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Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Thanks everyone for joining us today. So good to have you guys back here. Dr. Emily, Dr. Rebecca. Hello. Hi. Today’s question was actually a text from a friend of mine and I asked her if it was okay to read it on the podcast, and I feel like there are a lot of parents who have found themselves in a situation like this or something similar. So she asked me, her son is five years old and he came home from school and he said, two kids at school don’t know if they’re a boy or a girl. She went on to say to me, I did my best to explain that some people feel different on the inside than they look on the outside, but how do I tell him he shouldn’t lead with, are you a boy or a girl? And I thought that was so relatable as a parent to be like, I want to correct this.


I don’t know. I feel so obligated to kind of what I often refer to as I have to parent in the moment. There’s so much pressure to have the right answer at the right time and instruct your children to be the most politically correct they could possibly be. And I so relate to that anxiety as a parent. And also I have a feeling where this conversation will go in terms of our stances being like, I think there’s also time and space to build those skills without having to immediately shut it down. Even this is a question being asked to her. I feel like I’m thinking of a time when I was at a store and there was a disabled person with a cane walking really differently than my children were used to seeing. And my daughter pointed and was like, mommy, why are they walking so funny? And me wanting to be like, first of all, just hide and disappear. I was embarrassed. But also wanting to one, help educate her around differences, but also how to then also teach her how to imagine another person’s feelings when you ask a question. It’s a lot of stuff. So I would love to hear what you guys think about this. I definitely relate to this question a lot.

Dr. Rebecca (02:59):

I guess, and I may have missed what you said, although I don’t think I did, but I would draw an important distinction I think between gender and discussing gender with kids and discussing different levels of ability with kids. I’ve read a lot about when parents have kids, let’s say with physical disabilities, that when other kids point or look or ask questions out loud that actually they welcome parents saying, let’s go ask him, or let’s go say hi, or as opposed to kind of like, well, some people walk different to actually embrace that conversation. Gender, it’s a new idea for all of us in some ways that it’s a social construct and so it’s not pointing. And I’ve had my kids a couple times point at someone and say, is that a boy or girl or is that a man or a woman? And I’ve said, the only way we would really know is to ask them. I don’t know. The only way we’d really know is to ask them. And it’s so different than even just a few years ago ago. I would’ve responded. I would’ve been like, I don’t know, looks like boy.


But I think the idea of how do I tell my kid not to ask is not how I would necessarily go with this. I think five-year-olds are navigating social relationships and navigating. I mean, I think I might lead with what questions do you like being asked when people are getting to know you or what? I don’t know. I just feel like it’s hard enough for a five-year-old to walk into a social situation without having questions, they’re not allowed to ask. And it’s okay to ask someone if they’re a boy or a girl and for someone to say to your kid, actually, and in the future, I would imagine that, I would imagine that question’s going to go out as something that’s in the general zeitgeist. But in the meantime, I don’t know that it’s a question we need to stamp out of our kids’ repertoires.

Dr. Sarah (05:21):

And I really agree with that. And I think for me, what I meant when I was saying I relate to that feeling in the moment as the parent, when your kid says something, your instinct might be, I want to shut this off feeling embarrassed.

Dr. Rebecca (05:35):

Oh, yeah.

Dr. Sarah (05:36):

Becuse my ability to put myself in the shoes of another is so much more sophisticated than my five-year-old. And so I am always imagining what is it feeling like for this person to have a little kid talking about them in front of them so blatantly. And so then I have this empathetic and also embarrassed that I also think is socially constructed, right? Because I’ve internalized, and I’m always fighting this, but still am vulnerable to it, I’ve internalized this sort of sense that I’m responsible for making sure my child is always behaving appropriately and kindly and not making another person feel bad or embarrassed or offended, which isn’t really actually my job. I mean it is, but I can’t be responsible for that in every moment. It’s like that’s my job in the big picture of raising my child, but not in every moment. And I need to give myself permission to not immediately reactively say the first thing that comes to my mind, which might be shut that question down in a situation like that. Does that make sense?

Dr. Rebecca (06:45):

Yeah. No, it does. And I think we learned not to embrace differences in that way. Now, I shouldn’t say not to embrace them, but I mean, again, I grew up in New York City and I pointed to people and would say, wow, that guy has such dark skin. And my parents would say, stop it. We don’t comment on the color of people’s skin now. I think the research has showed us that we would say something like, he does. Let’s talk about melanin, let’s talk about his ancestors. So I think I relate completely to just trying to do it differently with my kids than was done to me. I think the whole kind of culture has changed to saying kids point out differences when kids see differences, and we don’t want to pretend that they don’t see those differences. Instead, we want to explain in as nonjudgmental way as possible. Yeah, they’re different. Sure.

