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Explaining gender and orientation to your child

It’s never too early to start talking to your child about gender and orientation. The question is, how do you make the conversation age-appropriate. 

Understanding gender and orientation

The first step to being a good teacher to your child when it comes to explaining gender and orientation is making sure you are a star student. That means reading up on the latest terminology and trends, challenges and celebrations of people in the full range of diversity. Visiting LGBTQ+ organizations’ websites is a great way to start, as is joining some LGBTQ+ or ally parenting groups on social media and reading the conversation threads. Taking time to digest the relevant news and background is an important way to prepare to then impart that knowledge to your child.

Keep it casual

Conversations about gender or orientation with your child do not need to be serious or warrant standalone formal family meetings. Incorporate those learning moments into everyday life in real-time. This will both help contextualize the discussion and embed the topic into mundane moments – because gender and orientation are very much a normal part of our everyday lives!

For instance, if your toddler says, “You can’t do that! That’s for boys!” This is the perfect teaching moment to let them know that there is no such thing as activities, toys, clothes, behaviors that are inherently for girls or boys. You can give some examples of people you know who buck those stereotypes. Or else seek out media, TV shows, movies, books, or games that offer a different perspective. Watch or read with them and take time to discuss. 

It comes down to using plain language to describe what are really some basic concepts. Gender is who we know ourselves to be. It exists on a spectrum and can even change. Orientation is who we love, whether romantically or sexually or not, and it’s based on our gender. It’s that simple. Kids get it.

Teach affirmatively 

Rather than pointing out what your child is saying or doing incorrectly, or talking about the hardships that people face when they don’t fit into the status quo, lean into more affirmative postures when you talk about gender or orientation. 

Actively communicate with them about how there are different types of people in the world, people who represent all the colors and shades of the rainbow and everyone in between. Explain across a broad spectrum when it comes to how people act or look or dress, as well as who they love. Listen to their questions and observations and affirm them, while adding to what they say to deepen their understanding of identity, and of gender and orientation.

Give them room to explore

Kids like to explore and they like to pretend. It’s how they begin to make sense of this chaotic and confusing world, and importantly, it’s how they begin to discover who they are and understand what their place in this world might be. 

Give your child the freedom, space, and support to explore. They might want to wear a tutu one day and a construction hat the next. Or both at the same time! They might say they are a girl one day and a boy the next. They might say they want to marry a girl or a boy. There is no need to attribute any of your own biases onto their innocent reflections and feelings. Simply let them be and love them fully.  

Some of these conversations may feel uncomfortable for us, but kids are actually well-equipped, maybe even better equipped, than adults, to comprehend the world’s natural diversity and to embrace different types of people. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is let them teach us!

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