Raising Respectful Kiddos

My Kid Came Out As Nonbinary, Then Trans — & I Had No Idea How To Tell My Young Nieces

It would have been easier if we’d known a script to use for the initial discussion, so I asked experts about how to handle the gender fluidity convo with kids.

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From the Start

When my firstborn entered the world 21 years ago we didn’t know anyone who used they/them pronouns or considered themselves “gender fluid.” The No. 1 question I got as I strolled that kid around was “boy or girl?” and I gamely dressed my baby in rose-covered dresses to try and make the answer more obvious. People still asked. Granted, my baby was bald as an egg. Or maybe they sensed something I did not?

Now it’s 2023, and like many other kids, my eldest has cycled through all the pronouns. They started figuring out their preferences late in the game, as they ended high school and entered college. I dreaded explaining the switches to grandparents, but they rolled with it (or at least talked about it out of earshot). The trickier conversation for me, it turned out, was getting my nieces on board. They were only 5 and 8 when their cousin adopted they/them pronouns and identified as nonbinary, and then 6 and 9 when the relative they had called "Gracie Girl" changed their name to Henry and they/them/he/him pronouns.

So, I punted. Even though I'm the parent of a queer kid, I asked my brother to explain things to his daughters. He's great with kids: Ethan is a middle-school teacher and an attentive uncle who was already using the gender-neutral word for niece or nephew, which is the adorable "nibling." I trusted him to do well but never followed up. By the time we all vacationed together last winter, the nieces treated Henry as their usual beloved cousin but, I noticed, avoided saying any name to address him. (Ethan says that, at home, they use the name Henry with confidence.)

This summer, my nieces are newly 10 and 7. I feel them watching us closely. I refer to Henry and say what he's doing, and they nod along. Possibly confusing — or reassuring? — to them: Henry acts just as he always has, so it's not like their old cousin disappeared and a new one very obviously stepped in.

As my family adapts, I've learned that a few of my colleagues are encountering all of this much earlier than we did.

Gender fluidity is a conversation many parents are having with their kids surprisingly early.

One coworker was given a head's up that a 4-year-old child at summer camp would be using they/them pronouns. The mom was left to either explain it to her son or let him figure it out by following the lead of the camp counselors.

"I'd let the other kid introduce themselves. Then later, if my kid had any questions, I would deal with the questions," says Amy Mezulis, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle, cofounder of Joon Care for teen and young adult mental health, and a mom of two. "The data has been really clear on this: Kids don't have big issues with pronouns and gender identity. They're flexible in their thinking. It's us adults who are having a harder time."

Even so, I went in search of some possible scripts that a parent could use to explain they/them or other pronoun preferences to a kindergarten-age child. Stephanie Nova Fields, Ph.D., a licensed child psychologist in Pennsylvania who is a parent coach, says, "In talking to children about anything, it's helpful to set the stage and then go into specifics. Something like, 'We are all born with our own feelings about all sorts of things, such as what we like to play with and what clothes feel comfortable to us. People are also born with different feelings about how much they feel like being a girl or a boy.’"

From there, she suggests: "Many people who have girl private parts feel like a girl inside, and many who have boy private parts feel like a boy inside. But there are kids with girl private parts who feel more like a boy, and kids with boy private parts who feel more like a girl. And there are not just two ways to feel; some kids feel like they have lots of boy and girl inside, and some feel like they don't have much of either. All those kids might prefer to choose a pronoun (like 'she,' 'he' or 'they') so it better matches how they feel." You want to get across that it doesn't matter as much how other people look, Fields says, it’s about how they feel.

Fields suggests driving a pronoun talk home with why it is important. "Using 'they' or their other preferred pronouns tends to make people feel better. It helps them feel that other people understand who they are. It's kind and respectful when other people call them by the pronoun they have picked out for themselves."

My brother describes trying to explain their cousin's pronoun and name transitions to his daughters.

Ethan had two separate discussions with my nieces, the first when my eldest switched to they/them pronouns and the second when Grace became Henry. "The pronoun talk was actually more confusing to the girls because it's a subtle difference," Ethan says. "The 'they' option is nebulous and didn't feel consistent with the name 'Grace.'"

I get that. It makes me wish I had followed up by praising them for working on it, as Fields says it really is tied to showing someone respect. Just as we tell kids they're so polite for saying "thank you," we should praise them for working to adapt to friends' and relatives' chosen pronouns.

"The name change and accompanying gender and pronoun change seemed more clear," Ethan says. But wait: "Although both girls were receptive, open, and supportive, there were a few tears from the 9-year-old," Ethan says. "That change represented the loss of something." (Namely, their Gracie Girl.) "But after, they embraced it. In retrospect, maybe I should have anticipated that all change is a combination of loss and gain, and both have to be dealt with." So well put.

Mezulis agrees that it's vital to validate the complicated feelings that might come when a family member or close friend changes their gender identity. "It's a loss to the people around them because they lose what they thought they had understood,” she says. “It's a little bit like having to relearn who that person is now. And so I think a little bit of sadness is a very valid reaction for a kid to have."

I needed more expert advice on how we can help kids look beyond the binary "boy" and "girl" that our society has long used.

This all would have been easier for my nieces if our world were not so divided into boy-and-girl camps from gender revels onward. Mezulis agrees, noting some other languages don't use gendered pronouns (including my great-grandparents' native Finnish). "Kids only learn how to use she/he and boy/girl by watching their parents. And so if parents start modeling different relationships between pronouns, kids will pick that up really fast. They probably need to be told much less than we think. Mostly they're going to observe how adults talk to the individuals around them, and that's how they're going to learn how to talk to people."

Mezulis reassures that kids will prompt you when they have questions. "You'll know when you need to explain something to a young child because they'll ask you. Kids are inquisitive. If there's something they're not understanding, they'll ask, like, 'Hey, why does that kid have short hair, but their name is Veronica?' Then you say, 'Well, that's just who they are. Their hair is short, and their name is Veronica.'"

If you think further explanation is necessary, Fields says you can consider asking your child, "How much do you feel like a boy inside, and how much do you feel like a girl inside?" Research has told us that we all have a continuum of feelings of masculinity and femininity. Listening with curiosity and interest will signal to your child that this is a topic you are comfortable discussing. "Also, parents concerned about affecting their child's gender identity should know that asking a question never changes how kids feel about themselves," Fields says.

Mezulis also offers this script: "You might know how you feel. But another kid might have been told when they were little that they were one thing, and they're not sure they feel that way. When asked, they might say, 'Actually, I think I'm a boy.' And that's OK."