Children have a/gender identities, just as surely as they have natal sexes.
Some kids, like Jazz Jennings, are transgender and have know it since they were toddlers. Some kids, like Madison the Book Lover, seem to have a fairly “mainstream” gender identity and expression.
Some others, like the kids at Camp Aranu’tiq are more in-between.
Just like adults, kids can be transgender or non-binary. Non-binary kids are kids who feel that they are “both [male and female], neither, or some mixture thereof.”
As a former non-binary kid myself, I have some thoughts about how best to parent non-binary kids. My parents were very loving, but they didn’t have access to this kind of information, and I suffered for it.
Years of feeling like I was performing “girl” wrong was pretty rough. It was like banging my head into a wall, trying to figure out how all the other little girls so effortlessly figured out how to—well—act like girls!
It wasn’t just my utter discomfort with being referred to as “young lady” – or my inability to figure out how to deal with my unruly hair – it was that I felt like I was playing a role I hadn’t chosen, let alone rehearsed for!
As a non-binary child being raised female, I was sad and confused when I was expected to like certain feminine things. I felt that I was disappointing my parents and relatives constantly.
I developed a sense of style that could best be described as “anti-girl,” and it didn’t look good.
It took until college for me to select clothes that I felt good about and that looked good on me because I was so brainwashed into thinking somehow, someday, I’d look good in girl clothes if I tried hard enough.
And this is part of why all children benefit from a gender-neutral (note: this is different from “gender-free”) environment to explore their own genders.
And it’s especially important to make sure that your non-binary child has the support they need to decide for themselves what their gender identity is.
When children are given the space to explore their own gender – and the ways they want to express it – they learn how to make choices that make them feel good.
Discovering the joy of self-expression is an integral part of childhood, and gender-neutral parenting allows children who discover that they love carrying sparkly handbags to karate class to be themselves without the fear of shame from their family.
So here are six things you can do to make your non-binary child’s life easier:
1. Give Your Child Space to Be Themselves
When your little bundle of joy arrives, what’s the first thing your friends and family do?
They give gendered gifts. They make gendered jokes. They begin, consciously or not, to develop a gendered picture of what the baby will be like.
This can be overt (i.e.: “My daughter will be a beautiful ballerina and dress only in pink”) or more subtle (i.e.: “My son will love computers”).
This behavior continues for the rest of a human being’s life, and if you don’t fit into the “girl” or “boy” narrative, it can feel confusing and isolating.
I didn’t align very well with my assigned gender when I was a child. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like girl things – plenty of girls like a variety of things – but rather, that I felt alienated by the whole kit and caboodle. I felt like I sucked at being a girl – and that it was my fault.
But the truth is: Kids like lots of different things. Instead of insisting on gendered items, keep things as neutral as possible. Let your kid drive their own ship by letting them discover what it really is that they like to do, play with, and look like.
Even when doing this, you can still honor your child’s wishes to play with or wear gendered toys and clothing when it comes from them.
Gender-neutral toys are a great place to start, but if your child asks for something you would not expect from a child of their perceived gender, like a Barbie or a bow tie, honor their request the way you would any other child.
Of course, you don’t have to give non-binary children special treatment: My future children, for example, will be receiving zero gun toys, no matter what a/genders they are.
But remember to be flexible and to pay attention to your child’s preferences when dressing them or buying them things, even if their preferences are surprising or unusual to you.
2. Teach Your Child How to Question Gender Expectations
Make it clear that your household is a place for free expression and thinking about why we make the choices we make.
A critical-thinking child will be much more equipped to figure out what they really want.
This is good parenting advice in general, but it’s especially helpful for LGBTQIA+ children. Queer and trans kids are going to spend a significant amount of time at some point in their lives trying to figure out who they are and wrestling with the societal norms they experience.
You can make it simpler and easier if you help them learn that they can question the status quo and think about what really works best for them.
Something as simple as teaching them to ask questions when confronted with a stereotype (i.e.: “Diego said girls can’t play football.” “Why do you think he said that?”) can help them learn that they don’t have to accept everything at face value.
3. Be Honest About the Reactions Their Choices Will Likely Engender
In friends, family members, and classmates, for example.
People are very attached to gender stereotypes. In some ways, I think it can be easier to accept a child – trans or cis – whose tastes align closely with the gender norms we expect (like a trans girl who likes princesses and nail polish) than it can be to be a non-binary kid who doesn’t come with a societally approved set of likes and dislikes.
It depends on the community of course, and the various identities of the child, but we do tend to be more comfortable with people who fit into pre-formed categories, even if we have to do some mental gymnastics to make them fit.
Some people are made very uncomfortable by non-binary children, but even well-meaning adults can make non-binary kids feel excluded. We just have so many ingrained ideas of what a little boy or little girl “is” or how they “should” act that we can end up forcing our expectations onto kids – with damaging results.
