By Annie Rosemurgy | Photography by Hillary Schave
It’s a common question that every parent has asked themselves: “Am I doing this parenting thing right?” Parenting is especially tricky in situations where you don’t feel like you have all the answers. For many of us, one of these moments can be as kids start to become aware of and explore gender and sexuality.
Awareness of differences in sexual identity can take many forms. Kids might notice that a playmate’s family looks different than their own or that a classmate prefers to dress in both traditionally masculine and feminine clothes, rather than one or another. Kids may feel confused about their own feelings regarding their burgeoning gender and sexual identity, or need guidance to support a friend who does.
Area experts say it’s best to address these types of questions proactively, rather than reactively, and in a spirit that celebrates diversity. As Pride Month approaches, we talked to a breadth of local experts to guide us through common questions and concerns when it comes to talking about sexual identity and LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, +) equality with kids of all ages.
By helping our kids understand that everyone is different and that everyone has value, we’re helping them to appreciate and accept themselves — and others.
Communication is Key
Culturally we’ve come a long way in terms of recognizing and accepting the spectrum of sexual identities that people embody. Some local schools have programs that address sexual identity and inclusivity. Area high schools, including Madison, Middleton, Verona, Sun Prairie and McFarland, all support active GSAs, or Gender and Sexuality Alliance clubs.
Here, students come together to educate the student body about gender inclusivity and raise awareness about how homophobia and other forms of intolerance impact gender-diverse students.
Amie Pittman, Verona school counselor and advisor to Badger Ridge Middle School’s GSA, says that these clubs are crucial in creating a welcoming space for students to be themselves, building a “brave and safe school community for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.”
Wendy Pliska, alternative education teacher and GSA co-advisor for the McFarland district, says GSAs provide a space where kids can “share struggles they’re having with people who understand and support them,” and provide students a relationship with a faculty member that affirms their identity.
The Madison Metropolitan School District implemented the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program district-wide. The initiative is a comprehensive anti- bullying, LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive professional development training program. Teachers in MMSD undergo ongoing education about how to build a safe and affirming classroom and curriculum.
These programs and initiatives are not only “invaluable for self-esteem and self-worth” of individual kids, but they’ve given kids a language to speak respectfully to one another and about their identity, says licensed professional counselor Elizabeth Gregg of Golden Vibes Counseling in Madison, who has extensive experience in private practice with LGBTQ+ youth.
As Sylla Zarov, principal of Northside Elementary School in Middleton (and former principal at Franklin Elementary School, which implemented the Welcoming Schools program) says, the goal of these programs is to make each student feel “their inherent value as a human, that they belong here no matter what.”
As parents, we may want to extend these conversations and teachings into our homes, but might be unsure about how to do it in an age-appropriate way.
Each of the experts we talked to say there is one important, guiding principle that all parents can do when talking to kids about sexual identity issues: listen.
“For kids of any age, I think one of the most important things a parent can do is to be a safe person who listens in a non- reactive, non-judgmental way,” says Katie Rickert, MMSD’s LGBTQ+ district lead. “We have so much knowledge, we want to offer them so much support, but often the best thing to do, the thing a child needs most, is to be heard. When you are talking with kids, a good rule is to listen more than you talk.”
But, you say, my child never talks to me about squishy things like feelings and identity! While you can’t make a child talk, you can establish yourself as a safe person that your child feels comfortable confiding in or seeking information from.
Zarov recommends a simple, yet powerful, statement of unconditional love that parents can make, again and again, to their child of any age: “There is nothing that you can say to me that will make me love you any less. There is nothing about you that will shock me.”
And, take your child’s lead when it comes to communication.
“Welcome curiosity and questions, use straightforward, developmentally-appropriate language and pronouns,” says Gregg.
Listen to the words your child uses and echo them back. Simple acts of validation can have profound consequences, and can indeed be lifesaving for kids working through an identity struggle.
The first step toward helping your kids talk about LGBTQ+ issues is to educate yourself.
“We have to give ourselves as parents the grace that we don’t have all the answers and we are still learning and evolving,” says Zarov.
