In some parts of the country, the birth of a child usually also involves the blessings of tall, well-built individuals wearing colourful sarees — it tends to be perhaps a baby’s first interaction with anyone from the LGBTQ+ section of society. After that however, their interface or understanding of genders and sexes other than male or female usually does not come up in everyday conversation or learning.
LGBTQ+ inclusion is very important to make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable in bringing their whole selves to school or work respectfully. Learning about LGBTQ issues from a formative age will allow all young people, regardless of their space on the gender spectrum, to feel confident in including and being included, and they can all learn about the power of community, become allies as they get older.
Children often ask their parents questions about LGBTQ people that their parents feel uncomfortable about or unprepared to answer. Kids may get to know about them and their issues and problems through friends, the media, or by knowing or seeing an LGBTQ adult in their lives. They may hear certain words or terms at school or on TV, but not know what they mean.
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Recently, social media has been a catalyst for social change, acceptance, and inclusivity among preteen and teenage youth. However, it is also a space for half-information or misinformation, and children and teens still tend to look to their parents, mentors, or other elders, for guidance about gender identity and sexual orientation.
At school, the reason to have an inclusive gender syllabus is a necessity for uniformity of information disseminated in an emotionally safe environment filled with peers. It also means asking questions in an emotionally safe environment from a trusted adult. Brainstorming questions, having enquiries, quenching curiosity all lead to acceptance.
At home, speaking with a child about sexual orientation and gender identity can teach them the value of empathy and respect for others, as well as keep open the door for any future questions and conversations with elders of the family.
Here are a few pointers to follow at home:
When to start. Anytime. Having open, age-appropriate discussions at an early age will allow further conversations as a child gets older.
Be a good listener. This will help you understand what a child is asking and what they already understand about the subject.
True, simple, and short conversations. Answer questions truthfully, but keep in mind a child’s developmental age. Be honest if you do not know the answer to a question. Encourage a child to continue asking questions.
Layer the discussion. This shouldn’t be a one-time conversation. Use media and/or life experiences as opportunities to re-engage children into further discussions as they develop.
Different sources for age-appropriate information. Consider using children’s books or videos that discuss gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Give information based on a child’s development age.
Below are some suggestions on how to talk to children of specific age groups:
Pre-school age (age 3-5) – This age group is only able to understand simple and concrete answers to questions. When answering, use simple language. Try to only address the specific question asked, without giving any further details. For example, if a child asks why their friend from school has two moms, you can say, “Families can be different. Some families have a mom and a dad. Some have two moms or two dads. Some have only one mom or one dad.”
Primary years (age 6-12) – Children at this age are beginning to explore and understand who they are in the world. As their questions about gender and sex become more complex and concrete, so should the answers. For example, a child may witness teasing by classmates, and come to the trusted adult at school or home, for advice on how to respond. This is an opening to reinforce the value of treating others with respect. “Myra cut her hair short, and all the other children were teasing her. Does that mean she’s a boy?” The reply could be as follows, “Having short hair does not make you a girl or a boy. How did you feel when you saw the other children teasing her?” A circle-time discussion on gender equality could be initiated, an interview of family members or other school staff on their understanding on gender equality could also be undertaken.
Senior school adolescent children (13-18) – As children become teenagers, not only does their sexual orientation become apparent, their friends’ will too. Students might ask questions as some of their classmates begin to be more open about their gender identities or orientation. Teens may be using this conversation to judge a trusted adult’s reaction to their friend’s “coming out”. Try to limit any judgments about things you as an adult don’t agree with. Ask what their thoughts and feelings are about it first before expressing your opinions.
It’s key to remember that any grown-up, a parent or a facilitator, might not ever feel completely ready for this talk, but staying calm, being relaxed and answering questions honestly makes it easier for children to grasp knowledge. This conversation can be a good way to teach children about your values, or your family’s, while supporting them to explore their own.
Trust, confidence and strong emotional management is what children learn from their adults, when the said adults handle a sensitive topic with grace. When you answer honestly, any difficult conversations of the future become easier. When unsure of how to answer a question you must reach out to a licensed mental health provider at school or the local hospital. Screaming, staying mum, and calling names or pretending to be busy tends to confuse a chid.
Effective parenting can be achieved by recognising common parenting milestones and skills — prepare to address issues and be open to different strategies or ask for help.
Dr. Aarti Bakshi is a mother of three and a developmental psychologist and SEL (social, emotional learning) consultant at SAAR Education, a Mumbai-headquartered consortium that offers educational resources for children.