You may have the seen the recent special-edition cover of National Geographic featuring a male to female transgender child. The very young boy who now self-identifies as a girl caused a watershed of controversy and discussion. In addition to the cover, Katie Couric hosted a special for National Geographic on the gender revolution.
When the cover came out, many were confused over why a publication that describes itself as a “nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to exploring our planet, protecting wildlife and habitats, and helping assure that students in K-12 are geographically literate” is taking on gender identity at all. NatGeo’s explanation is pretty straightforward, “Today…beliefs about gender are shifting rapidly and radically. That’s why we’re exploring the subject…looking at it through the lens of science, social systems, and civilizations throughout history.”
The decision shocked and disappointed many, but it was also a pleasant surprise for others. Whatever your feelings about National Geographic’s cover, the position the publishers have taken is clear: it’s time to talk about gender identity. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, either.
Parents’ Job Is to Help Their Kids Sort Ideas
I always welcome the chance to help my kids reason through tough subjects, but like most parents I want to choose the time and place in which to do that. National Geographic’s gender campaign risks running afoul of parents’ fundamental right to decide what’s appropriate for their children to be exposed to, experience, and at what age. More and more parents are being put in the unwelcome position of having to discuss adult issues with young children, often without much guidance.
Concerns about National Geographic’s position on gender identity comes not just from parents, and interested citizens, however, but from those who lived in the transgender community, as well as pediatric medical associations. If parents feel gun-shy about how to broach the subject, it’s completely understandable. The subject of sex is like a nerve ending in our culture. Anytime you go near it, there’s a reaction. Everyone has an opinion.
Moreover, there’s an intense amount of pressure to conform to one way of thinking in the absence of any substantive data to support such beliefs. It’s a tough time to be a parent, but doubly so if your views deviate from those of popular culture.
Take heart, however. You’re not alone. Most parents—liberal, conservative, libertarian—want the freedom to discuss issues pertaining to sex and gender in their own time, without the intrusion or coercion of political groups or legislators. Parenting is not partisan. Parents can and should limit their children’s exposure to non-age-appropriate topics, but at some point the issue will end up on their doorstep, and parents will need to address it because that’s their job.
Parents are supposed to help their children navigate the sometimes difficult, often awkward subjects of sex and our magical changing bodies. Some are already talking about it, paddling around in uncharted waters saying things they’d hoped they wouldn’t have to say until much later, possibly never. Others may be dreading the moment their five-year-old comes home and asks why a girl in her class wants to be called a boy.
Or perhaps you have no problem at all with the issue and think you’re handling it quite well, in a positive and generous way (kudos to you if you are). Whatever your thoughts and feelings may be on transgenderism, and wherever you may be in the process of discussion, my objective isn’t to change your mind, but to offer a few things to consider. My goal is to equip you with the resources and encouragement you need for meaningful, purposeful conversations with your kids about a really tough subject.
1. Think About Your Goals for the Conversation
This is a great question to keep in mind whenever we parent. Before I expand, I have to disclose that I am making a few assumptions about parents in this article. I assume that parents who read this aspire to impart virtues of kindness, charity, self-control, love, humility, grace, and patience to their children. My second assumption is that these virtues are guiding principles in how parents parent.
Lastly, I assume these virtues are the primary mechanism by which parents achieve their parenting goals. They are the internal workings that produce the desired outcome. So, what is the desired outcome?
For some it may be just getting through a conversation about transgenderism without too much fallout. Others want to equip their kids with the right tools to live their values with others even when it’s hard or confusing. The rest may just be trying to get their kids through eighth-grade algebra and this issue isn’t even on their radar. Or it could be any combination of those things.
But because this issue has far greater implications than just a controversial National Geographic cover, I encourage parents to think about the greater goal in all this. There’s a battle going on over how we Americans define gender, and depending on where you fall along those battle lines, you may be spared the wrath of social advocacy groups or you may not, but the subject is far from settled science. In fact, it remains an incredibly contentious and divided topic among the very institutions we trust to be decisive on such matters.
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) website, for example, argues that transgenderism is not necessarily a mental disorder. In fact, it’s only a mental disorder if it causes “significant distress or disability.” The APA’s position is that for any psychological state to be a mental disorder it must cause distress or disability.
Stop for a moment and consider the gravity of that claim. The APA is no longer in the business of defining mental illness but has left it up to individuals to decide their own mental fitness. Extremum exemplo, but do we really want to cede that expertise to someone with pedophilic desires? That is an astounding shift in how the profession understands and conceptualizes mental health. It’s also a caution about how parents might want to treat advice coming from the APA.
The American College of Pediatricians (ACP) however, has spoken out against gender ideology, calling it harmful, akin to child abuse. The ACP holds as its primary core value, “Recognizing that there are absolutes and scientific truths that transcend relative social considerations of the day.” This means that winds of progressive, social change are only a consideration if the science supports it.
These views matter because research and advocacy positions from such organizations drive local and federal public policies that effect how we socialize in public. You’ll all remember the great bathroom unpleasantness in North Carolina. More importantly, the transgender community advocates for certain beliefs about their identities and gender development based on information generated from organizations like the APA, ACP, and publications like National Geographic.
For some, the transition to the opposite sex feels like a tremendous relief. A weight has been lifted. It feels like freedom, like living a truthful and authentic life. Many have reported having greater mental health after transitioning.
