National Geographic : 2017 Jan
Gender identity: Once young children learn to talk, most will declare a gender identity, boy or girl, that aligns with their biological sex. However, as some children grow, identity is not so clear-cut. Around two years old, children become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls. By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity. During this same time of life, children learn gender-role behavior—that is, doing stereotypical “things that boys do” or “things that girls do” when they choose toys, clothes, activities, friends. What parents can do: All children need the opportu- nity to explore different gender roles and styles of play. Ensure your young child’s environment reflects diver- sity in gender roles and opportunities for everyone. When children’s interests and abilities are different from what society expects, they’re often subjected to discrimination and bullying. It is natural for parents to want their children to be accepted socially. But if chil- dren’s strengths don’t always conform to society’s or your own expectations, it’s important to help them ful- fill their own unique potential rather than force them into the mold of current or traditional gender behavior. For some young children, identifying as another gender may be temporary; for others it isn’t. Some chil- dren who are gender nonconforming in early childhood grow up to become transgender adults (persistently identifying with a gender different from their assigned sex at birth), and others don’t. The causes for this are likely both biological and social; there is no evidence of a link to parenting or experiencing childhood trauma. There is no way to predict how children will iden- tify later in life. This uncertainty is one of the hardest things about parenting a gender-nonconforming child. It is important for parents to make their home a place where their child feels safe, loved unconditionally, and accepted for who they are. Research suggests that gen- der is something we are born with; it can’t be changed by any interventions. Sexual orientation: While gender identity typical- ly becomes clear in early childhood, sexual orienta- tion—which refers to the person one falls in love with or is attracted to—becomes evident later. Research suggests that like gender identity, sexual orientation cannot be changed. Parent and child alike experience anxieties as an adolescent enters and moves through puberty. Many HELPING FAMILIES TALK ABOUT GENDER When addressing gender and sexuality matters, where should families begin? This guidance is drawn from HealthyChildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ parenting website. | EXPLORE | THE GENDER ISSUE ILLUSTRATION: FELIX SOCKWELL parents feel that by talking to their children about sex, they are sanctioning it, but the opposite is true: Adolescents who are the best informed about sexuality are the most likely to postpone sex. When talking about sexuality, parents should not shy away from discussing their values. They should openly explain their beliefs and their reasons for them to their child. Many gender-nonconforming children grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; all are at risk for bul- lying and mental health problems. Gender and sexuality concerns spur a large share of teen suicide attempts. What parents can do: Your most important role as a parent is to offer understanding, respect, and support to your child. A nonjudgmental approach will gain your child’s trust and put you in a better position to help your child through difficult times. When your child discloses an identity to you, re- spond in an affirming, supportive way. Understand that gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be changed, but the way people identify their gender identity or sexual orientation may change over time as they discover more about themselves. Be on the lookout for signs of anxiety, insecurity, depression, and low self-esteem. Stand up for your child when your child is mistreated. Do not minimize the social pressure or bullying your child may be fac- ing. Make it clear that slurs or jokes based on gender identity or sexual orientation are not tolerated. Having a gender-nonconforming child can be stress- ful for parents and caregivers as they deal with uncer- tainty and navigate schools, extended families, sibling relationships, and the world around them. Among the organizations that support parents and families with gender-nonconforming children are: the Family Accep- tance Project, familyproject.sfsu.edu; Gender Spectrum, genderspectrum.org; and PFLAG, pflag.org.