In fact, we often get angry or frustrated when people transgress gender norms, and this can be particularly dangerous if we’re in a position of authority over a child. Children want to please, and being rejected or shamed by a respected adult can be excruciating.
We can’t control the behavior of the people our children will meet, but we can offer them our unwavering support and let them choose how to interact with the public with all the information.
It’s a hard balance to strike, encouraging your child to be true to themselves while also trying to protect them from a cruel and rigid world.
One amazing thing you can do for your child is to tell them that while you and the child’s loved ones support them in being their true selves, not everyone has an open mind.
Help them decide how to pick their battles. Reinforce that you will support them no matter what they do.
4. Let Your Child Participate in Decisions About What They Will Wear
Take them shopping! Allow them to dress themselves!
Compromise when possible on outfits to formal events, church, picture day, and so on.
Again, this is good parenting advice in general, but clothes are so essential to our gender presentations that this can be a huge issue for non-binary kids.
I’ll never forget how upset my little brother was when a family member punished him for shaving his legs. He didn’t end up being non-binary identified, but he had made a choice about his body that went against the cultured grain, and he was shamed for it.
This happens to non-binary children constantly.
As a parent, be a safe person who supports their exploration. They’ll get enough negativity from the rest of the world. Don’t be their first bully.
But also: Don’t be surprised if your child changes their mind or seems to want different things at different times.
For example, I happened to be a very traditional feminine preschooler. I was all about cute dresses – the fluffier, the better. My style evolved as I got older, though, and by the time I was a middle-schooler, I knew skirts weren’t my thing. I still felt overwhelming pressure to wear them, though, and so I did, with mildly horrifying results.
Some kids’ tastes just change, and some kids will present themselves differently from day to day based on how vulnerable they’re feeling to the pressure to be “normal.”
The important thing, no matter why your non-binary child is making the choices they are making, is to be a steady, constant source of support, and to help them make truly informed, empowered decisions about their presentation.
5. Expose Your Child to Media About Non-Binary People
We need to see ourselves in our culture.
We need to see ourselves as adults, as heroes, as members of the community.
When I was a child, I knew I liked girls, but I thought lesbians were gross because I only knew of two in real life, and they were both over fifty and not conventionally attractive.
I had never seen a lesbian on television. We didn’t read books with queer or trans people in them at school. An avid reader, I was not once given a book with a queer or trans character.
I was ashamed to buy books about queer characters once I was old enough to buy my own reading material. I’d slink up to the register and shame-facedly pay, then hide the book between others in my bag so my mother wouldn’t see what I’d bought. I was ashamed to be interested in queer and trans stories.
We already know that media representation is important, and it’s even more so for non-binary kids, who may not have a single example of a non-binary person in their community.
We don’t always think about the necessity of role models in our own lives because most likely, we have always been surrounded by them.
If you were a cisgender girl with a tough broad for a mom – or a kind aunt, or a badass teacher or deacon – you had at least one model of what your adulthood might look like. You likely had many. Trans kids often don’t have a single example of a grown-up who is anything like them.
This list is a good place to start looking for representation of trans and gender non-conforming media representation.
6. Be Your Child’s Advocate
Educate your relatives, friends, parents of other children, and school officials.
Children cannot always advocate for themselves. They may be too young to be able to explain what they want and need. They may not understand adult prejudice. They will certainly not be taken seriously if they ask for something “beyond the pale.”
You are your child’s greatest ally in their journey to be themselves.
You have the language to explain why they need to use the “wrong” restroom. You have the authority to insist that laws designed to protect them are enforced. You will be better able to intercede with other adult family members and friends when they express ignorance or hostility toward your child’s choices.
Take that power and use it for good.
Non-binary children are not monoliths.
Depending on their assigned sex at birth and their gender, a non-binary child will face different challenges.
Feminine children assigned male at birth will be shamed for femininity, teased, and sometimes even subjected to horrifying brutality in an effort to “toughen them up.”
Children assigned female at birth who express masculine characteristics are sometimes tolerated, as long as they are the right age, the right race, the right kind of “boyish.”
Often, though, if they step outside the boundaries of acceptable “female” behavior – like being gender-non conforming and also having a non-straight sexual orientation, or continuing to exhibit “tomboy” characteristics as a teenager – the tolerance is abruptly discontinued.
Non-binary children who have an identity that is neither strictly masculine nor strictly feminine are, at best, seen as “confused” rather than exploring or understanding.
The real solution to ending violence and discrimination against trans and non-binary people is to quit assuming a newborn’s genitals are going to be the most accurate predictor of that person’s social role for the rest of their life.
But until then, go forth and support your children who are brave enough to defy a system that wants them to deny their true selves.
Wiley Reading is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Wiley is a New Jersey-born artist, writer, environmentalist, and social justice advocate located in Burlington, VT. He works as a community health worker for the Greater Burlington YMCA, and writes for Disrupting Dinner Parties, a small collective feminist blog. Follow him on Twitter @wreadinggo.
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