On Monday, Caitlyn Jenner officially became a cover girl, going public with her new name and unequivocally feminine presentation in a glossy Vanity Fair photospread. Jenner lit up Twitter with the #CallMeCaitlyn hashtag, while also breaking Twitter records by reaching two million followers on her new account within 24 hours.
Given the attention she’s been getting, (her official coming out in an interview with Diane Sawyer drew 17 million viewers), it’s small wonder that her unveiling was a hot conversation topic.
Of course, not all of that discussion was supportive. Dozens of “parody” twitter accounts have already been created. Conservative Twitter has had its say while Fox News was characteristically disrespectful and ignorant. The network’s Neil Cavuto asked: “What the hell is going on here?”
This is an important question not only for trans people and their allies to answer for Cavuto—but also for parents. With school breaking for summer, giving children ample opportunity to stumble across Caitlyn Jenner’s story on the grocery store tabloid rack, parents might find themselves confronted with questions about transgender people, gender identity, and sexuality before they’re prepared to discuss them.
Here are some guidelines from a trans parent who also had to have this discussion sooner than she intended.
1) Educate yourself
There are many trans 101 resources available with a simple Google search. Before you can educate your child, you have to know what you’re talking about. A half hour of reading in the first page of results should give you a good basic understanding of the concepts.
If they catch you with a question before you’re ready, take this opportunity to show your child the joy of saying, “I don’t know, yet, but I think I’d like to learn.” This will show them that it’s OK to not have all the answers right away. Ask them for a little bit of time and bring it back up with them when you feel a little more comfortable with your answers.
Don’t use it as a method to dodge the question entirely, though—in my experience, children will remember that you forgot.
2) Use age-appropriate concepts and language
Educating children about sexuality and gender can be complicated and difficult—which is likely why we so often argue about it. In a separate Fox News segment about sex ed in the Netherlands, the network’s Steve Doocy called trans people and sex in general gross, but what Doocy fails to grasp is that there is no school in the Netherlands teaching four-year-olds about the nitty-gritty of sexual intercourse.
Instead, they are learning the proper names of body parts and that their body is their own. They are learning the basic tools they need to recognize when they might be violated by someone older than them. As they age and mature, more complex concepts are introduced.
No one knows your child better than you do, so you are better equipped than anyone else to estimate what they are capable of understanding. My daughters’ mother and I have a policy of always answering any question our daughters may ask, even if the answer is “I don’t know.” But that doesn’t mean we give them more than they can understand at any given time.
For example, the movie Hocus Pocus led to an awkward conversation when my then-six-year-old daughter asked me what a “virgin” was (since only a virgin can light the black-flame candle, obviously). Caught off guard, since we had not discussed sex yet, I explained that a virgin is someone who has not had a grown-up love relationship yet. That satisfied her curiosity with age-appropriate information and she continued watching the movie.
If asked about Caitlyn Jenner, or what transgender is, you can try some of these phrases, depending on the child’s age and capacity:
“It’s when someone that everyone thinks is a boy lets everyone know that they’re actually a girl.”
“You know how you know that you’re a boy without anyone having to tell you that you’re a boy? And I know that I’m a woman without anyone telling me. Well, this person also knows that she’s a girl, even though her parents thoughts she was a boy when he was born.”
Gender is largely unconscious for cisgender (e.g., non-transgender) people, while trans people are painfully aware of it early and often in life. Including yourself in this conversation shows that our relationship to gender is bigger than any one person—it’s something everyone can think about.
“Sometimes a person’s body doesn’t match up with who they know they are inside, so they have to take steps to make their outsides match their insides.”
“It’s really hard when the world can’t see you for who you actually are. Gender is complicated and varies a lot from society to society and person to person. Sometimes the assumptions that our culture teaches us about gender are too simple to apply to all people.”
3) Relate it to known concepts or situations
Do you have a family member or family friend who, in being their authentic self, defies social expectations in some other way? Did Aunt Agnes marry Aunt Betty instead marrying a man? Did Uncle Charles and Aunt Dorothy decide that they don’t want to have children? Does Cousin Edward only sing instead of saying hello?
Avoid examples that rely on the same gender stereotypes you’re trying to break down—like Frank playing with dolls or Gloria being good at sports; a boy liking dolls doesn’t make him not a boy if that’s how he sees himself, and a girl liking sports and being athletic doesn’t make her not a girl if that’s how she sees herself.
Use examples of people who reject cultural pressures to show that being a good person has more to do with being true to yourself than with fitting into someone else’s mold. This also has the benefit of making them aware of the wonderful diversity of humanity in a way they may not have consciously examined before.
4) Use the opportunity to show your child that you see them as the authority on themselves
Explain that no one can define someone else as a person. Each person defines him/her/themselves and no one can tell them that they’re wrong. People grow and change as they age, and they may learn and share something about themselves that changes the way you see and interact with them.
This includes a new name and pronouns. New names and pronouns are not optional. It’s not remotely appropriate to call Caitlyn Jenner by her birth-assigned name (often called “deadnaming” by trans people) or with he/him/his pronouns. Deadnaming and misgendering are incredibly painful, demoralizing, and disrespectful.
No matter how good their intentions, though, they’re going to mess up initially (you may, too). The proper thing to do when you realize you’ve made a mistake is simply apologize one time and then try harder to get it right going forward. Teach your child that part of treating someone with respect is using the name and pronouns they give you (even in cases where someone prefers a particular nickname to their full name). You’ll be surprised how easily kids can make the switch.
Acknowledge that birth isn’t destiny. Just because you may have imagined them growing up and becoming an astronaut, they may realize that they really want to be a rock star, or a doctor, or a deep-sea fisher, and they are the only person who can decide who they will be.
This also empowers your child to understand that they hold the power to determine who they are and who they aren’t. Don’t worry, they’ll still rely on you for guidance, but they’ll also learn they can begin to look to themselves for guidance.
5) Leave the conversation open
Make it clear that this is only the first conversation about on subject. Tell them that it is a very interesting topic and that you know you have more to learn. Leave the discussion with the invitation to bring any more thoughts or questions to you and you’ll be glad to discuss it with them.
At the end of the day, while children aren’t “tiny adults,” they are generally more savvy and capable of understanding than we, as parents, tend to give them credit for. As long as you make it clear that you are safe to talk to, they will come to you when they are ready to learn more.
Brin Bixby is the owner and Administrix of bigender.net and infrequently makes rambly videos on YouTube as an advocate for trans rights and awareness, when she isn’t raising her two tween daughters, spoiling her shiba inu, or keeping her day job in IT. She spends most of her time on Tumblr at brinconvenient.tumblr.com while making occasional frightened forays into the wilds of Twitter at @BrinConvenient.