If I had to pick my top two priorities in parenting, I am pretty sure that they would be raising children that know and feel that they are loved and raising children that are kind human beings that will go out and be a force for good in the world. We get a good start on both of these goals just by loving our kids. Kids learn what they see. When we consistently treat our children with love, kindness, and respect (and they see us treat others with love, kindness, and respect), they feel loved and they learn that this is how to treat others. This is great and our actions are a powerful lesson of love for our children. There are some aspects of love, though, that my partner and I do try to be even more intentional about – especially when society isn’t always reinforcing the message that we are trying to teach at home. This is a big reason that we have been actively parenting as LGBTQ allies since our children were babies. I don’t want to hope that they will sift through the messages from home and the messages from society and pull out the right ones on their own. We want our children to know that we will/would be their ally and we want to help them learn how to be allies themselves. We’re not leaving these messages to chance, so we’re being really purposeful in teaching this to our children.
There are three main things that we are aiming for here. We are trying to educate our kids about LGBTQ related topics. We are not making assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation or gender identity. And, we are demonstrating what being an ally looks like. We are parents of young children, so what this looks like for our kids at our stage might be a little different from what it would look like for older kids. Keeping these goals as part of your parenting, though, should be a good guide towards making sure that your children feel loved and learn to share love.
Educating your child helps them to see that all people are different and that those differences are something to celebrate. Our children should know that girls can marry boys or girls or no one at all. They should know that feeling like a boy is what makes you a boy, no matter what your body looks like. They should know that love is what makes families and that there are lots of different families out there that love each other. A lot of adults seem to have an instinct to avoid certain topics with children. Maybe they feel awkward themselves or they worry that their kids will be confused? I’m not totally sure. I don’t think that avoiding topics serves our children well, though. I also don’t think that things like this confuse kids. Learning that people are different in terms of gender identity or sexual orientation is no different to kids than learning that people have different types of hair or that some people are taller and some people are shorter. Having accurate information about these things can help children understand what they are experiencing themselves and it can help them to understand what others are experiencing, which is important for teaching them empathy.
- Be careful in how you talk about relationships and families. Don’t assume every family has a mom and a dad or that every woman’s partner is male or vice versa. You can ask about your child’s friend’s “Parent” instead of their “Mommy and Daddy.” You can ask about your child’s male teacher’s “Spouse” or “Partner” instead of his “Wife.” Use neutral terms when talking about people’s partners or parent(s) if you don’t know their gender.
- Make a distinction between gender and sex. These are different things. Sex is the body that you are born with and gender is who you are. We’ve distinguished these in our family by using “boy” and girl” to talk about gender and “boy body” and “girl body” to talk about sex. These terms are easy for toddlers to understand and you can build on this as kids get older. For example, my 3-year-old understands that sometimes girls are born in a boy body and sometimes boys are born in a girl body. My kindergartner knows that this is called transgender.
- Make sure that your children know that there are all different people and all different families. Spend time with your LGBTQ family, friends, and neighbors. Don’t talk about their families any differently than you do other families. Identify husbands of husbands the same way you identify husbands of wives. Read books that show LBGTQ families and individuals. (See some or our recommendations here and here.) Make sure that your kids see diversity and celebrations of it.
- Take your children to events where they (and you) can meet new people. There have been pride events in cities all over the country this month. Go and celebrate. Our community has a holiday concert each winter hosted by our local LGBTQ center. My kids love getting to stay up late and be part of this event, and I love that they’re seeing people celebrated for who they are. (One note here – please make sure that you are attending these events genuinely. If you are there as a box checking diversity exercise or to point people out, you are missing the point and tokenizing people.)
- Be honest and answer your children’s questions with age-appropriate truths. This helps your children know that topics aren’t off limits and that you are a safe place for reliable information. (If you don’t have the answers, educate yourself or seek answers out together with your child.)
Another important thing you can do as a parent is to recognize that you don’t know your child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Many parents assume that their child is cisgender and heterosexual. This puts children in a position of having to tell you that they aren’t who you had assumed they were. Don’t put your child in this position. Avoiding these assumptions is one way that you can show your child that you will be their ally.
- Avoid pushing gender stereotypes on your kids. Provide “girl toys” and “boy toys” to all your children. Let them choose. Let your child wear the clothes that they like. There’s no such thing as girl’s clothes and boy’s clothes. If a girl is wearing the shirt, then it is a girl’s shirt.
- Believe what your children tell you about themselves. Most children start identifying with a gender around age 3. Agree with your child that they are a girl if that is what they tell you – even if you thought that they were a boy. There are many benefits to affirming (rather than questioning) a child’s gender identity.
- Identifying with sexual orientation usually comes later, but you can be careful about how you talk about future relationships in the meantime. Avoid assigning gender to hypothetical future partners. Don’t talk about “future wives” for your sons or “future husbands” for your daughters. You can say “future partner” or something like, “someday you might find someone that you love that you decide that you want to be a family with.” Don’t treat their friendships differently based on the gender of the friend either. Little girls don’t have boyfriends and little boys don’t have girlfriends. They just have friends.
Another great way to show your child that you would be their ally is to let them see you be an ally to others. Imagine that your child is LGBTQ (because they might be – you don’t know!) and think about everything that they would have heard or seen you do. Think about all of the places that you might take them and all of the communities that you made them part of. Would they feel loved and supported by what they’ve seen you do and the people that you’ve surrounded them with? Show them what you would do for them, by showing them what you do for others. If your children end up not needing you to be their ally, these are the examples that teach them how to be allies themselves.
- Remember that your kids are always watching, listening, and learning from your example. When they see you celebrate someone, they learn that being LGBTQ is something to be proud of. When they see you speak out against a homophobic and hateful comment, they learn that these comments are inappropriate and unacceptable. When they see you advocate for change in your community, they learn their power to make a difference.
- Protect your children from hate as best you can. You can’t always control who your child is around or what they hear, but think hard about who you allow to be in their inner circle. Who deserves to influence this precious heart and mind? If they do hear hate, make sure they also hear you speak out against it.
- Talk about equality with your kids and be honest that there is work to be done. Tell your children what you believe and why. Talk about these issues when you go to vote and tell your child who you are voting for and why. If your kids are older, talk about stories from the news.
- Keep learning yourself. Check out this guide for more tips on how to be an effective ally.
Love your child. Teach them to love. That’s really what parenting as an ally is all about.