Talking to kids about gender and sexuality is harder these days — or is it?

·9 min read
'Kids are sponges,' and don't get hung up on who is a man, woman or other gender, says Andrea MacPherson, a trans woman and parent from P.E.I. (IMGorthand/Getty Images - image credit)
'Kids are sponges,' and don't get hung up on who is a man, woman or other gender, says Andrea MacPherson, a trans woman and parent from P.E.I. (IMGorthand/Getty Images - image credit)

Recently, controversy erupted over a P.E.I. radio personality's reposting of a social media meme that drew criticism from the local LGBTQ community.

Ocean 100 morning show co-host Kerri Wynne MacLeod and Stingray Radio apologized for the post, and in the social media furor that ensued, Pride P.E.I. issued a joint statement with the station supporting her.

The post was a meme that talked about the challenges of parenting and how difficult it must be for parents these days to have the "birds and the bees" talk with their kids, since there seem to be more genders and sexual preferences than in the past.

But is it really more challenging to talk to kids about sexuality and gender now, as more people openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary or any other shade of the rainbow?

From dad to mom

"No, I don't feel that," said Andrea MacPherson, corporate secretary with the LGBTQ advocacy group Pride P.E.I., who came out as transgender about five years ago. She went from being "dad" to being "mom" to her now 11-year-old twins. She said it was not difficult, and her kids accepted it right away.

Sarah MacMillan/CBC
Sarah MacMillan/CBC

"It's a parent's responsibility to explain to the kid, what's going on in the world, and really, kids are sponges," she said.

MacPherson said she simply told her kids transgender people exist. "And they were like, 'OK!'" she said.

"Telling them that some people are boys, some people are girls, some people are both, some people are neither — they accepted that," MacPherson said. "Kids don't care about things more complicated than that."

Sex is absolutely everywhere in our society, but we're still a very sex-negative culture — Angele DesRoches

Angele DesRoches with PEERS Alliance, a group that promotes sexual health and drug-use harm reduction on P.E.I., doesn't have children but is an active aunt to seven kids and has been an early childhood educator in the past.

"There's lots of reasons why I feel bad for parents today — COVID, climate change. If acknowledging the diversity around human sexuality and gender throws off your quote-unquote 'birds and the bees' talk, then my concern is really how woefully inadequate that talk probably was," DesRoches said.

"The real issue is we still have parents who think of a sex talk as focusing on penis-vagina penetration, and a one-off conversation."

Talking to kids about human reproduction, preventing sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancies, and communication and boundary-setting in personal relationships are worthwhile conversations, Desroches said.

"When we focus on penis-vagina penetration as the definition of sex, we're missing all kinds of sex that young people are having, that also have risks associated," she said, promoting conversations that can introduce strategies to reduce harm, such as condom use.

Adults who find it challenging to talk to young people about gender and sexual diversity may want to examine where that discomfort and fear comes from, she suggests.

"Sex is absolutely everywhere in our society, but we're still a very sex-negative culture. Sex is sinful, it's still dirty, it's something to be hidden," she said. "Really, that's grownup baggage."

'Celebrating our uniqueness'

Some work is being done to educate Island students. The P.E.I. Public Schools Branch, with help from PEERS Alliance and the P.E.I. Transgender Network, is developing gender diversity guidelines for Island schools, following many other provinces across the country that already have such guidelines. The aim is to create more inclusive and safe learning environments for students while demonstrating respect for diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

For children in kindergarten to Grade 4, DesRoches said, "what we really are focusing on is celebrating our uniqueness and identifying gender stereotypes where they exist, and giving students the tools needed to recognize and resist those stereotypes," she said.

For older kids, it's important to ditch the narrative that being transgender means transitioning wholly from one gender binary (man or woman) to another.

"We're at a point now where we just know that that isn't true ... gender diversity is much more nuanced, beautiful and complicated than that. And so we're really talking about an entire spectrum of diversity that ranges from cisgender to transgender to non-binary to gender-fluid to gender-queer. Gender can be exciting! Folks should play, and folks should have room to be who they are."

What children and youth need to know about just as much, or more, than gender or sexual preference are things like consent, DesRoches believes.

Historically traditional "scripts" around sexuality can be unhealthy, she said, including notions that men should pursue women and sex and "win" them, or that sex is a "prize" to be taken by men.

Kids can handle just about anything

"One of the things I've been very keen on doing in my transition is involving my kids along the way," MacPherson said. "Setting expectations is the biggest key in making sure it's as stress-free as possible."


