Dear Dr. Debbie,
The talk about who can use which bathroom is troubling my kids, and in turn, it stresses me out. My youngest is 13, and his mind is just learning to grasp a lot of this stuff. It’s confusing and hard to explain to him, and I also want to make sure he knows about sexual, as well as racial and economic prejudices. He is highly intelligent and observant, but he still has childlike reasoning.
This is not something I expected to have to explain to him. He should be studying, playing baseball, hanging out with his friends and not having these concerns. I suppose his awareness came from social media. My daughter is 10 years older, and we never had these issues.
I agree that discrimination should not be tolerated. But I also believe this is a major culture shift, which is likely best implemented slowly and not thrust upon people all at once. Change and acceptance comes with time. How can this be handled in ways that are best for the children and teens? I think if it had happened when I was in high school, I would have been terrified.
Not Ready for Swinging Doors
Don’t miss last week’s column Don’t ignore signs of teen depression — Good Parenting
Dear Not Ready,
Your observation that cultural change comes slowly is very applicable to erasing prejudices. What we don’t understand about other people can be frightening. Therefor our vulnerabilities, including the ability to always protect our children, drive much of the resistance to change. Those at the forefront of change take the brunt of the opposition while, once rules and practices have been established — sometimes several generations later, it seems odd to think about how things once were. For example, it is perplexing to consider a time when women did not have the right to vote or couldn’t attend most colleges.
The acceptance that a person’s gender identity is not the one assigned at birth, for many, is hard to grasp. It has been the rare and courageous individual (or social recluse) who has been able to break through social prejudice to ask for change or just ignore convention and use the bathroom that makes the most sense. The brouhaha in our country at the moment is pushing inevitably ahead, similar to women’s rights, racial desegregation and the right for any two adults to legally marry. Through the lens of chronological perspective, future children may wonder why bathroom accessibility needed a fight at all.
In honor of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA has shared evidence of levels of acceptance throughout time and geography for gender identities. The Great Plains tribes of North America consider gender as a spectrum from male to female and acknowledge greater spiritual power to those in the middle. Cultures as ancient and widespread as Mayan, Italian, Albanian, Egyptian, Kenyan, Indonesian, Chinese and Korean have beliefs and practices that include marital and other legal sanctions and higher cultural status for transsexuality, homosexuality and dual sexuality. There are also artistic celebrations in sculpture, poetry and song representing those groups. Plato considered the “third sex,” which encompasses a combination of male and female characteristics, to be part of human nature.
Behind the charge for change in bathroom use is the acceptance of a nontraditional gender identity by others. This is of primary importance to the mental health of individuals who see themselves as being outside the menu of acceptable options for gender identity.
To address your question of how to present bathroom accessibility to children and teens, use your attitude toward other forms of discrimination as a guide. Differences in sexual identity can be explained in simple terms to young children much as you teach them about religious differences, ability differences and differences in family composition and skin color.
When using a bathroom in a public place, you never know what you might see. If you let your guard down, you could easily be the victim of theft or other abuse in a public restroom or locker room. Since the rise of bullying in schools, going to the bathroom in pairs has become good practice for children to learn as a safety protocol for life. Looking under the door before opening the stall is another.
Your children only need to get comfortable with the topic of gender identity as it pertains to the differences that exist in humankind. If it helps, as in other matters that are under the broader heading of “the birds and the bees,” you can find many examples in nature of animals and plants that have physical features and reproductive roles that are not restrictive ideas of what is male and what is female.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com