.

Be prepared for your child to be cisgender. At the same time, don't get so caught up in your vision of yourself as a progressive, trans-friendly parent that you don't actually notice who your child really is. There's a good chance that your little boy is indeed the sort of little boy who is going to reject your ballet classes in favor of burping contests and throwing frogs on girls. I've heard far too many feminist parents sigh with disapproval when their sons picked up toy guns and their daughters picked up Bratz dolls. Please don't be the parent who praises your son for wanting a manicure (he's so secure in himself!) and shames your daughter for doing the same (she's conforming to the patriarchy!). Remember that the goal is to encourage your children to be exactly who they are, not to prevent them from ever doing anything that fits the norm.

Neutral isn't necessarily better. I happened to be the sort of kid who liked gender-neutral activities the best: playing on my swingset, watching shows like Rocko's Modern Life, making up stories, caring for animals, and playing Nintendo. Lots of kids love that stuff. But lots of kids would also feel horribly stifled if they weren't allowed to collect My Little Pony or participate in Nerf gun wars. Just because an activity doesn't come with a gender stereotype attached doesn't necessarily make it a healthier activity for your child. Again, no matter your child's sex or gender, the most important thing is to let them be who they are and do what they enjoy doing.

Gender can be fun. Play can be a wonderful way to let kids explore gender roles and expression. When I was four and asked my mom how I could turn into a boy, she said I couldn't. What I wish she would've done is hand me a baseball cap and say, "Put this on when you want to be a boy, and we'll call you Bobby." Then I would have been able to try being a boy whenever I felt like it without feeling like it was a big deal or a forever decision. As a teen I enjoyed playing male characters in school plays, video games, and cosplay. Encourage your kids to be any gender they want in pretend play. If your son wants to play house and be the mommy, or your daughter wants to be Darth Vader for Halloween, go with it. And let them screw with gender as much as they want. When I put on makeup as a preteen, I wasn't learning how to be a proper lady, I was imitating Marilyn Manson and Boy George! Kids pretend to be helicopters and ponies and that's just fine, so why on Earth would pretending to be a different kind of human hurt them?

Gender is serious business. On the other hand, remember that your child really does have a gender identity and it really is part of who ze is. Don't treat your child's gender as something cute that you can play around with for the sake of demonstrating how hip you are and how little you care about traditional gender roles. This is particularly true if your child is showing signs of "cross-gender" identification - meaning your kid with a penis really believes she is, or really wants to be, a girl, or your kid with a vagina really believes he is, or really wants to be, a boy. There is a point when it stops being about the cuteness of a little boy painting his nails or a little girl who runs around shirtless, and starts being a serious thing your child is going to need lots of support with. It's hard to know where that line is, but the basic rule of thumb is this: if your child is being serious, take hir seriously.

Finally, here are some useful phrases for talking about gender with kids. Their appropriateness varies depending on the child's age and the situation, of course, so use your own discretion. And try to bring them up in the natural course of life, if you can. Most kids have lots of questions about gender, but they will be confused if you sit them down in the middle of a busy Saturday, out of the blue, to tell them this stuff.

"Do you like boy words or girl words?" You don't have to wait until your kid is able to diagram a sentence to talk to them about pronouns. Tell them about the difference between "he" and "she", and let them know there are other choices too, like per, ze, sie, and ey. Let your kids pick whatever pronouns they prefer. Be as faithful as you can about using them, and make it okay for them to change them as much as they want.

"Most girls have [a vagina/breasts/a uterus/ovaries] and most boys have [a penis/testicles/a prostate]. But some boys have [a vagina/breasts/a uterus/ovaries], and some girls have [a penis/testicles/a prostate]. That's okay, too." Use this in place of "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina".

If your kid is upset about being misgendered: "You can't tell a person's gender by looking at them, but people sometimes use a person's clothes and hair to try to guess. Some people guess that anyone with long hair is a girl. I love your long hair, but if you're really upset about being called a girl, I can help you pick out a haircut that will help people guess better. Or you can keep it long and I can help remind people that you're a boy." Never tell a child they're being called the wrong gender because they look like that gender. Place the focus on other people making honest mistakes - your child's gender and appearance are not wrong! Let them know that lots of people get misgendered and have to correct people, and that it's the other person's mistake and not the fault of the person being misgendered. I'm not sure how this happens, but I've personally seen guys with full beards get called "ma'am" and women with DD cups get called "sir".

If a kid misgenders someone else, don't make a big fuss, don't shame them, and don't call unnecessary attention to the person being misgendered. A simple "That's a girl. Her name is Katie" or "I think Sam uses boy words" will do. Of course, you want to make sure you're not misgendering the person yourself! If you don't know how a person identifies, tell your kid that, and offer to help your kid find out what pronouns to say.

If you have a transgender friend: "Well, a lot of men used to be little boys, but my friend [name] used to be a little girl. At least, he looked like a little girl and everyone thought he was. But he always felt like a boy, so when he grew up he became a man." Make sure you have your friend's permission to disclose this information, and ask what specific language they're okay with you using to describe them to your children. If you can get a trans friend to talk directly to your kids about their gender, that's great, but don't expect the trans people in your life to be walking museum exhibits for your kids.

And if you're trans yourself? Use whatever words feel most comfortable for you, so long as they're on a level the child will understand. This weekend I had a kid ask why I have to wear swim shirts when I go to the beach. My answer was something like this: "Remember how you weren't sure if I was a boy or a girl? That's because when I was born, I had girl parts and looked like a girl. I still have a chest like a girl, and you know how girls have to cover up their chests at the beach? I do, too." Keep calm when kids ask you stuff. If you don't want to answer a question, explain that it's very personal and you'd rather not share that about yourself. But don't shame a kid for being curious. The more people there are who find out about us while they're still kids, the more trans-friendly the world is going to be. And you never know - you could be talking to a trans kid whose life might be saved by knowing other trans people exist.

Remind your kids that you can't always tell a person's gender just by what they look like. Remind them that it can hurt people's feelings to be asked if they're a boy or a girl, but that it's usually okay to ask what pronouns someone prefers if you're not sure. Respect your child's body autonomy and right to privacy, and remind them to do the same for others. Most importantly, remember that you are always your child's partner in navigating the world, and that includes the world of gender. Be willing to be the person who asks someone about their preferred pronouns, or to correct people who misgender your child. Allow your kids to wear and do what they want, but be available to help them find an expression that matches their identity. Remember that gender can be a scary and confusing thing even for adults, so kids especially need lots of support figuring this stuff out. But don't dumb it down or try to shelter them, either. Kids often understand this stuff better than grown-ups do, and if you keep your mind open, you just might learn more from them than they do from you.

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