Happily, this is a topic that is coming out of the shadows into the mainstream so resources for parents are increasingly abundant. Books, podcasts, internet resources and local support groups all offer help to parents who are figuring out how to support kids. Better yet, the professionals that parents have always trusted for their children’s health — pediatricians, teachers and school social workers — are increasingly being trained on issues of sexuality and gender. Ask for the help and guidance that you need. As Zarov says, it all begins with education, and as “we know better, then can we do better.”
Katie Larsen-Klodd, school social worker at Randall Elementary School in Madison, says that simply becoming aware of our own implicit assumptions can be a powerful tool.
“Things like the old ‘how many boyfriends do you have after blowing out the birthday candles’ have so many toxic assumptions in them and can easily make a child feel excluded or unvalued,” she says.
Dr. Britt Allen, UW pediatrician and co-medical director of UW Health’s Pediatric and Adolescent Transgender Health (PATH) clinic, which provides medical support for gender-diverse youth, recommends that parents spend time building their own anti-bias toolkit.
“Anti-bias work is work; it is a practice that will feel uncomfortable at times when we confront our own loaded assumptions,” she says.
Language is especially important here. “Use available resources such as The Human Rights Campaign website to learn affirming language. Model inclusive language and be willing to make errors and be corrected, even by your kids.” She continues, “We know that at every stage having parents who affirm a child’s gender and sexuality choices and use supportive language with proper pronouns is incredibly important for kids’ mental health,” she says.
Next, here are some age- specific techniques for supporting and talking to kids about sexual identity and LGBTQ+ issues.
Preschool and Younger: Play and Learn
For many parents a big question is when to start these conversations. Can a child be too young to start talking about LGBTQ+ issues? Every expert we spoke to for this article answered this question with an emphatic “No.” By age three, in fact, children have a burgeoning gender identity with strong associations about what it means for their behavior. Unpacking traditional gender stereotypes early lays a strong foundation for becoming LGBTQ+ affirming later.
Younger children learn through play, so take advantage of this.
“Be conscious of the toys and books you bring into the home, and give opportunities for children to play with toys and do activities outside of gender stereotypes,” says Rickert. Become aware of your own assumptions and biases as you build your child’s play space. Never limit a child’s choice of play because of gender — provide sports equipment, dolls, dress- up clothing, blocks and vehicles equally to boys and girls — and let the child’s curiosity and imagination guide their play. Characters are especially important to the youngest kids. Find characters that behave in non-stereotypical ways and use this as an entry point for conversation.
Elementary School: Heads and Hearts
For early elementary-aged kids Zarov recommends an approach of “affirming, teaching and normalizing” LGBTQ+ issues. The family structure is still the central organizing feature of their young lives, and many kids are inherently interested in different family compositions and dynamics. A little gentle emphasis on the diversity of families can go a long way with these young minds. Reading books together that depict families with LGTBQ+ members and purchasing or assembling toy sets that represent a spectrum of families are recommended.
In addition to a unit on families, Amy Turkowski, first grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Madison, uses the language of “the head and the heart” to give voice to how kids feel about their own gender identities.
“By acknowledging that a child may feel one way in their head and another way in their heart or body, we break the binary ‘I’m this or I’m that.’ You allow the child to talk about their whole self, their whole reality,” says Turkowski.
Crucial to the creation of this safe space for kids — which draws upon the Welcoming Schools initiative — is acceptance and normalizing of any combination of how head and heart articulate.
“There is no wrong answer here. If you feel differently than a classmate, then it’s not for you. But everyone gets to say the truth of their head and their heart,” says Turkowski.
With several years of education normalizing LGBTQ+ issues under their belts, older elementary school students might actually surprise their parents by openly talking about their own budding sexual identities.
“This can be a source of alarm for some parents, who did not grow up with these same skills themselves or education [on this]. Parents can feel worried that kids are talking about this too early or too openly,” says Gregg. This worry, though, is misplaced. “Kids intrinsically know who they are, and these programs are simply giving a voice to the reality that kids have always lived with, but often struggled in silence,” says Gregg. Rather than being anxious if your elementary student wants to talk about LGTBQ+ issues, Gregg recommends seeing it as an invitation into their inner world.
