Four easy steps for talking to children about your trans status (Gender Analysis 18)

By Heather McNamara

One of the most common issues I hear cis people blow out of proportion is the subject of talking to children about trans people. What will they tell their kids? It’s so confusing!

As queer people, most of us already know it’s not the kids we have to worry about. They have a fairly easy time understanding. The concern most transphobes usually have when they bring that up is: “how do I turn my kid into the same kind of bigot I am without it making myself look bad?”

Because of this, trans people who have children of their own, or nieces, nephews, younger siblings, and whatever else have the exact opposite concern: How do I teach my children about my trans status without making them vulnerable to bigots?

There’s no simple answer to this, and when I was confronted with this reality about five years ago, I wasn’t quite sure I was up to the task. Luckily, it turned out to be easier than I thought, so today I’ll share some strategies that worked for us.

For the purpose of brevity, I’ve written this video under the assumption that you, the audience, are the trans person in question. I’ve also used the word “child” in the singular to refer to a child of any kind of relation to you. The advice contained within, however, is useful in any situation where transgender status is being explained to children. If your situation is different, feel free to substitute where necessary.

1. Keep it simple

It’s annoying when adult allies say things like “she’s a woman in a man’s body,” but to a child, this is a good shorthand introduction to the concept. When we explained Zinnia’s trans status to our sons, we told them that sometimes girls are born with boy bodies, but that they can take medicine to give them girl bodies and that’s what Zinnia is doing. Because Zinnia was the only trans person they knew of at the time, we simply left it at that. You can substitute that with whatever fits your situation. At first, we left out new vocabulary words such as “transgender” and “hormone replacement.”

The simplicity of our explanation served a dual purpose. First, it made it easiest for our sons to understand. Second, it made it easier for them to explain to others. Whatever you end up telling your child, try first to picture them passing the information on to others. Depending on your child’s age, it may be difficult for them to remember or explain new words and definitions. If they are unable to explain what they’ve learned to other children and adults, they may feel isolated.

After our sons had spent a few days thinking about it, they came back with questions like “can a boy be born in a girl’s body?” and “how do I know whether I’m a boy or a girl?” We were happy to give the best answers we could. A few years down the road, they’re now familiar with concepts like cisgender, gender nonconformity, and agender, but none of these are necessary at first.

2. Approach other adults first

Try to remember what it was like being small. Do you remember the adults in your life and how all-powerful they seemed? If they weren’t hungry, then it wasn’t dinnertime and you didn’t eat. Bedtime came whether you were tired or not. If you stepped out of line, they could confine you to your room as long as they wished or take away your favorite belongings. And all this is if they were benevolent.

If you are the child’s primary caregiver, then they will spend most of their time with you and you may wield some power over which adults they do and do not spend time with. This can be useful. However, if it turns out the child’s second grade teacher is an indignant transphobe and you’re not able to move, the kid may be stuck with that teacher six to eight hours a day for days or even weeks before you can get them into another class. This can be emotionally devastating for them.

Children are terrible at keeping secrets and should not be asked to keep secrets for adults anyway. When you talk to your child about your trans status, you should do so with the expectation that they will speak to others.

Be proactive and discuss your trans status with your child’s other caregivers before explaining to your child. Feel them out and see whether they’re supportive or not. Most people will probably be supportive. Those who aren’t can usually be persuaded to keep their opinions to themselves in the interest of the child. If you have a lot of transphobic family members, this is an imperfect solution, but it’s a good place to start.

3. Teach the art of de-escalating and diverting

The good news is your child’s peers are unlikely to give them trouble. Chances are that unless the child is a teenager, their peers won’t even have heard of transgender people and will pass no judgment.

With any luck, the children in your life won’t encounter anyone who makes it their personal mission to educate them in the ways of transphobia. But not all of us are lucky people. It’s natural to want the children you love to take the side of love and stand up for the cause, but as an adult in their life to whom they look for guidance, it is important that you stay conscious of their limits.

Children are neither emotionally nor intellectually equipped to debate with adults. Preparing them for such a debate would be preparing them for failure and embarrassment. Instead, give them strategies to de-escalate the conversation. Let them know that it is always acceptable to end a conversation with “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Perhaps more importantly, let them know that it is not their responsibility to explain anything or defend you to anyone. Tell your child that if an adult dislikes what they say about you or trans people they are to divert any questions they may have to you. Make sure the child knows your email address or phone number and can give it to the adult in question.

4. Remember yourself

Children have complicated emotional needs and society teaches us over and over and over again that their needs come first. You may agree with this, but remember that you are a person with needs, too. With this value in mind, it can be easy to be coerced into keeping silent about your identity, but once you’ve made the decision to come out and live your life your way, this may not be an option.

You do not owe it to anyone, child or adult, to keep your identity a secret. You are a human being with a valid need to be loved and accepted as you are by the people you love and accept. It is perfectly okay to assert this need and demand it from your child and from their other caregivers.

Another strategy that’s worked for us is to do what is necessary and only what is necessary. Our sons, for example, don’t particularly like speaking to their teachers, so we didn’t bother discussing it with their teachers. There were fewer people, then, for us to confront and worry about, and likewise there’s no need to make it harder on yourself.

Disclosing your trans status can often be challenging and fraught with anxiety, particularly when trying to explain it to children and family members. But with confidence, self-assurance, and an age-appropriate strategy, you can make this as easy as possible for yourself and your kids.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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