Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.
In a recent thread, Okidemia posed a question that many parents have these days: When and how should I teach my child/ren about trans* folk?
Okidemia framed it this way:
…kids have not been told about transpeople yet, because we don’t know any. Thus an important educationnal question:
at what age would you* speak about it to kids? (certainly, you* should begin before they meet psychologically transgendering acquaintances –as opposed to biologically transitioning which certainly happens later in life.
One of the reasons this question seems so confounding is that, like many confounding questions, it is the wrong question. It’s rather like asking at what age a mathematician should be taught the hexadecimal times tables. There needn’t be one age to learn the specifics of hexual multiplication, but there’s a problem if you aren’t teaching that number systems other than base 10 exist. Sure, your mini-mathematician might not use binary or hex in everyday functioning, but if your budding boffin doesn’t know that the numbering system you two are using has a base, and that that base is 10, you’re failing to teach some fundamental things about the numbers with which Little Lovelace is already working.
Okidemia’s original question is discomfiting because of our own insecurities about any topic related to sex and because we likely had a delayed awareness of trans* folk and experiences that makes it difficult to use our own reception of a topic as a guide to an appropriate age. (I learned about sex reassignment surgery at 30 and boy did I wig out. But times are different …so is 24 too young?)
To navigate our world in a way that respects themselves and others, our children need to understand not some specific trans* experience, but gender itself. If they understand gender, understanding the concepts used to communicate trans* experience should be no trouble at all. Let the question be newly frocked, then, and it is much more comfortable.
The question for which we actually seek an answer is this: How do we teach our children their observations are real and categories are useful without teaching them rigid, unrealistic boundaries that lead to stereotyping and harm. Categorization is an important skill, and you don’t want to fail to praise appropriate categorization in a new language learner (new meaning “at all, the very first time” not “any language that is new to that person”). For most, this will be in the 12-36 month range.
The folks justifying withholding information on trans* folk will insist that (too early in childhood) telling a child that they are wrong about someone’s gender or can’t know a person’s gender without asking will produce a nihilism of categories, a muddied mass of indistinct “gender” with no knowledge gained, merely practical categorization lost.
I should be clear that I don’t know of a case of this ever happening. But responding to that fear doesn’t require any more than what I already advocate: teaching gender instead of teaching trans* experiences.
In the earliest stages, gender lessons are simply about rendering gender visible. Your child might declare, in a fit of recognition:
Boy! [pointing at infant with nothing showing but a blue knit hat, chubby cheeks, a pointy chin, and a grey blanket]
But how do we respond? We have many practicalities to juggle, including a desire not to offend the people around us. Could the best response really be:
Maybe. But maybe it’s a girl wearing a blue hat. Or maybe that child will grow up to reject the gender binary! Wouldn’t that be cool?
Well, yes. It could very well be cool. The child might even smash the patriarchy at that. But at this stage your child still isn’t certain how trustworthy human senses and faculties are, or what features the adults around them consider relevant to categorization. Teaching your child the power of observation and confirming when the child has done a good job intuiting rules of categorization is a plus for your child. There is no need for this to also require validation of fixed categories. Why not:
Oh! Did you notice that baby’s blue hat? That was a good observation! Baby boys are often dressed in blue.
Here the parent isn’t saying the categorization is wrong. Given conventions, it’s probably right and a young enough child should be praised merely for making that connection; but neither is the parent reinforcing the idea that blue hat == boy gender. The parent makes clear that the two are engaged in observing and making conclusions. They are actively taking part in hypothesis (blue hat indicates boy gender), observation (Blue hat!), test (Boy?), revise. “Baby boys are often dressed in blue” is a true enough statement in US culture to be useful in tentative categorization, but unhelpful or false frequently enough even without considering the existence of trans* people that this interaction doesn’t create social stress for the child. Nor would it create stress if a child repeated, outside your presence, your statement or even its converse: “Baby boys don’t always wear blue hats.”
“Blue hat == gender” is a formula for rigidity and can shut down the process of learning about gender, but our exemplar parent hasn’t used it. “What did you notice? I like your observations,” is an invitation to observe more. One is deontological; Here is the rule, child, use it. The other is an acknowledgement that the child is learning about gender. And as there is a ton to learn, encouraging that learning is a good thing!
The lessons of skepticism give us a push to discard facile answers when we know they coincide with biases…unless and until we have specific evidence to give those answers credit. The lessons of science give us the confidence to use our observations by applying tests and tools to verify what we think we know; it gives value to intuition. As a burst of energy, it is all too likely to collapse uselessly. But in the presence of a scientific field of knowledge, that spark may move us to productive work. There is no reason that gender is any less apt an area to teach your children these lessons than, say, meteorology or biology.
Here doth not endeth the lesson, of course. Children get older and their interactions with gender become more sophisticated, requiring not only more and better information, but more and better practices.
Even without specific encouragement toward observation, children will eventually ask a parent about the gender of someone who seems to that child to give off conflicting clues. When a child of ours asks us, “Is that a boy or a girl?” it seems to us to become harder to avoid the topic of trans* identity and experience. Perhaps it is the time to say,
Hmm. That person might be a girl: I notice some earrings, and more girls wear earrings than boys. That person might be a boy: I notice that their hair is cut super short. Maybe that person belongs to a gender we haven’t met yet, a person that is not a girl and not a boy. The only way to know for sure is to ask. Do you want to ask, or do you want me to ask?
Of course, if it’s not appropriate or not possible to ask – you can hardly ask the bike messenger that is already 100 meters down the road – the last part can be left off. However, modeling that adults don’t always know gender and that it’s okay to ask is an important thing to communicate at some point, so make sure you take the opportunities you have. But there’s another, equally important lesson that can be taught here. Perhaps it is the time to say,
I don’t know.
The rules of gender are stunningly incomplete. There is no reason for any parent to feel confident that there is one right time to teach children about trans* identity or experience. But we can encourage the natural inquisitiveness of children, teach children that being ignorant is not bad, but making new observations, learning new things, can be a fun and fulfilling experience. If we raise children willing to learn, willing to observe even those things others learn not to see, teaching children about trans* identity and experience will be no more or less difficult, no more or less rewarding, no more or less horribly fraught than teaching children why some people choose to become accountants.
Which is, of course, to say: it’s a nightmare of complex, explosive emotion for which one can never be fully prepared, but for the sake of Thanksgiving peace we try not to judge.