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Children and Gender Expression: Parents, You’re Making This Awkward

We’re out and about when my kid gets wide-eyed and then hollers, “LOOK!” Living in New York City with two young children, this sort of situation arises pretty often. Let’s be honest, taking children out in public anywhere is opening the door to awkward interactions with strangers. As often as we are proud of our kids, they also embarrass us on the regular.

So when a BuzzFeed contributor (whom I reckon does not have children) penned an open letter with words of advice on how to approach this all-too-typical behavior as it applies to gender-nonconformity, I admit I was prepared for them to be shaming my kids for gawking and me for being a slacker on teaching manners. Color me surprised to find they were instead calling out all parents for shaming our kids when addressing the behavior.

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The real twist? I agree 100%.

There could be any number of reasons why a child would notice someone who looks different: tattoos and piercings; prosthetic limbs or other medical aids; a person of an unexpected size; and, of course, any clothing, makeup, and hair styling that falls outside a child’s experience. Any of which can not only draw attention, but also blunt commentary.

It starts with admitting that, while it may have seemed that the interaction was only about teaching your children not to talk about strangers, there was something much more fundamental at stake…

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As it happens, Jacob Tobia, the author of the piece, is a gender-nonconforming person and self-described “advocate, writer, and speaker committed to justice for gender non-conforming, genderqueer, and transgender people.”

While used to getting attention in public, be it wanted or unwanted, affirming or decidedly not, the author notes, “One type of attention stands out above the rest: the attention of confused children.” Usually, this leads to an awkward exchange of glances with a parent, followed by the same parental unit squashing the child’s natural curiosity by uncomfortably admonishing the kid not to talk about other people (in public). 

From Tobia’s perspective, parents are too embarrassed by the child’s outburst to deal with the bigger issues of diversity. Moreover, they are too concerned with making sure their kids are not being rude. The result is they immediately reframe the situation as a lesson in polite behavior.

You took a moment when your child could’ve learned an important lesson about how to respect the broad diversity of gender expression, and reduced it to a tangential and less important lesson about manners in public. 

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Predictably, comments to Tobia’s original piece run the spectrum from “Thank you for this helpful info” to “How dare you to tell me how to raise my child!” Keyboard warriors from all walks of life are nitpicking everything in the piece, from the fashion choices the author displays in a handful of selfies to the font choices in the post. It’s almost as though they are intentionally missing the point.

In contrast, I found myself cheering as I read this letter. I’ve reacted similarly when reading such open letters from a woman in a wheelchair, or the mom of a child with special needs. Time and again we are invited to be open to learning more by asking questions and addressing the differences with an open mind. This time the conversation is about gender expression; next time it is maybe about race or religion.

We both live in New York City, but I don’t know Jacob Tobia. What I do know is humans learn by observing the world around us, particularly little humans. This letter and the comments it is generating highlight an interesting and important point about how adults are in a position to shape a child’s perspective. Regardless of what a child is questioning, that is the job of being a child. This is how they develop their own understanding of how the world works.

By demonstrating your own discomfort with the situation, you made your kids uncomfortable too — inadvertently furthering the culture of stigma and discomfort that surrounds gender-nonconforming people.

It is so simple a child could probably explain how this works.

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A lack of understanding leads to discomfort. Feeling uncomfortable with someone who is different leads to misunderstanding. Nothing changes if no one is learning anything new.

As Tobia notes, “Children can smell parental discomfort from a million miles away. If you show your children that you’re uncomfortable… then your children will learn to mirror that behavior. And that’s not okay. Just be cool, alright? Is that really so much to ask?”

The world is full of diversity, which can be awkward to discuss at times, sure. I tell my children to remember different does not mean wrong or bad. I take a deep breath and go from there.

As my children are 7 and 6, telling them to “be cool” doesn’t really work in these moments. Instead, I remind my kids not to point (at anyone) and not to be judgmental (of anyone). Beyond that, observation, vivid description, and conversation are perfectly ok.

Actually, that’s my rule for everyone. Be kind and be respectful. The Golden Rule. Following it is really not too much to ask.