Practical Guidance for Teachers: Supporting the Families of Gender Nonconforming Children
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In “Focus on Ethics: Gender Expression and Identity,” Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and I explore the case of a 4-year-old child assigned male at birth who asks to be called Michelle and to be referred to as a girl, and her teacher’s ethical responsibility to support Michelle despite her family’s request that she not be allowed to play with “girl stuff.” While that article offers ethical guidance, many teachers may be interested in practical guidance on engaging with families who are concerned about their child’s gender expression. As a queer educator and the creator of a training series on gender and sexuality in early childhood education, I will lay out some frameworks for those conversations here.
It is critical to say up front that families will have very different feelings given their other experiences, identities, communities, and histories of access or marginalization. For families who have experienced racism or other forms of interpersonal and institutional violence, fears for their child’s safety may be at the forefront. For families who are part of conservative religious communities, social acceptance may be of greatest concern. Recognizing the complexity of interactions between educators and families, this article provides a set of strategies for opening up conversations and offering support when children’s gender identity or expression do not conform to their families’ expectations.
As a teacher supporting a young child exploring their gender, you may wince at a family’s resistance, feel torn between the child’s needs and the family’s requests, or be unsure or anxious. Given these active feelings—both yours and the family’s—it may be tempting to assume you already know what the family is thinking. It is worth, however, staying open-minded and having an exploratory conversation.
Having worked with many families, I’ve found that it’s impossible to predict what feelings (or fears) are driving a family’s response. They may be concerned about social ostracism or bullying, uncertain what response is in the best interest of their child, or fearful of grandparents’ reactions. Given the depth of what we do not know in these situations, it’s important to carve out time to talk with the adults who care for and love the child. While there may be an emotional moment that sparks this conversation—like Michelle’s parent expressing alarm about her wearing a dress in the play corner—try to find a time to talk when everyone can come to the discussion level-headed. Below are some questions you can use to open this conversation.
Questions you might ask family members:
- What do you like about your child? What excites you about your child? When do you see your child experiencing joy?
- It sounds like you are concerned abouthow your child is thinking about under. What worries you?
- What are your hopes for your child—this year, next year, as an adult?
- What are your hopes for your relationship with your child?
- What are some ways to address your concerns? What support do you need? What support may your child need? Who else could be brought into this conversation?
These are simply opening questions. Make sure you are reflecting back the family members’ feelings and concerns and asking follow-up questions. For example, if a family member responds to the second question by saying “It’s just not normal,” be prepared to dig a little. You could ask, “What’s your concern about your child not being ‘normal’? What worries you about that?” If the family member says that they hope their child will be a “good man,” find out more: is this desire about maintaining the family’s connection to their community, wanting the child to have a family of their own, or something else?
The goal of this series of questions is to elicit family members’ concerns and then help them assess the kind of help they need to be the best possible support for their child. (Usually the adults need much more support than their child does!) By asking the family to think through what they hope for their child, you orient them away from fear and toward a more expansive and caring vision for their child.
Engage hopes and fears
You will want to engage specifically with the hopes and fears raised by family members. The following are the most common questions I hear while working with families, and the responses I offer.
1. Will my child be ostracized by our family or community?
We don’t know. There may be family or community members who struggle to accept your child’s gender identity or expression, but there will be many people who support them, and you can play a powerful role in building a supportive community for your child.
2. Will my child struggle or experience violence because of their gender identity or expression?
Homophobia and transphobia are real and can lead to bias or violence. They can also intersect with other forms of bias, including racism and misogyny. However, many queer and trans people not only survive but thrive, building loving communities and families. As a family member or caregiver, you have a critical role to play in helping your child build these early networks and develop the resilience that comes from a deep well of support and familial love.
3. Will my child be able to have a family of their own?
Yes. Your child—regardless of gender or sexuality—can have a family, including a partner and children. Of course, we cannot predetermine our children’s futures, and they may or may not fulfill the specific visions we have for them. (Whether queer, trans, straight, or cis, your child may or may not wear a white wedding dress!)
4. Will my child be happy?
We all have complex lives and emotional experiences, and your child will move through some hardships as part of life. But being queer or trans will not preclude your child from happiness, and may also open up new communities that are joyful and sustaining.
