Even the most progressive parent can occasionally hear harmful things come out of their mouth. But how bad can a joke about your kids’ love life be? Many of us have made joke predictions like “He’ll be my future son-in-law” or “Those two will be future spouses” without really thinking about what they imply. Experts argue that the harm done to our children by instilling heterosexual ideals in them is genuine, especially if they are LGBTQ+.
“Kids acquire a sense of what they’re told, what’s acceptable for them,” says Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and alliances at Human Rights Campaign, the United States’ largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. She claims that it’s subtle statements from well-intentioned parents that unknowingly “plant those seeds early on” that cause internal struggle in children.
Internal conflict isn’t limited to households with outright homophobic ideas, as Kahn points out. According to the TransYouth Project, children as young as five have a defined gender identification. As a result, little statements with heteronormative connotations might endanger a child’s well-being and damage their sense of belonging over time.
That also applies to gender-normative beliefs. Haven’t we all been at the playground where a parent exclaimed, “Look, she has a tiny boyfriend!” when it was simply two kids playing house and having a good time? As an adult, it’s easy to lose yourself in the humor while joking about love, to grin and nod along — after all, it’s the only positive setting in which we’ve permitted boys and girls to connect, or for boys to display their more feminine, nurturing side. However, the consequences of this form of taunting can be severe and long-lasting.
Renata Sanders, M.D., M.P.H., Sc.M., professor of adolescent and young adult medicine and gender identity at Johns Hopkins University, believes making jokes regarding a child’s sexual or gender identity “tells them that this is not a safe space … It has the potential to further isolate them.” That’s on top of the fact that they already feel vulnerable, “You already stand out as an LGBTQ+ child, like a sore thumb … You have a sense of being alone,” she continues.
How to Be a More Inclusive Parent
We can be gender-affirming parents rather than gender-conforming parents, and we can start right now. Instead of old-fashioned matchmaking jokes, here are three things to say (or not say) to our children.
When your children are old enough to date, enquire about potential mates using they/them pronouns rather than he/him or she/her. “Are you dating anyone?” According to Dr. Sanders, it’s also a simple method to avoid terminology that’s exclusionary, heteronormative, or gender normative. It takes effort, but creating a secure space for your children to talk openly and honestly, is critical, especially as they enter puberty and spend more time away from home, she says.
Focus on Platonic and Friendship Love
Leave your kids out of it when it comes to marriage and love. The cultural tendency to present our children as little couples is “baked into our DNA,” according to Kahn, who adds that even LGBTQ+ parents can fall into this trap. Instead, acknowledge the kids’ friendships without making them romantic. “I hope you two are friends forever” and “you two have a wonderful connection” are phrases that don’t limit, but rather encourage the friendship to expand over time, regardless of the pronouns the kids use.
Don’t Say Anything
This one is quite straightforward — Dr. Sanders and Kahn both advise against making any comments at all. Some parents may find it more beneficial to follow the advice above; —after all, it’s a fun, sociable approach to recognize their child’s friendship without slipping into unhealthy ideas about marriage or romance. Silence, on the other hand, gives your child the freedom to establish their viewpoint and quit the friendship without fear of disappointing you. In any case, any of these possibilities are preferable to the romantic teasing that no child likes to hear.