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What to Say When Your Young Child Asks About Gender Transition?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Often kids are upset because the idea of a friend changing to another sex makes them feel that they will lose their friend.

So, what can you say when your kindergartner comes home from school and quizzically asks, “How can Johnny become Jenny? My teacher wants me to call him Jenny and I just don’t want to because he is Johnny, not Jenny.”

Many adults disagree on how to handle this. Some advocate teaching young kids that transitioning gender is a normal, healthy and common practice among young children. So they tell their child that they can choose to be either a girl or boy. Then, they will have long discussions with their children about why the transition can be a normal, healthy choice.

Most parents, on the other hand disagree with transitioning children and I am one of them. As a pediatrician, I have come to see that great harm can be done by transitioning kids. So how a parent responds to a child’s question depends upon their beliefs about child gender transition. Either way, I suggest an answer similar to the one below. The reasoning is this: the overwhelming majority of children do not transition and this answer makes sense to them. If, however, a parent feels that their child may want to transition, the answer below will in no way alter the plans. If a desire in a child is strong enough to want to transition, nothing an adult says will change that. It’s similar to a parent asking a depressed teen if she is suicidal. Parents don’t ask because they are afraid they will put ideas in their teen’s head. This isn’t true.

Here is my recommendation. I would say “Honey, there are many things that people do that we don’t understand. You don’t understand this and often I don’t understand people. I have friends who believe different things than I do and that’s OK. We can still be friends. There are doctors who give medicines to kids to turn them into a girl if they’re a boy and vice versa. I don’t agree with this and that’s OK. The important thing is to be kind. If the teacher wants you to call him Jenny and you don’t want to, just don’t address him by name. As you get older, we’ll keep talking about it.

“Also- I want you to know that there will be some classes at school that you won’t be going to. The teacher and I think differently about what is being taught. This doesn’t mean she’s a bad teacher. It just means that when it comes to certain topics, I want to teach them to you instead.”

Whether we are discussing gender transition or another topic, parents will always disagree with other parents on decisions they make for their children. So all parents need to learn how to teach their children their own values and beliefs because this is a parent’s duty. However, parents must learn how to teach children about issues they believe in while being respectful of the other parents and children who feel the opposite.

Kids parrot what their parents say. So the best way to teach a child to be kind and respectful is to talk that way about others with whom they disagree. We all know that if there is one thing we need right now in our culture is tolerance for another person’s views. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with those who believe differently, but it does mean that regardless where we land on things like gender transition, when it comes to speaking to children, we must always help ours be polite and kind.

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