“Dad, we need to talk about pronouns.”
Although the transgender subject had been present in American culture for years, it lay relatively dormant until 2014 when former Olympian Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn and catapulted the conversation to the nation’s forefront. Since then, a number of cultural and political issues have risen as a direct result of the growing transgender population: civil rights questions, fallout over bathroom visits, correct pronoun usage, and much, much more.
But it’s not just grown men and women wrestling with their own sexual identity. In a time where young people are struggling with self esteem more than ever before, an increasing number of teenagers – like this 14-year-old in London who made his transition (literally) overnight– are experimenting with the possibilities of a new identity.
Here in America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that roughly 2% of high school kids identify as transgender. This data comes from a 2017 study conducted on almost 200,000 kids from 10 different states. Here’s the report’s full breakdown:
- 94.4% of students said, “No, I am not transgender.”
- 1.8% of students said, “Yes, I am transgender.”
- 1.6% of students said, “I am not sure if I am transgender.”
- 2.1% of students said, “I do not know what this question is asking.”
Therein lies an interesting observation: at the time of the study, there were more kids who were confused by the term than there were kids who identified as the term. However, these days it’s not unheard of to see very young children – such as 4-year-old Jacob– making a gender transition.
Regardless of the age, regardless of the politics, and yes, regardless of your personal feelings on the subject, the truly gut wrenching factor from that CDC study found that “approximately 35 percent [of transgender teens] have attempted to end their life sometime in the last 12 months.”
Let that sink in and appropriately break your heart.
How can we possibly navigate this conversation?
Managing the Conversation
Many of us know someone who’s currently wading through this conversation with a loved one. Perhaps some of us are even addressing it within the confines of our own family. Do you know what to say if you were invited into this subject (or a similar one) on behalf of someone you love? If not, here are some overarching guidelines to help you manage the conversation…and yourself.
1. Don’t Freak Out.
This is probably the most difficult hurdle of the whole situation. Let’s be honest. It’s hard to not go into full panic mode when your daughter of 14 years announces that she no longer wants to be called “she.” Mom and Dad’s tendency is to respond with a hysteric, “What?!!! That’s ridiculous!”
So don’t be afraid to press the pause button. Freaking out doesn’t help. It just makes it worse. In fact, it tends to result in shaming. . .and shaming has all kinds of unintended side effects you don’t want.
I give the same advice to parents if their kid tells them, “Sorry Mom, I don’t believe in God anymore.” Hit the pause button on your response, because for most of us, our first response isn’talways a good one. But then. . .
2. Keep the door open by thanking them for being open.
Practice your first response. “Repeat after me,” I (Jonathan) always tell parents attending my parent workshops. “I’m so glad you told me. Thanks for trusting me with this.”
Be grateful when your kids open up to you—it’s better than the alternative. So be careful not to slam the door in those moments.
No, I’m not saying you need to “affirm” what they believe. Maybe you believe differently. It’s okay to respectfully disagree. But don’t feel the need to throw that in their face. . .even though they just dropped the “I’m transgender” bomb in yours. It’s okay to just thank them for sharing with you which keeps the dialogue open and gives you more chances to. . .
3. Say – and show – love.
The most important thing to communicate in an ongoing fashion is your love for them. Over and over again, tell them you love them – just as they are. Put those three words on repeat in your interactions. Let them be the words that greet them in the morning and let them be the last words they hear at the close their days. Just remember to reinforce that love in practical ways! Among other things, it means being patient. But you’re not the only one who needs to be patient. .
4. Strongly encourage patience.
As the transgender issue continues to affect younger and younger kids, it would be wise to strongly encourage them to model patience while they gain understanding about sexuality, identity, reproduction, personal calling, and life in general. Use language that encourages this thinking. Tell them you’ll be by their side for this “journey.” They don’t need to make an appointment to get surgery tomorrow.
If a kid can’t decide the answer to a simple algebraic equation, it’s probably wise to postpone decisions about something as complex as human sexuality and identity. That implies a responsibility on moms and dads. I don’t know any parents who let their kid get a Power Ranger tattoo on their neck at the age of 4. Why? Well, the kid might fall out of love with the Power Rangers and become a really big Avengers fan later in life. Plus, that tattoo might be a bit awkward to explain at a job interview. In short, we need to make sure our kids have a thorough grasp of their sexuality before discarding it for something else.
5. Maintain a biblical foundation.
That demands at least two things. First, it means that you hold to the crystal clear report of Genesis 1:27 which states, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And when Jesus affirmed the Creation account in His teaching ministry (see Matthew 19 and Mark 10), He added even more weight to the original understanding of human sexuality.
If you don’t know much about what the Bible says about human sexuality and who God created us to be, research the topic from people you trust who have done their homework and can articulate Biblical truth (Dr. Sean McDowell does a phenomenal job examining the Biblical text about who God created us to be and same-sex attraction).
Second, maintaining a biblical foundation through these conversations also means that you present your words and thoughts from a posture of mercy, kindness and compassion. (Even if your issuewasn’t this issuewhen you met Christ, you nonetheless experienced mercy, kindness, and compassion. Those attributes are just as important to your kids as they were to you!) These discussions will be highly emotional so make sure you layer truth with grace. Taking a biblical stance on the subject means you let the Bible tell you whatto say…and how to say it.
This issue will likely never go away, but that’s OK if we’re ready to dialogue about it from an informed position in a gracious manner. Do everything you can to prepare yourself to help those who need guidance in this area.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.