Nobody wants to raise children who are bullies, or non-inclusive. No parent makes these choices consciously but most of the time, it’s our conscious and subconscious bias and prejudices that inform most parenting decisions. These also lead to parents, unconsciously, influencing the way their children think and interact with the world around them. Not only this, but there are several external factors that play a huge role in shaping a child’s social ideologies.
This is even more difficult when it comes to raising kids who are conscious about sexual and gender diversity, because of the taboo surrounding sex and anything differing from the norm of the binary gender identities in society. So how do we combat this and raise children who are allies to the LGBTQ+ community?
We contacted two certified experts, Dr. Priyanka Puri, a consultant child psychologist at Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, and Dr. Milan Balakrishnan, consulting psychiatrist at Masina Hospital, Mumbai, and had them compile a short guide to ensure you raise children who are not afraid of accepting identities different than their own…
You don’t have to wait for an instance of bullying or any external factor to start communicating with your child about these issues. “It’s far better to be proactive and to create an environment where the kids can learn about the gender differences and sexual orientations well before they are curious and ask about it. This is the responsibility of the parent to provide age-appropriate information and keep them upgraded at each age level. This will help to satisfy their curiosity and will also prevent the children from engaging in inappropriate behaviors or seeking wrong or incorrect information from peers or others,” says Dr. Puri, “Many books, graphic representations, flashcards, and games are readily available in the market to help the parent. Creativity and simpler use of words by the parent will help the child benefit the most in satisfying the curiosity and understanding the message given by the parent.”
Discussing topics related to sexual and gender identities is largely considered taboo in most Indian families but younger parents should try not to repeat the errors of the past and eliminate the mystique and stigma associated with these subjects from a very young age. “When the child is able to develop a fluent speech, which is around two years of age, basic awareness regarding sexual orientations can begin. The ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ concepts must be introduced with simpler languages such as the concept of family and strangers and the basic differentiation of boy and girl. Progressively, more information can be added to it,” says Dr. Puri, “Most importantly, at any age, the more the child is willing to ask questions, the more the parent should answer his or her questions realistically. Simpler words will be better for the child’s understanding. This will help the child to improve social behavior as well.”
Adopt Gender-neutral Terms
“Rather than encouraging gender stereotypes and basing everything on heterosexual relationships, challenge these ideas from a young age,” says Dr. Balakrishnan. The heteronormativeness is so pervasive that we don’t realise that we’re reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices in the children. “As parents or caregivers, we must use gender-neutral terms, buy non-gender-biased toys for children and appreciate the child’s interests and encourage them, such as boys may like cooking or girls to join martial arts,” insists Dr. Puri, “It is most important to make them aware of gender identities and teach them that all people are entitled to respect and should be considered in terms of greeting or interaction, regardless of their sexual choices or identities. Talking early is the biggest tool a parent has in order to bring up heteronormativity in kids.”
It’s important to try and identify where these stereotypes are coming from and consciously make efforts to avoid reinforcing them in front of your children. “You can’t just say the right things and then model contradictory behavior,” says Dr. Balakrishnan, “The children will pick up the behavior and not the language that you speak.”
Make Conscious Choices
“Language is the biggest tool to teach inclusion,” says Dr. Puri, “In language we can use gender affirmative pronouns and gender-inclusive terms. Gender affirmative pronouns are pronouns that are respectful alternatives to he/she that can be used by others to describe a person who may or may not subscribe to the gender binary.” She suggests several ways you can make that happen, “While greeting others avoid using gender-specific terms such as ladies, gentlemen, ma’am, sir, girls, guys etc. Rather, use friends, folks, everyone, you all, etc., which helps to respect and acknowledge the gender identities of all people and removes any assumptions. Instead of sister or brother use sibling, instead of male or female use human, instead of wife or husband use spouse, instead of he or she, use them, instead of his or her, use their, instead of girls or boys, use kids, instead of male or female, use human. Therefore, it’s the way we, as a parent, respect and show acceptance to our children, such that they mirror it.”
Despite best intentions, there will be times when your child might not feel comfortable enough to come forward and communicate on their own about the issues they’re facing, especially if it’s about bullying. “If your child isn’t talking but you suspect that something is wrong, share your observations and watch for clues. The best time to talk to kids is not right before or right after school. The best time is when they are calm and have had some time to decompress after the school day. Saying, ‘I noticed that you don’t want to play with your friends much anymore, are you still hanging out with them?’, gives your child an opening without feeling interrogated,” says Dr. Puri. It’s important to establish a healthy channel of communication with your child, suggests Dr. Balakrishnan, “They need to be reassured that they can talk about their feelings without being afraid and have their parents’ full support.”
Nobody is perfect and we’re all victims of being raised in a society that marginalises LGBTQ+ communities and makes it an offense to normalise talking about them, especially when it comes to young children. Do not blame yourself for not knowing the right things to say. The key thing here is that you’re willing to make a change and create a better place for your children and their peers. “Commit to continuing to a lifelong learning and involve your children in this process,” suggests Dr. Balakrishnan, “Read age-appropriate books with LGBTQ characters. Talk about same-sex marriage, talk about what it means to be transgender, talk about how all families look different and that a home with two moms or two dads has just as much love as a home with a mom and a dad. If your kids ask questions, answer them honestly. When they ask a question that you do not know the answer to, tell them you’re not sure but that you can look it up and learn about it together. Empower your kids to learn and become educated LGBTQ allies.”