Parents and guardians are often unsure of how to broach the subject of sexuality, gender and queer identities with children, not least because this might in some way open the door to talk to them about sex. That’s a topic so notoriously uncomfortable that we still refer to this discussion as talking about “the birds and the bees”, despite being two decades into the 21st century.
While discussing queer identities might for some fall into the sphere of what is considered “sensitive” subject matter, it is never too early to start talking about gender and sexuality to children – but age-appropriate responses and discussions will definitely help to make this ongoing discussion one that doesn’t just teach kids the basic aspects of gender and different attractions, but also instils important values in them from a young age.
Why discussing queer identities with kids is important
Children today grow up in a wholly different society than the one their parents or the older people in their lives did. Seeing homosexuality and varied gender identities depicted on the big and small screen has become far more commonplace, and kids may even encounter peers who identify as queer or transgender as early as primary school.
When we talk to children about LGBTQI+ issues, we are preparing them for the society they will live and work in later, and are also teaching them universal values of acceptance that will benefit them greatly in a world that is far less homogenous than it has ever been thought of before.
Kids are known to be curious, and it is important for parents to note that the way they react to questions surrounding sexuality and gender identity will either reinforce stereotypical and outdated ideas about these subjects, or will lay the foundations for compassion and acceptance of people who are different in some way or another.
Even if great strides have been made in terms of the way queer and gender non-conforming people are perceived, heteronormativity is still the status quo today. If children are not taught that all gender identities and sexualities are valid in their homes and communities, they might not get this clear message anywhere else.
Parents and guardians should also remember that children who have an inkling that they have a sexuality or gender identity that falls outside of the traditionally accepted norm will sometimes “test the waters” by touching on these issues to gauge their caregivers’ reaction. If a parent or guardian reacts vehemently against discourse about sex, sexuality and gender identity, the child will certainly seek out other people to talk to about these topics, and the information they get from these people may not be accurate or supportive of good sexual health.
For this reason, most experts advise that parents who are asked questions about gender and sexuality instead first ask their children what they think about the subject being discussed, before providing accurate and age-appropriate information that kids can digest in their own time.
Whereas many of our own parents thought that a single conversation about sex would suffice to answer most of the questions we had about the subject, professionals in this realm recommend that talks about gender and sexuality are undertaken on a regular basis throughout a child’s youth. Teachable moments are a dime a dozen, and these can open the door to a culture of comfort around uncomfortable conversations in the home.
Talking to preschool kids about gender and sexuality
Children learn about traditional ideas surrounding gender and sexuality from a very young age. Even before they go to school, kids may get the idea that certain gender roles are applicable to boys, and certain roles are reserved for girls. For this reason, it is useful for parents and guardians to think deeply about what messages surrounding gender they’d like to convey to their kids, so they can be prepared to answer difficult questions when these do inevitably arise.
Opting to let children tell parents what they like (all girls are not fans of pink and of princesses, for example, just like all boys aren’t interested in sports or cars) instead of assuming what toys or activities their children enjoy is one way to allow children to freely express themselves in an environment that is accepting and safe.
When it comes to different types of families, caregivers can look out for teachable moments to let their kids understand that not all families look the same – some households only have one parent, or the grandparents are at the helm, or there are two mommies or two daddies. Should children start noticing this and asking questions, it allows parents and guardians to explain that there are sometimes differences between families, but that there’s nothing wrong with this, and that we can be friends with people who aren’t the same as we are.
Similarly, questions about gender roles or identities can be addressed by assuring children that not all boys or girls look or act the same, and that this is okay.
When children are this age, parents may choose to use language that is understandable to their children. While kids are inquisitive when they are small, there is no need to go into too much complicated detail about the questions they are asking. Let’s say a child tells their caregiver that a girl in their class has cut their hair short, and wants to know if that makes the child a boy, or asks whether the boy in their class who wore a tutu to the dress-up is a girl. Parents needn’t explain the complex dynamics of gender to their child, but may mention that not all boys and all girls look the same, and that it is okay to do or wear things that are sometimes associated with another gender.
When discussing matters of gender and sexuality with children, it is always crucial to speak to children on their level, answer what they are asking in a simple way, and enquire about what the child thinks about the subject. If a parent feels out of their depth, they are also absolutely allowed to provide a simple answer, and reserve a more detailed conversation for when they are at home and not in the midst of early morning school traffic.
Talking to primary school kids about gender and sexuality
When children go to primary school, they are bound to increasingly notice differences between their family and the families of their friends and peers. Again, it is important to state that even if some families don’t look the same as yours, they love one another in the same way. This is also the right time to start including some of the correct vocabulary about gender and sexuality in conversations with kids. If they ask why their friend has two daddies, for example, it may be a good time to say that their friend’s dads are gay. If they have questions about how two daddies were able to make a baby, it’s worth mentioning that there are many ways to become a parent – this may lead to a conversation about adoption, for example, and what the word means.
Insofar as talking about gender identity, parents and guardians should take care not to reinforce harmful stereotypes about what a certain gender should look like or should act. If children have friends or classmates that identify as a gender that is different to the one they were born as, it is a good time to start talking about the validity of transgender identities, and instilling the idea that it is important to accept and treat people the way they want to be treated.
Talking to teenagers about gender and sexuality
Once kids reach puberty, they may start questioning their own sexuality or gender identity (although many transgender youth express ideas about their gender identity far earlier than this). Parents should never assume that their children will grow up to be straight and cisgender, and should aim to create an environment in which children feel comfortable talking to their parents about what they are feeling.
While many teens will experience same-sex attraction at this point in their lives, it is not set in stone that this will set them on a path to become members of the LGBTQI+ community (nor does it mean that this is a phase that they will grow out of).
If parents believe that their child might be queer or gender non-conforming, they should pay special attention to their child’s mental health, as numerous studies have noted that LGBTQI+ teens are much more likely to struggle with issues like depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges, often linked to bullying or stress and fear around acceptance and being “different”.
Any signs of mental health problems or self-harm should warrant a discussion about perhaps seeking the services of a mental health professional, if the teen is willing to follow this path.
Teenagers are probably far more clued-up about what it means to be queer or trans than their parents are, but even if a parent believes that their child might be queer, it is still crucial to emphasise the importance of safe sex. It is just as important to not avoid conversations about sexuality and gender if a parent thinks that their child may be queer or gender non-conforming, as avoidance of the topic won’t make their child straight or cisgender if this is not what they are.
Whatever the sexual orientation or gender identity of their children, parents should make it clear that bullying, harassment or jokes about people who are gay, bisexual or trans are unacceptable. They should foster an environment of acceptance and tolerance, and make the parental home a place where open dialogue is the norm, no matter what subject is being discussed.
Even if parents might find conversations surrounding sex, sexuality and gender difficult or uncomfortable, it is of the essence that these matters are talked about in the home, and are discussed from a young age, in line with what kids already know and want to find out.
Creating a space where children are allowed to enquire without fear of rejection or condemnation is key, not only to make queer and trans kids feel safe where they are supposed to feel most at ease – in their own home – but also to make sure that the next generation can become allies to their queer peers, ultimately sowing the seeds for a world where these conversations are everyday, and everyone feels secure in their identity, whatever it might be.