I have been flooded with questions on how to answer a child’s questions about gender transition. Most kids are introduced to it either at school or by a friend. They come home and ask something like this: “Mom, I don’t understand. The teacher says that I need to call John, Jenny because he wants to be a girl. How can this be?”
Often kids are upset because the idea of a friend changing to another sex makes them feel that they will lose their friend.
So, what can you say when your kindergartner comes home from school and quizzically asks, “How can Johnny become Jenny? My teacher wants me to call him Jenny and I just don’t want to because he is Johnny, not Jenny.”
Many adults disagree on how to handle this. Some advocate teaching young kids that transitioning gender is a normal, healthy and common practice among young children. So they tell their child that they can choose to be either a girl or boy. Then, they will have long discussions with their children about why the transition can be a normal, healthy choice.
Most parents, on the other hand disagree with transitioning children and I am one of them. As a pediatrician, I have come to see that great harm can be done by transitioning kids. So how a parent responds to a child’s question depends upon their beliefs about child gender transition. Either way, I suggest an answer similar to the one below. The reasoning is this: the overwhelming majority of children do not transition and this answer makes sense to them. If, however, a parent feels that their child may want to transition, the answer below will in no way alter the plans. If a desire in a child is strong enough to want to transition, nothing an adult says will change that. It’s similar to a parent asking a depressed teen if she is suicidal. Parents don’t ask because they are afraid they will put ideas in their teen’s head. This isn’t true.
Here is my recommendation. I would say “Honey, there are many things that people do that we don’t understand. You don’t understand this and often I don’t understand people. I have friends who believe different things than I do and that’s OK. We can still be friends. There are doctors who give medicines to kids to turn them into a girl if they’re a boy and vice versa. I don’t agree with this and that’s OK. The important thing is to be kind. If the teacher wants you to call him Jenny and you don’t want to, just don’t address him by name. As you get older, we’ll keep talking about it.