Parent Advice: Talking to Young Children
Parent Advice: Talking
by Julie Tarney
One of the great things about conversations with kids is that they can be continued anytime, right where you left off. I still remember a few standout questions and comments from my son that caught me off guard over the years. In a couple of cases, I gave an answer that later didn’t seem complete or didn’t quite address what he really might have been thinking—like when he was in first grade and described a self-portrait as himself “in a closet.” I remember thinking afterwards, “Why didn’t I say this?” and “Why didn’t I think of that?” So I understand the basis for your question. Props to you for thinking there may have been a better way to handle your comments.
Let me first say that your daughter sounds darling. Those years when a child believes things can happen with the wave of a wand or a magic bracelet from Santa are so special. And who doesn’t want their child to believe that they can have, be, or do anything they desire, while never giving up on their dreams?
When it comes to discussing gender, self-expression, and sexuality with a child, I’ve learned that the best way to handle it can vary, depending on the statement or question, the situation, the child’s age, and how much information is necessary to satisfy her inquiring mind. And while being proactive and honest, we moms have to be careful about replies that might create false expectations, make a child feel vulnerable, or unintentionally induce feelings of shame.
Your daughter obviously trusts you, and that’s right where you want to be. Without trust, there’s the potential a child won’t express innermost thoughts and emotions. And when that happens, he or she might be inclined to keep secrets, which can cycle back to feelings of vulnerability or shame.
Your response obviously came from a place of protection, wanting to shield your daughter from teasing at school if she’s gay or perceived as gay. It seems like you reacted to her desire to turn into a boy—and how interpretations of that by other kids might affect her—rather than addressing her belief that she needs to turn into a boy in order for a girl friend to like her.
So I suggest you think about continuing the conversation with your daughter. Try a little gentle probing to get at what was really on her mind that day. I believe a parent can always go back to a child and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you told me the other day, and I really want to understand you better.” With that approach, you send a validating message that what she says is important.
Then think about how to understand her feelings without being challenging or accusatory. You could try something like, “I’m wondering why you think you have to be a boy for so-and-so to like you.”
What you want her to know is that she’s perfect just the way she is. I think one of the best messages a mom can give her child is, Be yourself. And then feel good about yourself. Your daughter needs to know that she doesn’t have to change for someone else to like her.
You have an opportunity here to stress her self-acceptance. And you can let her know that she can be this girl’s girlfriend without being a boy. Girls can have close friendships with girls, and girls can like girls, just as they can like a boy, or a boy can like another boy. Best friends come in all combinations.
Lastly, keep in mind that kids watch us and listen to us even when we’re not aware that they’re listening. The way we present ideas about boy-girl, girl-girl, or boy-boy relationships is so important, especially if others are non-accepting. So it’s good for your daughter to be exposed to other types of relationships, and not just the boy-girl friendships often portrayed on TV.
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, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Her book won Bronze in the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year Awards. 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.