Identity: Considering the Appropriate Time and Place for Discussing Gender or Sexual Identity with Children

The news has been filled with articles on gay, lesbian, and transgender rights. The most recent article that caught my eye discusses the placement of transgender characters in young children’s books, and you can read the full article here. While this isn’t the first discussion of young children and sexual/gender identities, it does encourage me to consider the subject with care.

Alexandra Alter’s article opens with what is becoming a familiar story. Sam Martin, a now 43-year old man, discovered a book at age twenty that addressed the conversion from man to woman and woman to man. It was a relief by the time he stumbled upon it, and for him, such a relief could have come much earlier in his life.

The root of the article seems to be just how early the topic of transgender people should be discussed in mainstream children’s literature, or any form of media for children. There is valid reason to pause and consider.

There is no doubt that transgender youth need support and encouragement. What makes a transgender youth different than a gay youth struggling to accept himself? Nothing, at the core. The need for understanding and acceptance is there. There is the potential for the blind terror of confusion and denial to crop up emotionally. Both youths will need an outlet, someone to lean on in a difficult time of transition. It seems this is why Martin, in his adulthood, is writing children’s books with transgender characters. As he says, he wants to help these children “feel less alone at that age,” a quote Alter included from Martin in the article.

Alter discusses how transgender roles in mainstream media are becoming positive roles, and she mentions both “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent.” She also takes the time to mention Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation into Caitlyn Jenner. Transgender roles deserve a more positive spin, for sure, but it is important to remember all of these shows and people Alter mentions are adult outlets. This is not something a young child would have easy access to, nor is there any guarantee they would fully understand if they had that access.

This all brings us back around to children’s literature, which is increasing the amount of transgender characters that hit the mainstream through publishers such as Scholastic Press and Simon & Schuster. Notably, Alter offers Arin Andrews, one half of a pair of children’s book authors who receive positive feedback on their placement of transgender roles in children’s literature. According to Alter, the feedback Andrews receives includes “notes from children as young as 8 and readers in their 60s and 70s who say the book helps them navigate questions about their gender identity.”

Of course, not everyone is going to be accepting of introducing children as young as eight, and maybe even younger, to transgender characters.

This reaction can be seen just in the comments section on this particular article published by Alter. One commenter, A. Stanton, talks about being raised in a time when he was “barely aware that that anything other than straight was going on around [him].” He seems pleased to have no idea other gender identities existed.

A second commenter, Josh Hill, states “I read about the book for 4- to 8-year-olds and cringed. This is the time when children are developing their gender identity and it is well known that the great majority of little children who express a desire to be the opposite sex do not grow up to be transgendered.”

Though it seems important to me that transgender youth have an outlet, as well as early enough exposure to the meaning of being transgender to process and understand whether or not that is them, we must consider what a confusing time it is when one is a child. Perhaps we should be focusing on the appropriate age to offer any type of sexual/gender identity definitions to children.

The more important question seems not to be how early transgender identity should be introduced to children. It seems to be how early any sexual and gender identities should be introduced to children. When is it simply too young to tell children about straight, gay, lesbian, queer, transsexual, transgender, etc.? Maybe the readers need to be provided the latest psychological research on how fast children develop their understanding and concrete decision making. It is not okay to say, “Childhood is a confusing time and that’s why we can’t tell kids about transgender people at eight years old.” No, if childhood is a confusing time, it is a confusing time for all identities. If children aren’t old enough to learn about and process transgender identity responsibly, then they aren’t old enough to process any identity responsibly.

Parents are going to have to make the call on this for their own, individual children for the most part. The parent needs to decide if Sally or Billy is ready to understand what a lesbian girl or a gay boy is without immediately trying to place that identity on themselves. If the parent decides the child is emotionally mature enough for this important but delicate discussion, then I suppose they can pick up the picture book that includes a transgender person, and go from there.

So yes, let’s continue to fill the news with articles about gay, lesbian, and transgender rights. Any rights of any sort, really. Let’s not get swept away by one particular identity or set of human rights, though. Let’s remember we can’t isolate or place more importance on one or the other when we have these important discussions. We have to be willing to discuss and approach every facet we can imagine, and every one we cannot.

One thought on “Identity: Considering the Appropriate Time and Place for Discussing Gender or Sexual Identity with Children

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  1. I feel like when kids are small specific parameters of gender and sexuality are not essential. When we strictly define gender, we limit kids. Instead of making them form their identities around concrete rules about gender, I think we should allow them to define gender as part of their identity. If you see curiosities, or your child asks about differences then it may be the time to bring up discussions about gender and transgender issues.


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