We hear a great deal about those whose decision to transition makes them feel empowered. But not everyone who has transitioned feels empowered. Some do not feel relief, authentic, or right. They will feel betrayed by their mind and bodies, and by the people who told them they were something they were not. Their transition did not make them happier. They may have even become suicidal, just wanting the pain to stop. It’s a side of the transgender experience that is rarely discussed, but that doesn’t mean trans regret is rare.
This is one of the main reasons I encourage parents to teach their kids how to be good friends to a transgender child. Not in the hopes the child will stop being gender non-conforming, although that does happen, but because if the transgender child really begins to struggle with his or her identity, the child needs a better alternative than those who insist the only acceptable way to be is transgender.
Children can be good friends to a child in desperate need, but that is far less likely to happen if they haven’t already been kind, gracious, and non-judgmental. This is why I advocate for kindness instead of unsolicited truth-telling. This is good advice in all situations, but in the event that a transgender child needs someone to talk to it’s highly unlikely he’ll seek out a classmate or teammate who constantly reminds him he’s broken and wrong. No one would.
Being kind and gracious is not the same as condoning every aspect of another person. Does anyone in our lives enjoy complete condoning? We can be kind, loving, and non-judgmental towards people while not agreeing with some of their decisions. To suggest otherwise is nonsense.
The idea here is that if it all goes to crap, the poor child who is really struggling with her gender has one friend who isn’t going to lie to or judge her, or try and convince her she’s someone she’s not, and who doesn’t have an agenda. That can happen if we’ve helped our children be the safer alternative. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it may literally mean the difference between life and death.
2. How We Say It Is as Important as What We Say
Again, this applies to all areas of parenting, but especially to the heavy stuff. Think about how your kids would want to have this discussion. Some might want advance notice; others may be fine with a spontaneous approach, or letting it just happen organically over dinner.
Think about the language you want to use. Depending on their age, you may need to use more concrete concepts as opposed to speaking in highly nuanced language more suited to teenagers. Your kids will take their cues from you. If you’re not sure about how to approach the subject, say that. Modeling transparency gives your kids the freedom to be transparent, as well. It lets them know it’s safe to say what they’re thinking and feeling.
Keeping in mind they may tell you they don’t want to talk about it, at which point you may want to back down with the caveat that you’ll discuss it later. If your child is really resistant, don’t force it. As with any potentially awkward subject, the goal is to make space for the conversation to occur, and forcing a discussion always risks shutting down future talks. Respecting your child’s no in the short term leaves open the option for a yes in the future.
3. Avoid Assumptions
Don’t assume your child feels one way or the other about transgender issues or gender identity. Kids will surprise you. Allow that your child may think loosely of gender, and may not understand why there’s all this fuss. He or she may also be curious about what’s going on with kids who don’t seem to fit neatly into the boy or girl box, or may have a binary biological belief about gender, or a biblical view of gender, or all of the above.
Be sensitive that talking with your child about sex and gender may be more uncomfortable for you than for your kids, or it may not be. They may be really eager to talk about it. Perhaps they heard something and have wanted to ask you but didn’t know how to bring it up.
Most kids have already been exposed to some variation of gender non-conforming individuals. They may even be gender non-conforming themselves. This is why we can’t assume anything: assumptions create expectations, which drive our reactivity. Put another way, we don’t want to overreact when our kids surprise us.
Eliminating assumptions helps us to remain calm. We do want to create a space for kids to say what they really think, not what we want to hear. Our kids won’t care two figs about all our sage advice if they don’t trust us not to come unhinged. Remember, the goal is to keep the conversation going. We cannot be positive, guiding influences in our kids’ lives if we’re making assumptions and shutting down discussion.
4. It’s Not Our Kid’s Job to Change Transgender Kids
I debated how to phrase this point. My concern is that people would read it and hear something I’m not saying. I’m not advocating our children don’t speak the truth about what they believe. If your child has a biological or Bible-based view of gender, he or she has every right to advocate for that belief. My caution for us as parents is in appropriately directing that advocacy.
The world we live in is increasingly hostile towards those who do not adopt a non-binary gender ideology absolutely. It’s no longer acceptable to live and let live. Our kids are pressured to publicly identify as someone who has absolutely accepted the progressive view of gender. The thin veneer of tolerance has worn off to reveal absolutism.
For this reason I caution parents to consider what it will mean for their children to speak out against progressive views of gender. We don’t want to leave our kids naïve to the possible backlash, or be so naïve as to think people will restrain themselves just because it’s a child who said it. The bottom line is that it isn’t our kid’s job to try and convince a gender non-conforming child of anything.
This is a very personal issue that’s between the child, their parents, God, and maybe a mental health professional and doctor. Rather, encourage your child to live out the virtues and values you’ve instilled, and just be a good friend.
Consider this for a moment: if a child were struggling with any other challenge, such as racism, bullying, disability, abuse, family issues, etc., we wouldn’t hesitate to tell our kids to be kind to them. Is the child struggling with gender identity issues any less deserving of our kindness? Of course not, and we certainly wouldn’t tell our kids to try and fix someone who was disabled or being bullied.
What I’m suggesting isn’t revolutionary. I am just advocating that we teach our kids to be kind to those in need by modeling our values and virtues. I’m also familiar with how vastly complicated this issue is, and no amount of writing about it makes it less so. But how we should treat others who struggle and suffer isn’t complicated. It’s simple, and powerful.
To illustrate my point I leave you with a quote from Albert Schweitzer: “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” Couldn’t we use more of that in this world?