Every time legislation is passed that has anything to do with civil rights, things like being allowed to marry or use the bathroom in peace or whatever, people start using children as proxies for their fear and lack of understanding. It spreads like a rash across social media, this epidemic of made-up conversations kids are having with the adults in their lives and the resulting deep and moving concern about what to tell the children. “What am I supposed to say when little Khloweei asks about the gay couple in the produce section? How am I supposed to explain transsexuals in the bathroom? My child is too young to be talking about sex!”
Spoiler alert, in case you don’t want to read this whole super-long thing: You don’t have to talk about sex. It isn’t about sex, even. Not at all. I know, it’s shocking, what with the gays and the trannies humping each other all over the bus stop and the amusement parks and shit like that. I know they look like normal people doing normal things with their normal lives, but underneath, totally humping, willy-nilly everywhere.
But really, I’m sorry if you’re confused about how to address your kids’ questions. I’m not belittling that, at all. My kids have asked some things that have made me wish for a time machine so that I could go back and hide in the bathroom five minutes before they decided to ask. Kids ask some intense questions, and some very serious questions, and those should without a doubt be answered. But. (You know me, there’s always a but.)
Here’s what’s really important to remember: children don’t think like adults.
To a small child, everything is new and different. They don’t have decades of experience and context to which they can relate their everyday lives and observations, like we do. Their points of reference are self-centered. I don’t mean that in the negative way it’s often used, but literally: their experience centers around themselves.
And so when you’re standing at a crosswalk beside two men holding hands, you’re taking in everything: They’re adults. They’re smiling at each other, leaning into each other, laughing quietly. One has a take-out box from that fancy candle-lit restaurant up the street; clearly, they’re on a date, and if they only got one box for leftovers, they must be going home together. One man has a bottle of wine tucked into his elbow. They’re going home to drink wine. It’s going to be romantic. They’ll probably end up having sex. That’s what’s running through your head when your child says, “Mommy, why are those boys holding hands?”
You know what’s going through your kid’s head, most likely? Why do those boys have to hold hands to cross the street? They’re grown-ups. Grown-ups can go by themselves. That’s weird. So how do you answer that question? Try something like, “Sometimes people hold hands when they like each other. I guess they must like each other.” Chances are, your kid is going to give you a really insightful response, probably something along the lines of, “Oh. Look, there’s a squashed caterpillar on the sidewalk. Can I touch it?”
When your child asks why Auntie has a girlfriend, he’s probably not wondering why she prefers women to men. It’s probably just the same question kids ask roughly eleven million times a day: Why? Why are my socks blue? Why is that spaghetti? Why is that lady’s butt so big? Why can’t I touch that squashed caterpillar? Why does Auntie have a girlfriend?
And just like above, it’s a pretty simple answer: “They must like each other.”
If your child is old enough that he’s beginning to understand what kind of relationships are more common than others and to notice when things look a little different than what he’s used to, and his question really is about why Auntie likes girls and not boys, that’s an easy answer too: “Some girls like other girls.” If they ask for more, you can give that information without making everything about sex. I’m pretty sure when your kid asked you why you and Daddy got married, for example, you didn’t say, “Well, Snugglemuffin, we just wanted to make sure your daddy would be able to stick his pecker in me every night for the rest of his life.” You probably talked about love and happiness and friendship — and those are the same things you talk about when you’re talking about Auntie and her girlfriend. Easy peasy, man. You don’t even have to learn anything new.
Of course, the big thing now is transgender. Everybody’s freaking out about the transgenders in the bathrooms and Oh…my… Gawwwwwwd what if my precious little snowflake Mhaddisynne Claire goes in the bathroom and sees a person who looks like a man in a dress? WHAT DO I TELL HER?”
Well first off, tell her potty time is privacy time, which is what you should have been telling her since she was old enough to start having a decent grasp of receptive language.
If it does come up, if your little one sees someone with masculine-appearing features in traditionally feminine clothing and says (at the top of her lungs, at that piercing pitch children only hit when they’re saying something that makes you want to crawl into the toilet and die) “Why is that man wearing a dress?” what the heck do you say?
I’ll tell you. If that happens, then you go, like, “That’s a lady.”
And then if your kid is like, “That looks like a man,” then you go, “People look all different ways. She’s just trying to use the restroom, like you are. Go wash your hands. Go. Use soap. Not that much soap.” (Because that’s how bathroom conversations always end, I don’t care if there’s a band of Civil War reenacting drag queens in there, you’re going to say the soap thing. And also, you really don’t know, do you? Unless you’re the weirdo peeking up her skirt, you don’t know that that lady isn’t a biological woman with stronger features than most.)
I’m not saying not to have conversations about gender and sexuality with your kids. These are issues they’re going to face, if not personally, than as witnesses as their family and friends deal with them. But it’s ridiculous to think these conversations have to center around what people do in their private bedrooms or wardrobes. If you wouldn’t talk about the sex lives or genitalia of straight, cisgendered people, then it’s not appropriate conversation-period. As your child gets older, your conversations can become more comprehensive, but when your child is small, your answers about sexuality and gender should be as simple and gentle as conversations about love and death and anything else that you have a responsibility to explain. Don’t complicate it. Teach love, compassion, respect and inclusion, and your simple answers will grow into understanding soon enough.