How much should we be telling our kids about gender and sexuality?
“I’m concerned,” my friend Jeremy says, “That femme behaviour in young boys will be taken as a matter of sexuality or gender, rather than simply understanding that some boys like dolls and pink frocks.” I don’t disagree. But obviously we shouldn’t bring our children up oblivious to adult relationships and encounters.
How much should we be telling our children about homosexuality, heterosexuality or gender identity?
I, for one, am very much in favour of sex positivity. I want to blow out the cobwebs of Victorian prudishness and openly discuss STIs, consent, pleasure and partners. But I also recognise just how much a negative exposure to sex and identity can have on a person. One line from Mum about ‘a woman’s curse’ or an abusive boyfriend in Year 9 can really set you on a rollercoaster of trauma, internalisation and bad sex. Throw in puberty and you’ve got one dodgy mental obstacle course to a normal sex life.
Can I tell my kid about homosexuality and heterosexuality?
There’s nothing wrong with your child (adult or teeny) being gay, lesbian, bisexual or obsessed with collecting shells. Obviously. You’d have to be a rabid fascist in this day and age to deny that sexuality is simply something that is part of everyone, like the size of their nose or whether they like chocolate. Largely inconsequential and normal. But I still wouldn’t advise you to tell your two year old son that he is gay, or straight for that matter.
Their sexuality is for them to find out, not for you to discover as a parent. Doing that is a bit…well weird, if I’m honest. And chances might be that darling Harry isn’t gay because he liked his sister’s dollshouse. That’s a pretty outdated view on sexuality: we recoginise that gay people come from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all personality types. Not to mention interests. I know lesbian friends who adore make up, and gay friends who are actual real life lumberjacks. Trucks, spitting on the ground and highly carnivorous. So there’s that.
If you want to tell little Harry that some ladies fall in love with each other, or some men might get married, I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, I’d encourage it I was brought up with an ‘so what’ honest shrug and explanation to LGBT+ people which was honestly pretty progressive for the nineties and 2000s. I’d probably draw the line at explaining what a bear sex dungeon was or why that woman had another woman on a leash. Which leads us onto…
Can I talk to my child about fringe/ kinky sexual behaviour?
Well. Ehm, of course some people engage in slightly more unusual practices in the bedroom and that’s fine (as long as they are consenting adults). I’m very wary of exposing young children and teens to explicit extreme sexual practice because, as minors, they aren’t able to full consent…and are inclined to copy what they see adults doing.
When I was at school, the most extreme and awful sexual practices were ‘recreated’ from pornography out of curiousity and resulted in many girls, some as young as eleven, with serious issues around healthy sex and consent. For the sake of clarity, these involved bondage, fantasy abduction, non-consent and sadism. All of which should obviously not be practiced by anyone who is not a fully developed adult.
So how best to combat it? You can’t really stop your 14 year old kid from looking up ‘big boobs’ on his mate’s phone, and God knows where that ends. If you openly talk about BDSM with him, you might be encouraging him to google it himself: also undesirable. It’s a tricky one, but I’d have the consent talk with him and explain the boundaries of normal sex: how to use a condom, how to practice safe and consensual intercourse, and of course, what you shouldn’t do (choking, hitting your partner.) Make it clear that these are extreme and not something he should try out. Or her. Maybe you have a daughter. Or them-
That neatly brings us to…
Can I talk to my child about transgender and cisgender identity?
Transgender people exist, they are real, they are not ‘mentally ill’ or ‘gay men with a fetish for dressing up as a woman’. If you perhaps have a friend or colleague who is transgender, and they are happy for you to do so, I’d advise you to sit down with them and ask them to run through how they felt about their gender and how they came to the decision to transition. It really might help you come to see it as something that isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ as so many of you have been brought up with.
Your child will probably encounter a transgender or non-binary person. They account for around 6% of the population, but many more are starting to be more open with their identity now that we have become a bit less pitchforkish as a society. It is therefore important that they know that some people are not cisgender (the gender they were assigned at birth) and also that gender isn’t a matter of wearing a skirt or liking robots.
I would take that last line as perhaps the most important: please, please teach your child that boys can like dolls, girls can like robots, and no one is a ‘freak’ or ‘gay’ for liking Elsa. Your child doesn’t need a visit to the gender clinic if she picks up a ladybug. Gender is so much more than interests and characteristics, and the doctors and psychiatrists will know that too. So please stop panicking, no one is going to lop off your son’s private parts because he says likes purple princess socks. That’s a far right myth.
Unless your child shows an internally motivated dissatisfaction with their gender, be careful putting labels on them due to interests or favourite colours: many children have changing and shifting obsessions and personalities. I know a woman who used to be called ‘Sam’ and hated wearing pink, and now she’s Samantha and studying to be a make up artist. That’s fine. We aren’t who we were at 9. Her parents called her Sam, now she’s Samantha. So what?
Conversely, if they decide, after professional evaluation to transition, then that is their decision. You can’t choose whether your child is transgender. You can choose to be supportive, loving and there for them.
So yeah, discuss gender with them. But there’s no need to talk about the invasive, painful sexual organ procedures Aunt Lily went through (unless you have a particularly morbid child).
How can I teach my child to protect themselves from sexual abuse?
Unfortunately, you can’t. Even if you kept an eagle eye on your child and taught them every single pedophile tactic in the book, you still couldn’t guarantee that an adult would not take advantage of those few seconds where you left the room. Never blame your child for what happens to them. They are still a child: you can say ‘stranger danger’ a thousand times but when you are seven, that lolly is tempting.
However, you can make them aware of what some people might do. ‘There are people out there who might touch you on your knickers or under your top, and that means you should tell Daddy or Mummy’ is a good one. And make sure your child knows that you will never, ever be cross or ashamed if someone is hurting them. Grooming often involves telling a child that they are ‘bad’ or ‘going to be in big trouble with the police’ if they tell anyone what has happened to them. Be one step ahead and make it completely clear that no matter who hurt them, or what drugs or alcohol they took, they are not in trouble at all and the abuse can be stopped at once.
Another thing I would do is be very, very aware of who you are exposing your children to. It sounds paranoid but someone might see that picture of your son twerking in a very different light, particularly if you are posting it online. Images are shared, images are saved, and your address or child’s snapchat account is pretty easy to find if you know where to look. Similarly, if your child is dancing in front of strangers or attending an adult event like Comicon or PRIDE, you might want to be a bit more careful about who takes pictures or what your child is doing. Dancing around a pole in the sitting room is very different to doing the same thing at a conference.
Of course, most children are abused by people who they know; you probably know them too. Don’t live in fear, of course, but make sure your kid knows that you are more worried about their happiness and safety that whether Mr Barnett gives them a merit in their flute exam. And that it won’t ruin your family forever if you say what Uncle Jo has been doing.
The best policy, always, is honesty. Be open, be fair, say what needs saying.
Innocence should never come at the cost of abuse, trauma or sexual misconduct.