Dr. Allen agrees: “Reframe this fear by understanding that your child is trusting you enough to bring you this delicate and important part of themselves.”
Middle School: Testy Tweens
Much to our collective parental chagrin, talking to middle school-aged kids about these sensitive topics can present new challenges for parents. Middle school is a time of balance where communication is concerned.
“It is developmentally appropriate that middle schoolers push their parents away as they try out increasing independence,” says Gregg. “Parents should not take it personally if their middle schooler is less open to talking, or even hurtful, in their communication style.”
However, if even trying to chat with your tween feels like a daily battle, parents need to pay attention, being watchful for troubling behaviors such as withdrawal or social changes. “Now more than ever, older kids still need parents to create safe spaces,” says Gregg.
It is particularly important at this age to model the values you espouse.
“Kids of this age are very tuned in to what they see as inconsistencies between what their parents say and what they do,” says Gregg. “For instance, if you talk about supporting LGBTQ+ equality but you don’t watch anything with gay characters, kids of this age will notice. At this age actions can speak louder than words.”
Take advantage of this stage by going the extra step to show your support for LGBTQ+ rights. Zarov says that these signals, whether it’s a rainbow T-shirt, a sign in your yard or bringing your kids to events that celebrate social causes, can create a tangible feeling of safety, and might just be the little nudge kids need to feel comfortable talking.
High School: You’re Still Needed, Mom
Finally, with such an emphasis on early education surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, it can be easy for parents to worry less about talking with high school students about these topics, but this would be a mistake.
“High school kids still need their parents as advocates, as allies, as creators of safe spaces,” says Gregg. Bullying remains a significant issue in high school, especially for LGBTQ+ kids, and kids of this age can actually feel less equipped to ask for the help they need because of shame.
“High school kids today are dealing with unprecedented pressures from social media to climate change to political stress and they need to know they have a strong support structure at home.”
A simple consistent reminder that you are there whenever your high schooler needs you can be a welcome anchor in a sometimes overwhelming stage of life.
Bravery and Boundaries
We celebrate the progress that we’ve made toward building a more inclusive society through LGBTQ+ education, both in schools and at home. But the reality is that not everyone is on the same page, and it is likely that at some point your child will be confronted with situations or people that threaten these values. There is, however, a playbook for parents navigating these tough situations.
If the behavior is anticipated, Dr. Allen says it can be helpful to practice how you will respond.
“We’ve all been there where someone said something that we find offensive and later we go over it in our heads and think of what we could have or should have said in response,” she says. She recommends setting an intention for being brave and practicing how you’ll respond in the moment. “Literally practicing the words can help navigate tricky situations and find our voices.”
She also recommends that if you have a repeat offender in your life that you address it head-on.
“This is one of those situations where you would ideally have an adults-only conversation with this individual. Articulate the values and the language that you are choosing for your home. If they still can’t respect those values, a boundary may need to be drawn to protect a child’s physical and mental safety,” says Dr. Allen.
A Final Piece of Advice
Don’t go it alone! Parenting is not for the faint of heart, it is a self-renewing challenge at every life stage. Nothing means more to parents than their children’s safety and wellbeing, so it is worth your time and energy to assemble your own trusted support system to lean on when times get tough or big questions arise. Having other “been-there, done-that” parents to call upon can be a lifesaver. If you’re unsure about how to show up for your child on these issues (and this will happen from time to time) ask questions and seek the guidance of friends and experts. Give yourself the grace that you don’t need to have all the answers, all the time. We are all on this journey of progress together.
A Great LGBTQ+ Resource For Families
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation Welcoming Schools initiative is “the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive professional training,” for educators and those who serve youth, according to the website.
Currently, Madison Metropolian Schools has implemented Welcoming Schools’ programming district-wide. The website offers a wealth of resources for anyone — including a robust, inclusive book list for kids grades K-3, tips on how to support transgender and nonbinary students and other great resources for families and those interested in supporting all kids. welcomingschools.org