My boys attend a local public elementary school. With the current debates that are occurring in North Carolina regarding legislation around transgenderism and public restrooms, the school’s CNN Kids news program did a story on the debate (May 10th edition). I read the video transcript and found the discussion on the role of public restrooms in modern politics to be interesting and informative.
Knowing that many other families will be having conversations around this subject, it seemed as though it would be beneficial to reflect on the conversation I had with my boys; not as a prototype to follow, but as a sample to vet.
Here are a few preliminary thoughts that I won’t go into in as much detail, but I believe are relevant.
- My boys are 9 and 11 years old; 3rd and 5th grade. I wanted to keep in mind their social and cognitive development as we talked. My goal was not to be comprehensive on the subject, but to give them what they need in this season of their life.
- This was not our first conversation about sex and sexuality. If, as parents, we only talk about the subject of sex and ethics reactively, it will distort the message our children hear. Jesus will come across as a defensive guy.
- The duration of the conversation was about 20 minutes over dinner; a time when often talk about things that happened at school.
- My boys aren’t old enough to be in gym classes where a transgender student would be showering in the opposite locker room to their biological gender, so I didn’t introduce this to the discussion.
With those things being said, there were five key objectives I had going into the conversation with my boys.
1. I wanted to know what they think as much as teach them what I think.
The most important part of this conversation is what I learned from them, not what they learned from me. That’s not to downplay my influence as a parent, but the most important information transferred is my awareness of how my boys were processing the information they received.
The biggest long-term impact I will have on my boys is shaping how they think; as much as what they think. Conversations like these are times when I get a litmus test for how they respond in awkward-controversial subjects, how perceptive they are about moral dilemmas, the degree of impact authority figures (like teachers) have on them, and what kind of logic they use to support their beliefs.
The answers to those questions lay the foundation for anything I want to tell them. If I miss those answers, there is a really good chance they’ll eventually begin missing (forgetting or dismissing) the perspectives I offer.
In this sense, the most important thing (in terms of setting the conversation up to succeed) I offer to the conversation is comfortable, open-ended questions and silence.
2. I wanted them to be both biblically informed and personally compassionate.
I want my boys to be both thoroughly versed in God’s original design and increasingly equipped to care for others in a broken world.
My boys love biology, so we talked about how gender is ingrained in every cell of our body as either an XX (female) or XY (male) chromosome. They love to ask, “Whose nose do I have? Whose eyes do I have?” Tying the conversation to something they were familiar with and enjoy was an important way of making it less awkward.
We talked about gender being part of God’s design (Genesis 1:27) and that God’s design was good. I wanted them to know they should enjoy being boys and strive to grow into mature men who care for and lead their families well; also that it’s okay if they think girls have cooties right now [attempt at humor], but they should always respect women and treat them with honor.
We talked about how, because of the Fall (Genesis 3), we live in a broken world where many things don’t work the way they’re supposed to and everything falls apart. One result of this is that some people don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies; some people feel fat even when they’re very skinny (anorexia), some people feel scared when there is no threat (phobias and OCD), and some people feel like they should be a boy when their body is a girl or vice versa (transgenderism, or “gender dysphoria”).
We emphasized that we should never make fun of someone who is suffering. We should never call people names that make them feel embarrassed or shamed. Whenever we hear people doing these kinds of things to others, we step in and help the person who is being picked on.
We don’t have to agree with someone or understand their experience to love them. We believe that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves our honor and respect. If they’re hurting, we try to represent God’s compassion. If they’re sinning, we let them know of God’s forgiveness through the gospel. If we’re not sure, we listen and ask questions.
3. I wanted them to learn how to honor authorities with whom they disagree.
I want my boys to be well-versed in the art of disagreement – the ability to be skeptical or disagree while maintaining honor with the person with whom they disagree. I don’t want them to grow up thinking the more right they are the more rejected and lonely they will be.
I affirmed how they handled themselves in the classroom; listening respectfully and bringing their questions to Sallie and me. I want them to know that even when they were uncertain, they made wise choices about how to respond.
We talked about how there was a great deal of debate on this topic in our country right now, so that is why this was a topic discussed at school. We talked about the good values of those that want open bathrooms are standing for – that no one should be discriminated against for things they did not choose.
We talked about how one of the challenges of government is balancing personal freedom (i.e., choice of restroom) with the collective good (i.e., privacy and safety in public restrooms). That’s why politicians always argue about tax rates and the size of government. I was surprised how much they were interested in and followed this point.
The main point here was that just because someone has a different view from us, doesn’t mean they’re bad. It also doesn’t mean we’re bad if we disagree with them. It is important to know what you believe and why. It is important to be able to articulate and defend what you believe. It is equally important to listen well to those with whom you disagree and honor their leadership when God has placed them in that role.
4. I wanted to take the opportunity to review how they should respond if they were in an abusive situation.
In a previous post, I tried to make very clear that the concern about abuse is not to profile those who experience gender dysphoria as sexual predators.
We talked about how it’s not the person who is confused about their gender that would take advantage of this law. Instead, the concern is that people who want to abuse children would take advantage of these laws.
We reviewed previous discussions about how to respond if someone is abusive. The short points were:
- If someone is attacking or abusing you, RUN! And run towards people. Abusers want privacy; that is why bathroom access is a concerning subject.
- If you can’t run, then yell, bite, and kick as hard as you can… then run. You will never be in trouble for defending yourself in an abusive situation.
- No matter what, tell Mama and Papa. We will believe you and protect you. Abusers often threaten kids to keep silent after abuse. Anything they say to keep you quiet is a lie.
- Don’t live in fear. There are many things in life where it’s important for you to know what to do “just in case” but are unlikely to occur (i.e., fire drill at school or knowing the 911 number for a robbery). This is one of those.
5. I wanted them to be sympathetic to the reality that even good legislation can have unintended consequences.
Our conversation may have had as much to do with politics as sexuality. It is easy for kids (and adults) to begin to think that good rules would make a good world; that the problem with the world is that we just haven’t figured out what the best rules should be.
We talked about how often laws have unintended consequences. Sometimes governments, for instance, invest in fixing up poor neighborhoods. But this can lead to the unintended consequence that many of the poor people can’t afford to live in that area anymore, so they have to move and lose the community that they relied on for support.
The people who are concerned about this law may have identified some of these unintended consequences that need to be heard and addressed. In a broken world, even good rules don’t run in parallel (never crossing or contradicting each other).
We talked about why we don’t need better rules as much as we need a Redeemer. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher (although he was the best teacher). Jesus came as our Savior. He knew we needed a new heart, not just better thoughts.
At the end of the conversation, when my boys asked me, “So, what should be done about the bathroom thing?” my best answer was, “I don’t know. I know that God’s design of men and women is good. I know there is a lot of pain and brokenness in our world. I know I want to love well anyone God gives me the chance to befriend and that it’s not mean to think about safety in private places like restrooms. But when it comes to this law and its possible unintended consequences, I’m not sure.”
My boys need to hear me say that sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know” because they need to have the freedom / courage to say “I don’t know” when they’re uncertain. It also makes the things we are sure about seem more solid, if we are willing to admit our uncertainty on things that are less clear.
This was the gist of our conversation and the intentions for the various points of emphasis. I hope it’s helpful for other families as you consider how / whether to have similar conversations.