Talking to kids about gender

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 20: Jazz Jennings arrives at the 24th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at JW Marriott Los Angeles at L.A. LIVE on April 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.

It used to be so easy, people complain – there were two genders -- male and female. And now we have to understand transgender, gender queer, and gender fluidity – and to make it worse – we have to explain it to our kids! Thanks, Caitlyn Jenner!

Whether that thanks was sincere or sarcastic, the point remains that gender fluidity is now a topic for public conversation. If the conversation is public, it’s also happening in places where your kids can participate, like in the school yard and online. And that means the conversations should start at home.

Results from a national survey have repeatedly shown that parents underestimate the importance their children place in their opinions about sexuality.  Further, many parents assume outside sources like teachers or the media will provide information about all aspects of sexuality for their kids and that’s just not accurate.  Even if parents aren't overtly giving children messages, their attitudes, non-verbal behaviors, family norms and behaviors will stay with a child throughout his life. 

Curious children of all ages will manage to find answers to questions, and when the source is as unreliable as the Internet or the school yard, the results can be counterproductive at best, and disastrous at worse. Even if sexuality education is offered by the school it’s not a substitute for a parent. When a topic is getting media attention, as is the current case with gender transition, parents have the opportunity to live up to my gold standard of sexuality education: accurate information wrapped up in their family’s values.

While there is no exact count of transgendered people in the U.S., a detailed study  indicates that there are probably close to 100,000 transgendered individuals in the United States who have fully transitioned, as evidenced by registered name changes. There are many more who are in different stages of that process, and with the current media exposure, from characters on fictional television shows to reality shows like  “I am Jazz,”  odds are your child has heard the term and may have questions.

Professionals in human sexuality education and counseling have long held that a person’s sexuality is multi-dimensional. The typology I find most useful asks us to consider three distinct issues. 

  • Sex role refers to the behaviors that a society generally ascribes to either male or female – for instance, boys play football, girls play with dolls.  From that example, you can see that sex roles can be quite fluid!
  • Sex preference refers to the gender of the preferred sex partner; generally we think of people as preferring people of the other gender, their own gender or both. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey reported  more than a half-century ago that sex preference can be somewhat fluid, with very few people being 100 percent homosexual or heterosexual, and attraction levels changing over time.
  • Gender identity refers to the gender a person feels like they are.  For most people, this is a simple concept; their body and their feeling match! It’s not so simple for some people, as eloquently described by a transgender child: “I got a girl brain in a boy body”. 

Prepared with this background, you can be ready for the conversation with your kids! In my next post, I’ll help you lay out the groundwork to talk to your child about gender.

Rosenzweig is also the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.


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