Dear Cici, 

We have a neighbor who dresses like a “tomboy”. The other day my daughter asked if the neighbor is “trans” and then asked me what “trans” means. I was surprised she even knew the word and I’m unsure how to talk with her about it…Help!

Signed, Questioning in Wailuku

Wow, this is a complicated question with an even more complicated answer.

Conversations about and depictions of the LGBTQ+ community have become more common in the media and social discourse. Kids are exposed to increasingly complex definitions of gender and identity than previous generations and it can be hard to keep up with all the information and representations that exist within the rainbow alphabet.  

As with anything, let your child’s questions guide the conversation. The information you provide will depend on their age. A younger child’s curiosity is often satisfied with a small amount of information. Whereas older kids may want more detailed or specific answers. Remember, this will not be a one-time discussion, it will be an ongoing conversation.   

Regarding her question, begin by talking with your child about the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation. If you’re unsure, do a bit of research ahead of time to make  yourself familiar with the terms and the differences between them. 

Explore with your child ideas about gender and stereotypes. Traditionally, gender has been thought of as “binary” (boy/girl) but that is changing with a wider recognition of “non-binary” individuals (those whose gender is somewhere outside male/female) including those who identify as “transgender”.  Ask your child their opinion about what makes a girl a girl or a boy a boy and why? Look for examples within your family, community or in the media that challenge these stereotypes.

Explain that it’s natural to try to categorize people/things/situations; that’s our brains’ way of sorting things and making sense of the world. In the case of gender identity however, you cannot make assumptions based on appearance. Sometimes it can be confusing to know how to refer to someone and many of us fear getting it wrong. If you’re not sure, ask them. If you mess up, offer a brief apology and remember for next time. 

Don’t underestimate your influence as your child’s primary role model. If you make jokes or use terms that are disrespectful or offensive, they probably will too.

If you model openness and inclusion when you talk about issues of gender and sexuality, your child is more likely to be comfortable with and inclusive of the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community. Also, if you show your child that you can address these issues in a thoughtful and compassionate way, you’re letting them know that it’s safe to talk to you about sensitive topics in the future.

Good Luck!