Lessons I’ve Learned Raising my Non-Binary Kid
Since releasing Raising Ollie, I’ve gotten many messages and emails from adults looking for advice on how best to support the young people in their lives. The book is a memoir about parenting and teaching and trying to do both in a way that does more good than harm. It’s not a how-to about anything, because I’m still figuring out how to. I’m not an expert on gender expansive youth (I’ll put a list of those at the bottom), and I’m not even really an expert on raising the one I’ve got. I have, however, learned some lessons while raising Ollie that I think are worth sharing. I thought I’d gather them together for anyone they may help.
Ollie is bright, this much has been clear to us since well before Kindergarten. Though my experience is with middle schoolers, it doesn’t take an expert to know that most elementary school students aren’t teaching themselves coding, digital illustration, and animation, all while Becca and I wished our kid would just chill out and watch The Muppet Movie like we had long imagined our someday-kid would do.
But no, Ollie’s brain is one that is always going at full speed in ten directions, listening, remembering, and analyzing everything, creating and deconstructing and adapting. School had always been really easy, except for the times that school was too easy, and then school had become a sort of torture.
So, here we were at the first parent teacher conference in a new school program that embraced Ollie’s art and academic intensity, excited to hear how things were going so far in third grade. The teacher started much as all of Ollie’s teachers before had, saying, “she’s such a great kid, always willing to-”
“Umm,” Ollie was raising one finger, interrupting the teacher, “you said ‘she’ and I use ‘they/them’ pronouns.”
Though phrased as a reminder, this was actually the first time Ollie had told any of us that they had changed pronouns. And though we learned that bit of information at the conference, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Ollie had for years talked about feeling not really like a girl or a boy, had long been a crusader at school and family parties against any language that talked about “girl” or “boy” toys or clothes or traits or interests.
Ollie had strolled confidently into publicly identifying as non-binary. Becca and I had some more work to do.
- Practice the Pronouns
When anyone you know changes pronouns, it can be a challenge at first to get those pronouns (and other gender-identifier words) right. With Ollie, my wife and I found that practicing their pronouns was really important for us for a few reasons. To practice, we made sure that we used they/them pronouns when talking about Ollie when they weren’t around. There’s some linguistic gymnastics people can do to avoid using pronouns at all, but we purposefully avoided over-using their full name or other work-arounds. We over-used pronouns even, and reminded each other when we slipped up.
It’s really helpful to have another person around to catch you, because we all use pronouns all the time. Really, far more often than I would have imagined until I started getting more and more aware of them, and as it started to get more and more obvious when Ollie was getting misgendered.
Practicing helped us with the first step of translating pronouns in our head quickly so that it sounded mostly natural when using they or them in regular conversation. The more we did it though, and the more we used those pronouns intentionally and confidently with Ollie, the language did something more important to our brains than just helping us say the right thing.
Slowly, using Ollie’s pronouns helped our brains see Ollie’s identity. Translating from old to new pronouns in our heads became unnecessary, because we saw and understood Ollie as a non-binary person, and so when ‘she’ or ‘her’ shows up in a conversation about my kid, it’s really hard for me not to notice. I can only imagine how glaring it is for Ollie.
- Let them be who they are for right now
Some of the worry I’ve heard from family and acquaintances about young people exploring their gender identity seems to stem from an idea that they are making a decision that cannot be undone.
I’m not sure if Ollie will always identify as non-binary. I also don’t really care. I know that right now, it is the thing that fits them best, makes them the most comfortable and confident with themselves. I also know that the most important thing for me is that Ollie be safe and as happy as possible, and that young gender-expansive people who are unsupported by their close networks struggle and suffer in many ways.
I’ve had students transfer to my school after surviving suicide and treatment from being bullied in their school. I’ve had students who have finished high school homeless because they were not welcome or were not safe in their home. I have Edward, a former student who teetered daily in the balance of supportive friends and a family who reminded him daily they refused to see him for who he was.
