Care and Feeding

My 11-Year-Old Says She’s Trans, but I Kinda Think It’s Just a Phase

How do I talk to her about my concerns?

A shorthaired kid seen from the back, with parents looking on.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Just recently, a few days after her 11th birthday, my daughter came out to her dad and me as trans. She’d like to be called by the masculine version of her name and would like for us to start using masculine pronouns. We’ve always told our children we’d be supportive of them no matter what, and we truly mean it.

However, I really don’t think she is trans. It’s not that I secretly wish she weren’t—I just think she’s possibly going through a confused/curious stage. (She just started puberty and is heading into middle school soon.) I remember that when I was young, there was a period of time that I wished I was a boy because it just seemed like boys had it easier than girls. Before she started the conversation, and even in the days after it so far, she has asked for skirts for her birthday and wanted to buy a pair of glittery flamingo earrings; she spent her birthday money on a female anime character costume—all things my mind doesn’t associate with her being trans. Would she not begin to shun the “girly” things in favor of more “boy” things if she really felt she were a boy inside and wants to be seen as such?

I want to do what’s best for my child, but I am so confused now. I have not said any of this to her because I don’t want to invalidate her feelings, but is there a conversation to be had that can possibly clarify what she’s really going through? Or is it best to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself and just follow her/his lead?

—Is She Really?

Dear ISR,

There is a conversation to be had, yes, though it may not clarify things to your satisfaction. But clarifying things for you should not be the goal of that conversation anyway; the goal of that conversation is to clarify for your child that you are present, listening, and trustworthy, so your child continues talking to you. The particular thoughts and feelings you’ve mentioned should not be shared with your child, and, yes, you should absolutely follow his lead.

But following his lead doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. I realize that this is a confusing time for you—and it may get more confusing for some time to come—but it’s important that you think through the questions you ask your child before you ask them. There’s a world of difference between asking “What does being trans mean to you?” and “What put that idea into your head?” or “But why are you wearing a skirt, then?” Take a moment (take many moments) to reflect on how grateful you are that he’s talking to you about this. This is a gift. And even if you are full of doubts about how sincere he is or how well thought out his plan is—and are itching to point out all the reasons this does not make sense to you—do not respond to this gift by saying anything that would give him the impression that you don’t believe him. Or by telling him that he has to choose between his identity and that pair of glittery flamingo earrings.

The bottom line is that you’re not the one who gets to decide what counts as being trans, not even as the parent of a child this young. And because being trans can be more complex and nuanced than being “a boy inside,” you owe it to your child to live up to the trust he’s placing in you right now to set aside all your own notions of what gender identity “really” means. Even if your child is a boy, that doesn’t mean that skirts are now off the table for him—not in the world he’s growing up in (and thank goodness for that). As a culture, our understanding of—and language about—gender binaries is evolving rapidly, sometimes faster than anyone over 35 can keep up with.

And so you should start to do some research. The American Academy of Pediatrics has useful information, as does the American Psychological Association. And I can tell you that I’ve learned a lot from listening to the terrific podcast How to Be a Girl, in which Marlo Mack chronicles the path she and her child have taken since her 3-year-old son first announced that she was actually her daughter.

Is it possible that your child is confused? Sure. Being 11 is very confusing. Puberty is earth-shaking, and middle school is awful. Lots of things feel up for grabs at that age. But there’s a great deal of information you don’t have at this point. For all you know, he’s felt this way for a long time and only now feels emboldened to talk to you about it. It’s equally possible that this is a new idea about himself he’s trying on for size. And you may not be able to discern the difference, at least not right away. But your job now is to listen to what he is telling you and be respectful. If your child has asked you to use male pronouns, use them. Call him by the version of his name that he prefers. Listen with an open mind and heart. A child who is listened to, whose sense of self is respected, is a healthy child, trans or not.

Is he “really” trans? is a question I would set aside. This moment represents a test for you, no matter how the question of gender plays out for your child over time. This is your chance to prove to him that you really are going to love and support him no matter what.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting a baby in December, and we have started arguing constantly about hypothetical or just far-in-the-future problems. Like public school or private school. Or how many activities—sports, music lessons, etc.—is an acceptable number. But we’re also staying up late fighting about things we’re going to have to deal with right away too, like who’s going to get up during the night when the baby cries and how long I should plan to breastfeed. We used to be the kind of couple other people envied because we seemed to get along so well, and we actually did get along well—but now I’m afraid we’re going to fight about everything for the next 18 years! How do we decide about all these things we disagree about?