5. Is my child violating our religious convictions?
Many spiritual and religious traditions have a celebrated role for trans or two-spirit people. However, families whose religious traditions have specific prescriptions for “men” and “women” may struggle with any diverging ideas about gender. As an educator, this is a hard place to provide specific counsel, but you can speak to the value of love (if you feel comfortable) and encourage consultation with others. Ask the family member who in their religious community may be able to support them in celebrating their child.
6. Did I do something wrong as a parent or caregiver?
No. Identity is complex and multifaceted. Think of all the ways that your child has opinions, tendencies, and personality traits that are very much their own. We can support our children, but we also need to let go of a sense that they are a reflection of us. When a child is gender nonconforming or trans, it is often a family member who considered themselves of the same gender as the child (i.e., the father of a trans girl) who struggles the most, in part because the child’s gender identity or expression can feel like a rejection of that family member.
7. Is my child sick?
No. There is nothing wrong with your child exploring gender, identifying with a gender different from the one assigned at birth, or “doing” their gender differently than their families expect. The binary concept of gender—the idea that there are only two genders—is a social construct that is not based in science and is not accepted by all cultures. Instead of pathologizing your child’s identity, it can be helpful to ask, “How is my child doing?” Are they happy? Playful? Curious? If so, how can we continue to support their positive development (even if their gender feels new to us)? If not, what can we do to support them? If your child is being teased, let’s figure out how to address that. If your child wants to be referred to by a different name or gender pronoun, consider how to best support their emerging identity.
Provide child development context
At 3 years old, children are developing a sense of their own gender. However, we do not know the endpoint of their identities, and must recognize that all of us will experience and engage with our gender differently over the course of our lives. This acknowledgement should not lead us to discount children’s self-identification—we should be respectful of it and take them seriously—but we should not expect that their identity is immutable. For all of us, gender identity and expression are lifelong endeavors.
Pretend play is key to children’s social, cognitive, linguistic, and emotional development. Through pretend play, children learn about themselves and others, develop problem solving and other cognitive strategies, engage creativity, and heighten social and emotional development. When one or more parents of children in a particular classroom are pregnant, for example, we may see an increase in “pregnancy play” as children—regardless of gender—explore what it means to be pregnant. We should encourage these explorations, but we should also notice when a child more persistently claims a particular identity.
Ultimately, while we can control whether we react to children with love or shame, we cannot dictate children’s identities. We can support children to develop an expansive sense of themselves, provide language to give voice to different experiences, and support them through play and conversation.
Use resources and engage support
As an educator, you can provide resources that speak to the family’s underlying fears, as well as books and media with a range of gender representations. You can help families think through how to engage with these texts to support their child. Additionally, you can discuss with families how the school can support them and their child, which may include inclusive picture books, discussions of family structures, and more. (For more resources, see “Resources for Teachers and Families”
on on page 88.)
Here are a few books I often recommend for adults (items 1–3) and for children (items 4–6).
- The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation, by Jodie Patterson (2019)
- Raising the Transgender Child: A Complete Guide for Parents, Families and Caregivers, by Michele Angello and Ali Bowman (2016)
- The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes, by Diane Ehrensaft (2016)
- Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, by Brook Pessin-Whedbee, illus. by Naomi Bardoff (2016)
- When Aiden Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff, illus. by Kaylani Juanita (2019)
- They She He Me: Free to Be!, by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez (2017)
Be generous with yourself
You may be compassionate and supportive, and a family may still be angry or transfer their child to a different school. The stronger your pre-existing relationships with parents, families, and the larger school community, the easier this work will be. Continue to build connections, provide supportive space for children, and acknowledge the larger social, cultural, and political structures that make raising children—particularly those with marginalized identities—a challenge.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Katie Schaffer, BA, is a white, cis, queer woman dedicated to collectively envisioning and implementing liberatory educational practices. For the past six years, Katie has worked at the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. Finding a dearth of teacher education courses or professional development opportunities on gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ families in early childhood settings, Katie has created a training series and built out a facilitation team that has provided support to preschools and child care centers across New York City.