Dr. Emily (07:41):

I also think we’re dancing around a bigger concept of authenticity and curiosity that doesn’t have as much judgment, right? That doesn’t have a negative or a power struggle in that, which is sort of what you said, Rebecca. I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them. I think that just has curiosity and authenticity within it. And I think maybe Sarah, what you’re talking about I think is a little bit is like we’re trying to get there. Can we show up with that curiosity and authenticity with our children and be, because ultimately trying to teach them to be attuned to the social interaction, if they ask that question and it prickles somebody that they should say address that, right? Or they should learn a little bit by trial and error really the only way. But if they approach people with honesty and authenticity and as much this child’s so young, so as much sort of just total curiosity, then I think it’s received really differently Because Rebecca, to your point, I think a child saying, oh, that person’s so dark is not like, oh my god, there’s that dark person. And I think that’s a very different question and it’s received very differently by the person. I think that’s really, really important. It’s not being othered. I feel like the person who’s othered feels really icky if they feel the question is about, I just want to make sure you’re other, you’re an other, you’re not me. I think that’s a very different thing.

Dr. Rebecca (09:24):

But play devil’s advocate. Let’s say someone is mixed race and let’s say parent is white, parent is black and someone comes over to that kid and says, what are you Right? Are you black or are you white? I don’t know that I would want to teach my kid not to ask that question even. Well, no, I guess you’re right. Now I’m just thinking.

Dr. Emily (09:52):

I think the same thing. Look, as you guys know, I’m mixed. And that happened to me all the time. There was a lot of, what are you? And it wasn’t lovely to field, it’s very othering. But I do think if someone said, I noticed that your hair is curly, but your skin is like this. I’m curious. You look sort of like this person, but not, I’m curious about what that’s about. I feel like that feels very different than what are you as if you’re not?

Dr. Rebecca (10:23):

Are you this or are you, I’m just trying to mirror the phrasing of are you a boy or a girl? Because you were saying that that wouldn’t feel othering. And I don’t know. I want to just acknowledge my, I don’t want to say ignorance, that’s a little bit too strong, but I don’t know. This is kind of a new area, so I’m equating it to that idea where a kid who let’s say is non-binary or trans might feel shitty.

Dr. Emily (10:50):

Again, I think it’s about the asking. I think the better we get about the way it’s asked or the tone and the interpersonal dyad that comes up in that, I think there’s so much to that and maybe it is about us progressing as a society to a place where that’s not automatically thought as not a good thing to be mixed or not a good thing to be. The underlying thing that we’re worrying about is making touching upon something that’s already a little bit raw.

Dr. Sarah (11:25):

But I think ultimately too, what I keep coming back to is who is asking this question and on behalf of who this is a parent whose child asked a question and the parent is interpreting that question as offensive, not the person who received the question, but the parent and is then feeling embarrassed or feeling pressured to teach their child to say the right thing. And Emily, your example of if a kid said to another person, what are you versus I notice that your hair is different texture than my mom’s hair. How does that work? That’s not what kids actually say unless they’ve been taught to speak that way. So it’s like we get there iteratively as a parent, and our kid’s probably going to say something, and it really doesn’t even matter what the topic is. Our kid is going to put their foot in their mouth a lot of times and we are going to super embarrassed because we understand that what they said was not a socially appropriate question for us adults to say, and maybe is actually a really appropriate question developmentally for a five-year-old to say, but we are feeling all the feelings of all the grownups in the space or what the child too, but we’re this adult person reading a situation and assigning a lot of meaning to it, that five-year-old most certainly is not.


And so it’s like we’re not going to be able to get to a place where we can help a five-year-old, imagine the other person’s feelings before they ask the question, until they’ve said the wrong thing, wrong thing, and we have to help them figure out why that might hurt someone’s feelings or why that might be taken the wrong way or what are you really trying to ask? How do we get there better? But it’s going to be a process of messy. They’re going to say stuff that we might be really embarrassed about a bunch of times.

Dr. Rebecca (13:28):

So I think this is where I’m going to call out the fact that we are three cis women and I just don’t know that we have the expertise to answer this question because I think there’s education that some people would suggest that’s like, well, you would say to your kid there’s more than two options. It used to be that we would ask if someone is a boy or a girl. It used to be that we thought those were the only two ways to be. It turns out you could be mostly a girl and a little bit. And again, I’ve read a few things I would never claim to be an expert, but I am not sure we’re the three best people to be addressing this question or at least addressing this question without the input of someone who just knows a lot more about this field and how they would in some ways prefer that. I just feel like we’re making a lot of assumptions based on a knowledge base and a lived experience that we don’t have.