—One-Half of a Suddenly Squabbling Couple

Dear Half,

How do you decide? You don’t. You two need to table every single one of these questions.

I understand the impulse to try to adjudicate everything in advance. My husband and I had a fight about thumb-sucking when I was still in my first trimester (he said no; I said life is hard, and if a thumb helped, I would damn well let the kid suck on it) that got so heated we stopped talking to each other for an entire day.

The truth is that the only certainty about what you’re going to do as a parent is that until you’re in the midst of it you cannot predict anything about what you’re going to do. Or even what you’re going to want to do. I was sure I was going to nurse our daughter until she was 12 months old and then wean her—why would I do otherwise? (Surprise! There were plenty of reasons.) And my husband and I were both committed public-school-or-bust parents who ended up switching in the middle of a chaotic first grade year to a private school … and then later, in eighth grade, home schooling for a year, which neither one of us would have predicted in a million years.

During the first year, you’re going to have to be nimble and open-minded or you will drive yourself mad. Things change all the time, and if you cling to the “decisions” you made months ago (or, I’m sorry to tell you, hours ago), you won’t be able to handle those changes. And as your baby becomes an unpredictable toddler and then a child with ideas of their own, you’ll need to be poised for responsive action. As time passes, there will be matters about which you and your husband will want to present a united front (because it will be important to make a single message very clear—for example, when it has to do with safety) and matters about which you’ll have to agree to disagree or come up with a compromise. The only thing I can assure you is that right now you could discuss these issues for hours, and even if you came to a conclusion, it would be absolutely useless years down the road.

In the meantime, don’t stay up late arguing. Try to get to some sleep. You’re going to need to be well-rested for what’s ahead.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter, who just finished kindergarten at a small private school, is ahead of her peers in reading and math and in some subjects is doing the work of third and fourth graders. I don’t like the term gifted and absolutely never speak about her abilities. However, the moms of her classmates (including my own best friend) noticed that she was regularly pulled out for special reading and math sessions, was given different worksheets, etc., and started saying somewhat snide things to me. By the end of the school year, my best friend even remarked that the school only gave my daughter this higher-level work to “placate” me, that my daughter “couldn’t possibly be that far ahead” of the other children.

I’m at a loss. My child is absolutely capable of doing the work they give her—that is why they give it to her! But apparently all of the moms were constantly asking for extra work for their kids and never got it (it seems they are not familiar with the concept of diminishing marginalized returns), and the fact that my child got different (not extra!) work means that I put pressure on the school. Which I never did. I merely checked in occasionally with the plan they created (and frankly far less than any of the other helicopter moms).

Yes, my daughter is significantly ahead of her peers. So what? Why does that mean that I put pressure on the school? I hate it when they make derisive comments about my pushing her too hard, when that isn’t true either. Sure, she is doing worksheets and reading this summer, but she also plays video games, watches TV, goes to the park, plays soccer … i.e., does normal kid things.

What can I say or do to smooth this over?

—Not a Competitive Parent

Dear NaCP,

Smooth this over for whom? Your daughter seems to be fine. You’re the one who feels like the other kids (I mean parents) are ganging up on you, misunderstanding you, refusing to play nicely with you. You should find some new friends—that “best friend” of yours sounds like a mean girl to me. You should stop worrying about what the parents of your daughter’s classmates say about you. And when people say nasty things to you, you should thank them warmly for their interest and change the subject. And stop protesting so much. It makes you sound as if you believe what the other moms are saying.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

When is it appropriate to confront a stranger over their treatment of a child? When I was walking by a group on the sidewalk, I watched one of the little boys (my guess is he was 5 or 6 years old) approach one of the women in the group, perhaps his mother. She promptly smacked him on his upper arm and yelled at him not to interrupt her. At the time, I decided to mind my own business and keep walking. But the memory sticks with me, likely due to guilt. Would it have been appropriate to say something? If so, what?