An essential part of parenting is effectively supporting your child’s self-exploration and self-expression. However, it is also vital to set boundaries and provide structure to help them grow into responsible and resilient young adults. These two responsibilities can sometimes seemingly work in opposition to each other, and it can be difficult to differentiate between times of “kids are being kids” and opportunities for boundary-setting. These decisions are particularly important when assessing whether your children are exploring and testing boundaries or are asserting beliefs and thoughts about themselves that may be critical to their identity. The latter should never be dismissed or “ruled against.” These differentiations are particularly important in cases of gender identity and expression.
Understanding the diverse gender identity landscape of 2019.
The year is 2019 and transgender rights are being understood, accepted, and advocated for more than ever before in history. However, the idea of non-binary or non-gender-conforming identities is evidently still difficult for some to understand and/or explain to others. We must remember that non-binary identities are not “new” and have been present and recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
The majority of people in 2019 – including transgender individuals – identify as either male or female. However, it’s important to understand that not everyone neatly fits into the categories of “male” or “female,” or “man” or “woman.” Some people identify as a gender that blends elements together that we traditionally identify as either “masculine” or “feminine.” Some identify as a gender that is entirely separate from either “male” or “female” identities. Some don’t identify with any one gender at all, while others change their gender identity multiple times over their lifetime. The most common term used to describe someone whose gender is not conventionally “male” or “female” is usually non-binary; however other terms such as genderqueer, agender, bigender, two-spirited, demiboy, demigirl and more are also used. Though these terms all hold different meanings, they all describe the experience of those who do not simply identify as female or male.
It’s important to not only acknowledge these differences in gender identity, but to support and advocate for those who identify as nonbinary or another identity on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, including our own children who may be just starting to explore their own gender identities. Here are some ways to do this!
Encourage your child’s identity expression.
As humans, we want to categorize and label everything to make sense of our world. In psychology, we call these categories schemas. However, sometimes the best way to create inclusive spaces for all is to fight against our innate need to label and categorize. This is especially important for young children and adolescents as they are still developing and exploring their identity: we never want them to feel ashamed to explore and experiment with their identity as this is an integral part of their development.
From a young child’s perspective, playing with a certain toy, wearing certain clothes or liking certain activities simply means “I like this.” Young children don’t understand and are unaware of how their choices may be associated with a gender. We need to nurture this in our children for as long as we can – being able to explore and experiment without the worry of how others will label or judge us is incredibly freeing and fosters our own self-concept and identity.
How do you nurture free self-exploration in your child?
- Follow your child’s lead. Encourage them to follow their natural interests. This captures both their attention and engages their imagination which is essential for healthy development. Realize that your child’s interests will likely change often, and as a parent you need to “go with the flow” as our child’s interests and curiosities change.
- Stimulate your child’s critical thinking skills with open-ended questions. To better understand why your child is interested in certain things, ask questions that don’t end in a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions could start with “how do you feel about…”, “what was is like for you when…”, or “tell me about happened when you…”. These types of questions help your child work through and develop their thoughts and ideas, while also giving you a clearer sense about why they are passionate about or drawn to certain things. This can be helpful in understanding your child at a deeper level.
- Redirect interests, don’t discourage. If your child is exploring or experimenting with something that you believe is dangerous or harmful, redirect them to an alternative option that is safer and that may still grasp their interest rather than directly telling them “no.”
Advocate and support your child in their gender identity choices.
When families reject LGBTQIA+ youth due to their gender expression, these young people are often lead to engage in risky behaviours. Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety often arise, and rates of homelessness and suicide can also increase. To prevent this, we need to give our children all the love, acceptance and space for them to articulate their identities and what they want out of life. This will allow them to build their confidence, self-esteem and resilience as they grow and learn from their experiences.
Here are some ways to support your child’s gender-identities, no matter what they are.
- Love and respect your child for exactly who they are. Do not try to change them or attribute their feelings to “a phase.” You want your child to know that you support them no matter what. Through your unconditional acceptance, your child will also feel your respect for who they are and the choices they make.
- Educate yourself. If you are unclear about what the LGBTQIA+ community represents, how to use pronouns correctly and respectfully, or would like more general information about gender-diverse individuals and their experiences, take the time to learn! Knowledge is power, and your child will notice when you prioritize taking the time to learn more about a community that they may identify with.
- Stand up and advocate for your child when they are mistreated. Do not ignore your child’s negative social pressures or bullying, no matter how subtle. It’s important that your child has both a support network to lean on during difficult times as well as someone to stand up and advocate for them when they need it.
- Never tolerate slurs, jokes about gender identity or sexual orientation in or outside the home. Make sure you express your disapproval of these discriminatory remarks when you encounter them in-person or through the media.
- Connect your child to LGBTQIA+ organizations, resources and events. It’s essential that your child know they are not alone and that many others are going through similar experiences. Help them make connections with positive figures and LGBTQIA+ role models and to create a supportive community.
- Celebrate all forms of diversity. Have resources such as books, movies and other materials around your house that support diversity and demonstrate your acceptance and advocacy for gender-diverse individuals. Point out to your child LGBTQ celebrities and role models who support the LGBTQIA+ community, or even just people you observe who demonstrate courage and resilience when facing social stigma in our society.