“My four-year-old (they/them/theirs, for now) has been exploring gender and recently asked me to tell family members about it—including my fundamentalist Christian parents who babysit frequently. Is it necessary to have this conversation with my parents, especially since we still don’t know how our child may end up identifying? And if so, do you have advice on how to talk to my parents about this and ideas for good ground rules to have so my child is emotionally safe when they’re with their grandparents?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney
YES! It is absolutely necessary for you to talk to your parents. Here are three critically important reasons why you must have a conversation with them about your four-year-old’s exploration of gender.
1. Your child asked you to.
That request was child-speak for “sometimes I don’t feel good about myself when Grandpa and Grandma babysit me.” Something is going on during your parents’ babysitting hours that isn’t lining up with the confidence and freedom your child typically feels. With you, they’re allowed to be themselves; to play outside the lines of gender expectations and explore their sense of self. It sounds likely, however, that your parents are critical of your child’s gender exploration when the three of them are alone together. Given their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, your parents may be trying to enforce gender stereotypes or gendered ideas of how your child “should” be acting based on the constructed concepts of “boy” and “girl”. Maybe your child is hearing comments like, “those clothes really aren’t meant for you,” or “your hair looks silly like that.” Maybe they’re being told, “It’s wrong for you to want that toy.” Even worse, maybe your parents have said, “God doesn’t like it when you act like that.” Your child has asked you to intervene. They are counting on you for your unconditional love, support, and protection. They expect you to have their back.
2. Your child’s life is always about right now.
The decision to act on your child’s request does not depend on how they may end up identifying down the road. The only thing that matters is how your child is feeling right now. It sounds like your child is feeling distress when your parents babysit, so that must be your focus. No good can come now or later from the sense that the love of a family member is conditional. If your parents’ criticism and/or ridicule of your child are allowed to continue, your child may start to question if adults can be trusted. What’s more, if religion plays into that equation, then faith can become suspect too. It may be hard for your child to separate the loving God many preach from the judgemental God of others. Your four-year-old child’s present life is supposed to be fun, fabulous, and creative, so help them be happy in the now moments, as these will shape all future moments.
3. Your child’s emotional well-being depends on your intervention.
With frequent babysitting opportunities to be alone with your child, your parents may think they can “fix” your gender non-conforming child. However, the reality is that unsupportive, negative comments are both harmful and dangerous. A child made to feel shame about themself for their likes, dislikes, and preferences is a child at risk for low self-esteem and diminished self-worth. When those preferences may go on to form the core of their gender identity, it’s important to step in early. Shame, guilt, and other highly negative feelings can lead to more serious psychological distress.
A mental health study published in the May 2018 journal Pediatrics found a high prevalence of anxiety and depression among transgender and gender non-conforming children and adolescents. While an earlier study released in January 2018 also reported increased risks among those youth, it found that better family functioning is likely to be protective for those children. It is imperative that you intervene on behalf of your child and let your parents know their support is critical. That goes for all other family members, too, who may or may not be aware of your child’s exploration of gender. The concept may be new or challenging for them, but this is not about them.
Advice on how to talk to your parents:
This urgent conversation with your parents doesn’t have to be a scary confrontation. Start with a text or an email. Let them know you’d like to talk with them about your child when the child isn’t around. You can suggest getting together at their house or talking to them simultaneously on the phone.
When you do talk, be direct. Your child asked you to tell them about their gender exploration. Obviously, they’re already aware, but they need to know that their grandchild doesn’t feel understood or respected. Their grandchild is experiencing a natural stage of child development that requires their full support. That right there is the basis for your one and only ground rule:
Only positive messages and interactions with your child are allowed.
Be very clear, and then give them time to think it over. Let the choice be theirs. If they can’t agree to positive-only interactions, then they can no longer babysit. If they push back about why allowing your child to discover and express gender on their own terms is “wrong” or “unnatural,” just go back to the ground rule: only positive messages and interactions with your child are allowed. They are allowed their own opinions, but anything less than loving kindness and respect for your child won’t be tolerated.
When they do decide to accept the ground rule, let your child know you’ve had a talk with their grandparents. Assure them that your parents now understand what it means when a child explores gender expression. Then, unless you have a nanny cam, you’ll need to check in with your child. See how things are going when the grandparents babysit. Address any concerns immediately. Go back to the ground rule and the choice they have to continue babysitting or not.
There is, of course, the unfortunate scenario in which your parents won’t fully accept your child for who they are as a whole person. In that case, you can assure your child that while their grandparents love them, not all grownups “get it” when it comes to gender creativity. Explain that, for now, you think it’s important they wait to babysit until they can better understand.
No matter how it plays out with your parents or any other family member, continue to invite them along on your child’s gender journey. You can suggest websites, articles, and resource books on raising healthy gender nonconforming children, like Gender Born, Gender Made, for their continuing education. If they’re on Facebook, you can even recommend they watch the National Geographic documentary, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.
You are your child’s chief advocate. Draw strength from that. Show your child that how they feel and what they say matters. They are counting on you to hear them and take action. What are you waiting for? Talk to your parents.
Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, contributes to HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Julie is also a member of the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Families for Trans Equality network, and was named a “Favorite Queer Hero of 2016” by HuffPost and one of BlogHer’s “Voices of the Year” in 2015. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.