In this feature, you’ll get—you guessed it—five questions and answers from an expert on the week’s topic.
This week we’re talking Kids and Gender, and today’s featured guest has a ton of perspective on kids and their ever-changing senses of self, since that her job is to talk with them on a near-daily basis.
Here’s more on Vanessa Baker:
Vanessa Baker is a parent and teen relationship coach, founder of Vanessa Baker Mindset, mother of six children, and author of From Mean to Real Clean: How to Create a Fully Functional Relationship with Your Teenager.
She also hosts a podcast called You’ll Understand When You’re Younger, which she created to destroy the mindset that teenagers are problematic.
Her mission is to help parents to become the first person who their teenagers talk to and listen to, not the last.
Given her frequent chats with teenagers (her own and her clients), as well as her own personal experiences, Vanessa is a great resource to help kick off this week’s topic. Let’s dive in.
Sex is the label for specific anatomy. Gender is the social construct based on that anatomy.
The main thing to understand here is that gender norms like “girls do this” (because of their sex—female) and “boys like that or act like this” (because of their sex—male) is all made up, constructed by society. It’s not the truth.
To operate with more empathy, we just need to let go of all of our beliefs and “shoulds” and assumptions around what anyone, straight, queer, trans or whatever needs to be like, look like, act like or who they should love.
The main theme I see when kids realize they are transgender is they have fear and doubt around whether their parents will keep loving them. They truly aren’t always sure that their parents will be on board with their true identity.
Let me be clear that what they want is for parents to be vulnerable, to express their questions, fears, etc. too—not just jump on board like it’s no big deal. All the trans kids who I work with say that they completely understand the potential gravity of this news. They say they want their parents to be by their side as they navigate the road ahead together with all its ups and downs.
And even when parents say things like, “We will always love you,” what registers much stronger with kids is when parents do the work to adapt and show their support in very obvious and tangible ways.
Some examples are: working hard to use their new name and pronouns when they choose to change those, helping them work out the new clothes and looks that they want to try out, standing by them firmly with other family members and friends who are belittling or doubting the child for who they are by calling it a trend, a phase, a sickness, a problem.
There’s not a middle ground to take here. You get on board or you don’t. The consequences of not trusting your child to know him or herself is much greater than the ones that come with denying or shutting down your child when they come to know themselves better, in terms of gender identity and/or expression.
Just like when we have a baby on the way, through adoption, surrogacy or pregnancy, we say (and hopefully believe) that we don’t care what the baby “is,” just as long that baby is healthy. I could even say that many parents are able to grow and adapt to serve their unhealthy babies and children as well, to sort out how best support them and empower them, no matter what and at all costs.
So, it’s the same with transgender youth; we want them to be healthy. We want to put their mental health and their emotional well-being, their sense of self, their right to self-actualization above our own needs and expectations.
In my book, I talk about how when we get our kids, it’s not like choosing a snack from a vending machine: A-5! Plop! A Snickers! It’s like reaching a gloved hand into a mystery grab bag and then sometimes not really even knowing “what you got” for a decade or so.
It’s a mystery that we can be excited to be a part of, not a science project we can get an “A” on, or a promise that they are charged with keeping or breaking for our own comfort.
We get to model love—real, unconditional love—to your child. Our children’s further discovery of who they really are may end up triggering us and showing us this yucky or unhealed part of ourselves, like maybe we don’t love ourselves to the extent that we could.
We may have a breakdown around our own parents’ reactions and their judgment of how we navigate this path with our child. All of that is on us as parents, and we need to sort out our shit instead of trying to work it out at our kids’ expense, by trying to stifle or control them out of knowing who they are.
I believe that we are making progress and at the same time, we will never, ever be able to sit back and say the work is done—not as long as there are kids killing themselves because they don’t feel loved and accepted fully for who they are.
Not as long as one mom or dad or grandparent reduces their child’s needs and wisdom and throws them out into the street.
Not as long as so many of the teens in our community are disowned by their families because they didn’t meet the expectations or make everyone else feel comfortable.
Oppressive laws, hatred in the name of religious beliefs, using God as a weapon against humanity, “jokes” that demean and generalize transgender and gender non-conforming people, discrimination—all of that is up to us to change and stand up against at every single opportunity. People’s lives are on the line.
One simple thing we can all do is to update our bios and titles, our email signatures and zoom names to reflect our preferred pronouns. Mine say Vanessa (she/her). This makes it possible for transgender people to do the same without being the ONLY people who need to make their pronouns clear thus outing themselves in the process. It also creates a clear message to LGBTQ+ individuals that we are a safe space.
We can be humble. We can ask questions and learn. We can be courageous and find out what we need to find out to be more informed and educated on topics of gender and sexuality. It’s ok to not know and to ask.
Another big one is to realize that none of us actually is required to understand each other, nor do we need things that other people are doing/who they are to “make sense.”
I often tell parents that it’s not our job to understand our kids. That’s a great cherry on top, if and when it clicks, but really, that’s not how we win. We win by just loving them forever and showing them every day that who they are is perfect and good.
Just today a brilliant young man who I have the honor of walking alongside as he recently came out to his parents as transgender, totally blew my mind when he said this:
“It’s not our responsibility to make our parents proud. It’s their responsibility to be proud of us.”
Vanessa, thank you so much for taking the time to break down this complicated subject for us. I’m dropping an extra podcast episode this week with Vanessa and Dahn, a mom who has a trans child, so that we can further dig into this topic in the name of better understanding and acceptance. I’ll drop a new post when it’s ready!