Gender Issues No Parent Knows How To Handle
The new surge of open dialogue surrounding gender issues is a very positive thing. We still have a lot of work to do, and, of course, many parts of the world still deny the existence of transgender individuals, gender fluid individuals, and any other type of gender or sexuality that doesn’t conform to what they’re used to. But, we are certainly making progress. With any major change happening in our culture, a major change happens in the world of parents. For decades, parents were told by books, parenting experts, and psychologists that this was the right way to raise a child and this is what was “normal” or “healthy” behavior. When the conversation changes, then so to does the way a parent interacts with her child. This is a unique and confusing time for parents when it comes to gender. Here are gender issues that can be very complicated for parents.
If a little girl wants a Barbie doll is it because she truly wants that doll, or because she is conforming to some idea of what she thinks she’s supposed to want? If a boy wants a Barbie, does this indicate something about his gender or sexuality? The simple decision of, “What do I give my child for his birthday?” is no longer very simple.
It’s very hard to know, as the parent of a young child, how your child actually feels. Kids don’t know how to talk about gender or how to explain to you how they feel about their own gender. So when your daughter insists on using the boys’ bathroom, you have concerns. You don’t want to deny her this request if she identifies as a male, and feels uncomfortable in the girls’ bathroom. But you also don’t want her to be traumatized by anything she sees in the boys’ bathroom.
The nursery colors
If you’re a mother who paints her daughter’s room pink today, you might receive a lot of backlashes. You aren’t trying to enforce gender stereotypes onto your daughter—you just think pink is pretty. But are you, unintentionally, telling your daughter that girls “should” like pink? Or that she “should” identify as female? Stick to gender neutral colors like green or yellow to avoid this dilemma.
All little kids want unconventional haircuts at some point. For whatever reason, young children love trying to chop their hair off. For some, it’s just a quirky phase, but for others, it could be that those children are trying to tell you something about their gender identity. Do you deny your daughter’s request to cut off all of her hair, or, by doing so, would you be suppressing her true gender identity?
When I was a child, I wanted to wear a too-too and a pirate’s hat. I wasn’t personally trying to say anything about my gender, and many children aren’t—some kids just to love play dress-up and wear funny clothing combinations. But it can be hard to know, as a parent, if by refusing your son’s request to wear a dress you’re protecting him from ridicule at school, or actually denying his gender expression.
The name change requests
Children have very active imaginations and may want you to call them Captain Mermaid Orange one day and Sophia the next. You usually know you shouldn’t let them go around introducing themselves as Captain Mermaid Orange, but what happens when Sophia wants you to refer to her as Sam? If you agree, you could be encouraging her true gender expression or you could just be giving into a toddler’s whims. She may want to return to Sofia in a year, and then everybody will be confused.
A preference for this gender of friend
When children are very young, you don’t really worry about them hanging out with boys or girls. But when your child is hitting that pre-teen age of 10 or 11, things get complicated. If your little girl says she only wants male friends and identifies as a boy, do you let her go to otherwise all-boy sleepovers? Or, is there a chance she is lying to you as a way to explore some of her newfound sexual curiosities?
Changing their voice
Kids are always playing make believe and asserting that they’re British one day, an old man the next, and a sea turtle the following. So, it’s normal for kids to play with different voices. If your young son has decided to try to speak like a girl for months on end, it’s hard to know if he’s trying to express his true gender, or if he’s just going through a phase.
Today, as a parent, you can feel like you’re walking through a minefield when helping your child choose activities. Can you even suggest that your daughter takes ballet lessons? Or are you conforming to gender norms then? Should you allow your son to take ballet? It’s natural to worry that this will welcome ridicule from the other children, but you want him to be himself.
How to give compliments
You want to compliment your adorable child every second! But is it wrong to tell your daughter she is pretty? Or your son that he is handsome? If your daughter requests that you call her handsome and your son asks that you call him beautiful, do you agree?
If you notice your daughter spending a lot of time with one boy, you might want to say something like, “Somebody has a crush…” But this can be conflicting for parents. If your daughter isn’t heterosexual, you don’t want to impose your ideas about her sexuality onto her.
Your children will start asking questions about their anatomy—about why they’re built one way, but their friend who they saw changing in the locker room is built this other way. This can be very complicated because you want to avoid any language that insinuates your child is supposed to be built that way, or that any particular anatomy is only meant for any particular gender or sexuality.
The sex talk
The sex talk has taken on a whole new meaning. You used to have the sex talk with your kids to explain where babies come from, and to warn them against becoming pregnant. But now, you may feel the need to include the fact that sex doesn’t only have to be between a man and a woman. But you’re not quite sure how into detail you should go.
Requests to transition
Having your child come to you and request a gender transition can be incredibly complicated. You don’t want to deeply traumatize a truly transsexual child be refusing his request to transition. But you also don’t want to accidentally allow a child to transition, who perhaps isn’t transsexual. Most humans barely know who they are—from what their personality is to what their sexuality is—until their twenties. So allowing a young child to transition can be dangerous and complicated.
In general, knowing how and when to set limits as a parent today can be difficult. You’ll find yourself, every day, facing things that used to be simple when you were a child—from gifts to activities to wardrobe—and realizing how much of those were rooted in gender stereotyping. But since you are dealing with a young child who is still developing, it’s very hard to know when saying no to a certain request would be to deny their true gender identity, or to just deny the whim of a little kid.