MacPherson's kids already knew about Jazz Jennings, a celebrity who came out as transgender at just six years old, when Barbara Walters interviewed her for the TV show 20/20. Jennings wrote a children's book called I Am Jazz, which MacPherson's children had read and loved.

"I explained some people are like Jazz, but don't realize it till they're a lot older, and that's what I'm like," she said.

I'm of the firm belief that there is no age that's too young to really explain to them. — Andrea MacPherson

Her own children sometimes mix up her pronouns, referring to her as "him," or calling her "dad," but she said that's fine.

She also sat down with the kids' teachers and school administration to tell them about her transition, so the kids wouldn't have to face uncomfortable questions, and they were "super supportive," MacPherson said.

And it didn't take long for kids and their parents to switch to using "her" and "Andrea."

"A few of their friends' parents have asked how they should refer to me, and I say I'm still their parent, my name is this now," she said.

"Some people might make mistakes and that's fine. Mistakes will be made, you don't make a big deal out of it."

MacPherson said kids especially are remarkably quick to correct themselves if they get it wrong, and just move on quickly with an "OK!"

'No age that's too young'

When is it appropriate to introduce kids to the idea of different genders and sexual preferences? CBC Kids produced an animated primer about this that parents can watch with their kids.

"I'm of the firm belief that there is no age that's too young to really explain to them," MacPherson said.

"As soon as my kids noticed that some things looked like 'boy' stuff and some things looked like 'girl' stuff, I made a point of saying 'some things are neither,'" she explains.

"Some people are boys, some people are girls, some people are both, some people are neither ... there's ways to talk about it at all ages that's age-appropriate."

Need some help?

DesRoches directs parents who seek information from PEERS about gender diversity and human sexuality to resources including Cory Silverberg's Sex is a Funny Word and What Makes a Baby, both books that explain sexuality while removing gendered assumptions. Use Google, she said, and find lots of good first-person stories from gender-diverse people on YouTube.

Don't wait until you are personally affected to get educated, either: sooner rather than later, you will likely meet someone who is transgender, MacPherson said.

"Even if kids aren't struggling with their own gender, just being able to explain it," she said. "So many people now just simply know a trans or non-binary person ... it's a good thing for everyone to know."

Knowledge can help make people more comfortable and reduce stigma, she said.

If you're a parent or caregiver of a transgender person of any age, PEERS has a program called Roots and Shoots — parents can come together to "unlearn myths about gender identity and replace those myths with knowledge and support around issues of gender diversity," the PEERS website says. At the same time, their trans or gender-creative children aged five to 13 can participate in Sierra Club Wild Child programming and meet like-minded peers and play in nature "while being their awesomely unique and authentic selves."

PEERS also recommends those raising gender diverse young children check out a free online course offered by Stanford School of Medicine, Health Across the Gender Spectrum.

Watch your language

Want a short primer on terms you might want to use when discussing these issues with your kids? They might already know them, but they might be impressed you know them too!

asexual: someone who is not sexually attracted to anyone.

bisexual: someone who is attracted to their own gender and another gender. Often shortened to "bi."

dead name: a transgender person's former name, usually their birth name. Use that person's new name, as hearing their former name or pronouns can negatively affect many trans people.

gender-fluid: a person whose gender is fluid — sometimes they may identify as and express themselves more as female, other times more as male.

gender non-conforming: people who don't conform outwardly to the societal norms expected of their gender. For example, currently a boy who wears a dress could be seen as gender-non-conforming.

non-binary: someone whose identity doesn't fit into a strictly male/female binary, and usually uses they/them pronouns. Celebrity Demi Lovato recently came out as non-binary.

polyamory: love relationships involving more than a couple. Polyamorous relationships can take many shapes and sizes.

pronouns: he/him, she/her or they/them are pronouns. More people are introducing themselves and stating their pronouns, depending on how they identify. These are often seen on email signatures or social media profiles.

straight: straight people are attracted to those of the opposite gender.

top surgery: removal of breasts. Many trans and non-binary people get top surgery.

transgender: a person who changes their gender from that which they were assigned at birth. For instance male-to-female, female-to-male, female-to-non-binary, etc. Sometimes shortened to "trans." That change can be social (the way people appear and dress) and also medical (involving gender reassignment surgery). Halifax-born actor Elliot Page recently came out as transgender, transitioning from female to male.

trans man: a man who was assigned female at birth.

trans woman: a woman who was assigned male at birth.

queer: The LGBTQ community has begun to reclaim the word queer, taking away past negativity and using it as a term to encompass anyone who is not straight or cisgender.

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