My boys attend a local public school in North Carolina where legislation around transgender issues and public restrooms was a national issue in 2016. Their school ran a CNN Kids news program on the transgender debate. They came home and said with confusion, “Did you know sometimes girls want to come into the boy’s bathroom?” I asked how that came up, and they mentioned the transgender news story. I did a web search for the video transcript.
This incident led me to think about how to have these kind of conversations with our kids. I came up with five principles and four key objectives.
Principle One: Don’t over-react to a conversation prompt; your initial response to a conversation prompt signals to your child whether the conversation is safe or alarming.
Principle Two: Do research and get what information you can about the subject before engaging the larger discussion; it is better if your child doesn’t feel like an “informant.”
Here are a few preliminary thoughts I had going into the subsequent conversation.
Principle Three: When we speak to our children we need to discuss the things that help our children navigate their current social world.
My boys were 9 and 11 years old; 3rd and 5th grade. I wanted to keep in mind their social and cognitive development as we talked. This was not our first conversation about sex and sexuality. If, as parents, we only talk about the subject of sex and ethics reactively, it will distort the message our children hear. Jesus will come across as a defensive guy. The duration of the conversation was about 20 minutes over dinner, a time when we often talk about things that happened at school.
Principle Four: Listen. The most important thing we offer in awkward conversations is comfortable, open-ended questions and silence.
With those things being said, there were four key objectives I had going into the conversation with my boys. I will share the fifth principle at the end.
- I wanted to know what they think as much as teach them what I think.
The most important part of this conversation is what I learned from them, not what they learned from me. That’s not to downplay my influence as a parent, but the most important information transferred was my awareness of how my boys were processing the information they received.
The biggest long-term impact I will have on my boys is shaping how they think as much as what they think. Conversations like these are times when I get a litmus test for how they respond to awkward-controversial subjects, how perceptive they are about moral dilemmas, the degree of impact authority figures (like teachers) have on them, and what kind of logic they use to support their beliefs.
- I wanted them to be BOTH biblically informed AND personally compassionate.
I wanted my boys to be both thoroughly versed in God’s original design and increasingly equipped to care for others in a broken world. My boys love biology, so we talked about how gender is ingrained in every cell of our body as either an XX (female) or XY (male) chromosome. They love to ask, “Whose nose do I have? Whose eyes do I have?” Tying the conversation to something they were familiar with and enjoy was an important way of making it less awkward.
We talked about gender being part of God’s design (Genesis 1:27) and that God’s design was good. I wanted them to know they should enjoy being boys and strive to grow into mature men who care for and lead their families well. I also wanted to communicate that it’s okay if they think girls have cooties right now [attempt at humor], but they should always respect women and treat them with honor.
Don’t over-react to a conversation prompt; your initial response to a conversation prompt signals to your child whether the conversation is safe or alarming.
We talked about how, because of the Fall (Genesis 3), we live in a broken world where many things don’t work the way they’re supposed to and everything falls apart. One result of this is that some people don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies; some people feel fat even when they’re very skinny, some people feel scared when there is no threat, and some people feel like they should be a boy when their body is a girl or vice versa.
I tried to make clear that it is important not to profile those who experience gender dysphoria as sexual predators. We talked about how it’s not the person who is confused about their gender that would take advantage of this law. Instead, the concern is that people who want to abuse children would take advantage of these laws.
We emphasized that we should never make fun of someone who is suffering. We should never call people names that make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. Whenever we hear people doing these kinds of things to others, we step in and help the person who is being picked on. This was the primary application of what it meant to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40) well in their current social context.
We don’t have to agree with someone or understand their experience to love them. We believe that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves our honor and respect. If they’re hurting, we try to represent God’s compassion. If they’re sinning, we let them know of God’s forgiveness through the gospel. If we’re not sure, we listen and ask questions.
- I wanted them to learn how to honor authorities with whom they disagree.
I want my boys to be well-versed in the art of disagreement – the ability to be skeptical or disagree while showing honor to the person with whom they disagree. I affirmed how they handled themselves in the classroom, listening respectfully and bringing their questions to my wife and me. Even when they were uncertain, they made wise choices about how to respond.
We talked about how there was a great deal of debate on this topic in our country, so that is why this was a topic discussed at school. We talked about the good values of those that want open bathrooms are standing for , that no one should be discriminated against for things they did not choose.
We talked about how one of the challenges of government is balancing personal freedom (i.e., choice of restroom) with the collective good (i.e., privacy and safety in public restrooms). I was surprised how much they were interested in and followed this point.
The main point here was that just because someone has a different view from us, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. It also doesn’t mean we’re bad if we disagree with them. It is important to know what you believe and why. It is important to be able to articulate and defend what you believe. It is equally important to listen well to those with whom you disagree and honor their leadership when God has placed them in that role.
- I wanted them to be sympathetic to the reality that even good legislation can have unintended consequences.
Our conversation may have had as much to do with politics as sexuality. It is easy for kids (and adults) to begin to think that good rules would make a good world, that the problem with the world is that we just haven’t figured out what the best rules should be. We talked about how often laws have unintended consequences.
We talked about why we don’t need better rules as much as we need a Redeemer. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher (although he was the best teacher). Jesus came as our Savior. He knew we needed a new heart, not just better thoughts.
At the end of the conversation, when my boys asked me, “So, what should be done about the bathroom thing?” my best answer was, “I don’t know. I know that God’s design of men and women is good. I know there is a lot of pain and brokenness in our world. I know I want to love well anyone God gives me the chance to befriend and that it’s not mean to think about safety in private places like restrooms. But when it comes to this law and its possible unintended consequences, I’m not sure.”
Principle Five: Our children need to hear us say that sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know” because they need to have the freedom and courage to say “I don’t know” when they’re uncertain. It also makes the things we are sure about seem more solid, if we are willing to admit our uncertainty on things that are less clear.
This was the gist of our conversation and the intentions for the various points of emphasis. I hope it’s helpful for other families as you consider how to have similar conversations.