Edward transitioned to male a few years before getting to my classroom, but was still listed by his old (sometimes referred to as “dead”) name on my roster. This is because name changes in the school needed parent approval, and his parents wouldn’t provide it.
In fifteen years of teaching, Edward is one of the brightest, funniest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. But, also, the day I most remember from our year together was when I sat next to him on the floor in the hallway while students were working on a project and asked that, when I talked with his parents if he had a preference with how I referred to him. “You should dead-name me,” he said, his shoulders dropping two inches, “every time my dad hears me called Edward I just get yelled at about it.”
So, to a parent, other family member, teacher, or decent human who is maybe not so convinced that a child’s gender transition or expansion isn’t a phase, I would ask, “so what?” Love and support them for who they are right now, and if that changes, love and support them for who they are right then.
It costs us nothing to recognize the names, pronouns, and identities that make our children feel more comfortable, more confident, more authentically themselves.
The costs of not seeing our kids is so, so high, and they are so often asked to pay it.
- Surround them with allies
After a long weekend with extended family, a long weekend full of people mis-gendering Ollie (mostly unintentionally), I pulled Ollie aside to ask how they were doing and what level of stepping in and reminding that they wanted me to do. It didn’t seem like they always noticed, so I didn’t want to make a big deal about it if it wasn’t a big deal.
Ollie told me that they always noticed, every time, and didn’t love it, but also felt like reminding people constantly was only going to draw more attention to it, which was only going to make them more uncomfortable.
The family has gotten better and better, we are lucky that even those who are struggling most to remember to use the right pronouns have found ways to show support to Ollie. In the places we can control, we do our best to make sure Ollie is around adults and kids who can give Ollie the experience most often that most of us often have: a world that lets them exist without reminders or explanations
- Prepare for some Nonsense
There are those in the world convinced that I have brainwashed my child into unseeing their own gender, that they have been confused by messages around acceptance, that believing Ollie when they tell me who they are is tantamount to child abuse. Thankfully, those people don’t live in my life so much as they live online.
If I had, every night, kissed Ollie’s little forehead and said, “I love you, good night, and also you aren’t a girl or a boy,” I mean, every night, I would have made only a fraction of a dent into the messages about the permanence, immutability, and expectations around gender that they got every day from most people the met, most shows and movies they watched, most books that were read to them. Sure, there were books and shows about how it’s ok to be a messy princess or scientist or astronaut princess, there was space here and there given to not be a super girly girl, but the rigidity of gender was a given.
What I’m saying is that I couldn’t have talked Ollie into being non-binary, and in fact they talked from a very young age, like four or five, about not feeling like a boy or a girl. We never ever pushed them towards a conclusion around that, but we also never recoiled at the suggestion.
When they finally embraced and announced that identity, they did so despite a mountain of absolutist messages about gender. They did so because it felt right and comfortable and true to themselves. It was done with resistance to confusion and brainwashing around gender, and I’m both astounded and proud of them for doing so.
The claim of ‘child abuse’ is a popular one among transphobic internet trolls. It’s really, really not worth addressing because it’s done in such bad faith, with such proud ignorance, with such false concern for the children involved.
To know Ollie is to love them, and to love Ollie is to see them. I’m sure of few things in the world, but I am sure that our young people, all our young people, deserve our love, support, acceptance, and celebration for who they are.
(I bet I’m missing a ton, if you have some to share, send me a message and I’ll add them)
Gender Inclusive Schools https://www.genderinclusiveschools.org
Transforming Families Minnesota https://tffmn.org
Human Rights Campaign — Understanding the Basics Page https://www.hrc.org/resources/transgender-children-and-youth-understanding-the-basics
Tigerrs (Transgender, Intersex, Gender-Expansive Revolutionary Resources & Services) https://tigerrs.org
The Revolutionary Truth about Kids and Gender Identity (TedX talk by Angela Kade Goepford) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knNjvX6eoBI