Do you have a child who is expressing gender-related behaviours that have you scratching your head? I was one of those kids for a period of time.
At about age eight or nine, I wanted my family to call me Sam instead of Alyson. I even campaigned with posters around the house. I was the youngest and the only girl. I had three older brothers and I desperately wanted to get their attention and acceptance.
I remember feeling that I was the outsider as the only girl and the smallest. I wanted to show them I could be a guy like them -- that I could keep up and hold my own.
While my story answers why I chose the behaviours that I did, each child is unique and has different explanations that include the various components that make up this complex thing called gender.
We are not just a simple cookie-cutter of being either a “boy” or a “girl.” Gender must be understood as a composition of three elements:
1. Biological sex (our body parts and hormones),
2. Gender identity (how we feel about our gender on the inside) and
3. Gender expression (how we act and behave and present ourselves to others).
If all three line up, we say the child is cisgender. But if they don’t line up, that’s referred to as being gender-expansive, which includes transgender.
Cisgender and gender-expansive children conform or are non-conforming to culturally defined gender roles. And we haven’t even talked about sexual orientation and who we are attracted to. Like I said: it’s complicated!
So, when your little girl wants to go swimming in boy’s trunks and no top or when your boy wants to wear nail polish, you can’t possibly know for sure what this means about their world. Heck, they don’t even know yet.
Are they experimenting while they learn about their gender identity? Are they modelling a parent oblivious to gender roles? Do they feel a sense of being a gender that differs from their biology? Will they grow up to be transgendered or gay?
YOU HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING RIGHT NOW!!!
Defining our gender is a fluid, non-linear process that has some important developmental milestone years. Children and youth can and do fluctuate with time.
It will take years and years of seeing persistent and consistent behaviours and feelings before you or your child can make any conclusive determination about where they land in their gender exploration.
To ensure your child is fully supported as they discover their gender, here are seven tips:
1. Follow your child’s lead: Allow them to play with whatever toys they want and dress in whatever clothes they want. Allow them to choose their own hairstyle. Call them by the name they prefer.
2. Speak up for them: If others make denigrating or judgemental comments, speak up and voice your concern. Do this whether your child is listening or not. You may not change another person’s opinion, but you can demand your child is always treated with respect.
3. Privacy: Your child’s personal development is of no concern to others, so you don’t need to disclose anything if they want to go to camp or a sleepover, for example. (Of course, if they choose to transition, ensuring their safety requires special considerations.)
4. Language: Use gender neutral pronouns like they instead of he or she. This will show you're onside.
5. Listen: Be sure to keep the lines of communication open.
6. Avoid negativity: Never shame them or make them feel they have disappointed you, or that you think they are somehow defective.
7. Inclusivity: Be sure all doors and opportunities are open to them. Never exclude them from activities as a way to “hide” your child from family or society.
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