Google search ‘how to tell children about a transgender parent’ and you will find some really strange articles. I found one that details the process of telling children the news leading up to some crazy talk about holy damnation. Other sources assumed older children and that didn’t fit our family. There is no how-to guide for this. Every family and child is different. My wife and I found our own way to come out to our daughter. This is my family’s story:
My wife’s gender transition was moving full steam ahead and telling our daughter M that her father is transgender became our first priority. Michelle and I were cautious though and didn’t want to rock her little world.
At this time she was only three-years-old but, going to preschool full-time, she fully understood traditional gender norms such as girls like pink, boys like blue, girls play dolls and boys play dinosaurs, etc. Often, M was always coming home from school telling us weird things like she wants to be an airplane pilot but can’t because it is a boy job. Of course we set her straight by reinforcing the ‘anyone can do anything’ message but who is she going to believe: her two parents or twenty little preschool friends? Fighting these nonsensical norms is exhausting and we constantly get overruled by preschoolers.
We knew we would be introducing a new concept of changing genders and pushing social norms but how were we going to explain this to her? So like any 21st century parents, we turned to television. Using TV as an education tool sounds like a total parenting copout but M is drawn to the TV like a fly to bug zapper whether it is tuned into Disney Jr. or Antiques Roadshow. Taking advantage of this obsession and being true Generation Ys, we found the show ‘I am Jazz’ from the cable network TLC featuring a young transgender teenager Jazz Jennings.
The introduction of the program shows an old video of a younger Jazz saying that she has a girl brain but a boy body. The first time we watched ‘I am Jazz’ as a family, we paused the video at this point and told M that her father felt the same way as Jazz and this made him sad but we were going to fix her father’s body to be a happy girl.
I think M understood that a boy body and a girl brain do not match. Lucky for us, M is very serious about her socks matching so she caught on quickly to the need to remedy the situation. I also believe that watching a little kid like Jazz explain it spoke to M more than I ever could as an adult.
This is also when we introduced the word ‘transgender’ to M for the first time. M pronounces it like ‘trans-ginger’ so it sounds more like a yummy cocktail than a term to describe an individual’s gender identity but it works and adds to her spunkiness.
We finished all two season of ‘I am Jazz’ in a few weeks. M put in a lot of TV time but I wanted her to see that families with transgender people are the same as families like ours. By the end, M was firm on the concept that her dad was a girl and this is called being transgender. We also went on a no TV kick for almost a month afterwards.
To reinforce all that she learned, we bought her children’s books about being transgender, different, gender fluid, and having same-gender parents. You can find a list of the ones we used on the Resources Page.
Changing Pronouns and Words
While binge watching ‘I am Jazz’, it occurred to me that M would only start using the new pronouns if she heard me using them: like she instead of he and her in place of him. I began saying she and her in casual conversations to M whenever we talked about Michelle. I was not perfect. I did not always say the correct pronouns but my wife was patient and kind and I eventually got them down. The more I used the right words, the more M did too. Each evening, my wife and I would make casual conversation to each other and M about how her father is now a girl and she now has two mothers. The more we talked about it, the more normal it became.
We held onto ‘Daddy’ for a long while. I think that was hard for Michelle to let go: at least it would be for me. Michelle mentioned changing her name for M after they went on a date to McDonald’s alone together. M called Michelle ‘Daddy’ while she was presenting herself as female and Michelle was immediately aware of the safety concern that it caused (during Houston HERO disaster). Michelle told M that daddies are boys and, since her daddy is not a boy, she needed a new name. Michelle suggested Deedee instead and it stuck.
Whenever M misgendered or called Michelle by the wrong name, we were never harsh with her. Instead, we asked M if Deedee was a boy or a girl and followed a conversation pattern in which M used her little brain to correct herself. No feelings were hurt and no one felt guilty. Michelle and I told M about the transition in January and by May M was correcting her grandparents.
Coming Out at School
Before Michelle transitioned at work, M’s friends and teachers at school had no clue that Michelle is transgender. Once after school, M seemed down and distant. She said that she was upset because her teachers did not understand what transgender meant and called Deedee ‘Daddy’. It hurt my heart to see her so upset, so I setup a meeting the next day with the school’s director to explain our family’s new dynamic and request that she instruct the teachers not to correct M when she calls says Deedee or her in reference to Michelle.
This sounds really easy but I totally lost control of my emotions in the meeting. I remember sobbing like a little baby. The transition felt amazingly real in that moment. It was the first time I told anyone other than family and I was afraid the information would change how the teachers treated M. Luckily, the school and entire staff pledged their support to M and our family during the transition. M’s attitude towards school improved in general but she did mention a few weeks later that a teachers called Michelle ‘Daddy’. The next day, that teacher was terminated. Coincidence? I think not.
The children at school still play with M. Some kids ask her questions like, “Why do you have two mommies?” M replies, “Because my Deedee is Trans-ginger.”
She has grown more confident in herself through our family’s transition and even adopted an exceptionally sassy attitude. I don’t worry about her feelings getting hurt anymore. I know she can handle it.
- Children are fluid. They have not endured the decades of social norms like adults have. Their idea of normal is vague and unfixed. A four-year-old can understand the concept of a ‘girly’ boy or a transgender girl easier than you think.
- Children rebound quickly. With love and support, kids can recover from skinned knees and hurt feelings quickly.
- Television works. Well maybe not for some but it is important to use mediums your children are attracted to in order to gain and keep their attention.
- Talk about it. Discussing what transgender means and anticipated changes make transitioning seem normal instead of scary.
- Ask schools for support early. Let counselors and teachers know what is going on in your family. They will appreciated being in the loop and will be apt to use the correct names and pronouns around your child. Leaving them in the dark about a spouse’s transition gives them no opportunity to support you.
- As always, every family has its own dynamic and history. What worked for my family may not work for yours.
Sometimes I think we may have gone overboard with our approach. Now M says she wants to be transgender like her Deedee. I guess instead of rocking her world we gave her new life goals. Oh Lord!