I came out and began transitioning very publicly, especially at work where we serve the public. One common question I heard was, “But how do I explain this to my kid(s)?” As a cisgender parent (or guardian) who has little to no knowledge regarding transgender identities and what transitioning is or entails, it’s understandable how explaining something so seemingly unusual for you to your kids can be a concern. I work with children of all ages. I have had to learn how to navigate this myself, so I thought it would be helpful to learn how to do this from a trans woman’s perspective and experience.
When explaining trans identities and/or transitioning, remember the following:
- Most young children are very flexible with their world views–the younger they are, the more flexible they tend to be.
- Your fear about confusing your children is probably projection on your part. In other words, you’re not necessarily worried that your kids will be confused as much as you are the one who is actually confused. That’s a perfectly natural response, but it’s important to not project.
- Being trans isn’t contagious. The only way that a child may become trans by learning about it is if they are already trans in the first place. If they happen to arrive at that truth by seeing and learning about others, then great! Being trans isn’t wrong, and figuring it out sooner rather than later has its advantages.
- It’s important to be as truthful to children as much as possible while explaining things in terms they can understand–it’s true you will have to tailor the depth and nuance to the child’s age. Kids don’t like it when adults lie to them, or aren’t telling them the full truth. Children need to know that you respect them, and being truthful is a part of showing them respect.
With all those points in mind, I will give you some examples that I have used in my personal experience.
Just the other day while I was at work, a child no older than five years old asked me, “How do you change from a boy to a girl?” I was caught off guard by this question. Usually kids don’t ask me this. They just typically ask me why I “look like a girl” and I simply tell them “because I am one”. In this case, it seemed like they were asking specifically about transitioning. I thought about correcting them by saying, “Actually, I already am a girl. I’m just trying to be more like other girls.” The reasons I why didn’t explain it that way had to do with my own personal safety. I thought, “If I don’t give a response their mother finds satisfactory, how would that affect me at work?” She might have already told her child that I was changing from a boy to a girl, so contradicting Mom might make things awkward. Also, some trans folks really do feel that they change from a “boy into a girl” (though that isn’t true in my case).
Considering all of that, I simply replied, “Well, first I start dressing like a girl. Then the doctor gives me medicine and the medicine does most of the work.” It was a simple explanation a five-year-old could understand that also had the lowest risk while being reasonably truthful to the child. As the non-parent, I had to sacrifice some details for my safety, but as a parent, it’s important to point out that someone like me is not changing from a boy to a girl, she already is a girl. She’s just a different kind of girl. This leads me to my next anecdote.
A young child of an age similar to that of the first who knew me pre-transition came up to me and asked me, “Why do you look like a girl?”
“Because I am a girl”, I replied.
“Really. There are different kinds of girls. I just happen to be a different kind of girl.”
I was asked a similar question by an older child (around eight or nine years old) and I responded, “Because I am a girl. You see, being a boy or a girl isn’t about what you look like, it’s about how you feel inside. I feel like I’m a girl and that’s what makes me one.”
That explanation is a very simple and concise way to help children understand that gender is a part of one’s identity. It’s about how one feels about themselves and their relation to others, not about how one looks. The great thing about this is that it’s not just a true explanation, it’s fairly simple and accurate–simple and accurate enough for a child to understand.