Dr. Sarah (14:37):

Yeah, I think that’s super fair. I really do. I also think we may not have the knowledge base to answer this question specifically in terms of what is the appropriate question to ask a child or who isn’t identifying as a boy or a girl or has an ambiguous way of presenting their gender. But I think there’s other questions in this question that we are in a place to share insight into, which is moving out of the context of the particular question being in this case about gender identity and in more globally when your child says something that breaks a societal norm or could offend a person who’s receiving the question and having some understanding of, okay, I’m able to notice in this moment the parent, I’m feeling embarrassment or anxiety or worry or all kinds of other feelings. And also how do we help our kid in that moment without shutting them down or getting mad at them or making them feel ashamed that they said the wrong thing, whatever it is.

Dr. Emily (15:54):

I also think it’s a nice reminder though. I think these mistakes are a nice reminder of like, oh, I don’t know what they don’t know. I should be talking, we should be talking more about gender, or we should be talking more about race, or we should be really talking about socioeconomic status and why. I just think you don’t know what your kids don’t know, and you’re not sort of always going through a list of all the things of your values to try to go through and review with them in a very pedantic way. So I think you could, this person whose friend of yours who asked this question, it’s also just a nice reminder of let’s have an open conversation about this. How does our family think about these things and what are our values? And I think that’s okay, to your point, Sarah, to sort of make mistakes in order to elicit really healthy, productive conversations that you might not otherwise have, right? Because your child, it hasn’t come to your, been dropped at your feet that this child has.

Dr. Rebecca (17:02):

Just to be aware that I’m conscious now and it’s difficult, which is just fascinating and of itself when I hear that someone is pregnant, not asking if it’s a boy or girl.


And that’s a question, and that that’s something that five years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about. I’m not saying if you ask that it’s bad. It’s gender binary and society at least where we live, seems to be moving away from that. It was interesting, my son the other day who he plays bass and sings and whatever, and he was practicing singing, don’t Stop Believing the Journey song. So it’s just a small town girl, and he stopped and he goes, what would be a non-binary way of saying that? Would it be like just a small town kid? He’s like, but that doesn’t work. I don’t know that it’s about a kid. And it was fascinating and it was clearly from his own lived. That’s not something that would’ve occurred to me in a million years. And one of the things I said was, it might be a girl. It’s not that girls. So the whole conversation is so fascinating and I think we’re all kind of learning, which is why I would just encourage this person who asked the question, it’s a great question. Let’s keep reading and learning, and I don’t.

Dr. Sarah (18:29):

Yeah. Yeah. I think for me it’s like there’s two pieces to this and one is helping teach that curiosity, authenticity, that open stance that Emily was talking about, but also teaching theory of mind, right? Teaching a child to imagine what might it feel like to be asked that question because that I think gets to that place of the source of most parents’ anxiety in those moments. It’s not what is the right answer to this question. It’s is my child hurting someone’s feelings by asking this? And I feel bad about that, and most parents, I think have a lot of anxiety about their child hurting other people’s feelings, and I think sometimes that anxiety can get in the way of a really awesome opportunity to teach something much bigger than that, which same reason I don’t necessarily encourage parents to be like, you have to share your toy.


Give it back to them to be like, Hey, how do you think? It seems like they want it right now. Who you want it to? What do we do? It’s less about the fixing the problem quote of making everybody happy and not having anyone have hurt feelings, but to build that ability to imagine another person’s experience. And so there’s the issue of the content of the question and how do we help a child kind of be curious in a way that is teaching some sort of expanded view of the world, which is great. And the other is how do I picture the feeling on the other side of that question for the person who received it, which is a skill. It’s just a skill and it’s a useful life skill to imagine someone else’s experience. I feel like this is a really complicated question despite its apparent simplicity.


It’s really complicated as evidenced by this conversation, but I really do appreciate both of your willingness to kind of look at this from so many different angles and be okay with us not necessarily coming to a direct conclusion about the answer. Maybe the answer to the question is we don’t have that answer and we have to ask someone who may have more insight into it. So perhaps there’ll be a follow-up episode to kind of keep this conversation going with a guest, a guest person who could talk more to it. Because Rebecca, I think you bring up a really good point. How do we give parents support? And also sometimes that means how do we direct them to the right resources versus always thinking we have the answers to everything. So I appreciate that and I appreciate you guys being here, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Dr. Rebecca (21:23):

It’s always such a pleasure. Thank you, Sarah and Emily. Bye guys.

Dr. Sarah (21:29):


(21:29):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

149. BTS: How to answer your kid’s questions about gender