3 Things to Tell Your Children About Gender

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A semi-popular YouTube video opens with a young person who is either a feminized man or a masculinized woman. The voice is hard to place; is it a man speaking in a womanly voice, or the reverse? The speaker says people constantly ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” The answer:

No . . . I am non-binary. . . . Gender is in the brain. Physical sex is a completely separate and different thing. . . . Gender is what you feel, not what your “parts” are—it doesn’t matter what meat skeleton you’ve been born in, it’s what you feel that defines you.

The video follows a social trend many might prefer to ignore. But two realities make that strategy ill-advised . First, a biological male who looks and acts like a male in every regard can expect to be treated like a woman in many states—if he simply says “I am a woman.” In many places, laws protecting people regarding sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI”) rely solely on self-definition. A man can call himself a woman and freely use women’s facilities. Second, many schools promote gender fluidity both early and also late in the curriculum, potentially causing confusion in elementary-school children and teens.

Because the transgender issue is a cultural wave, we shouldn’t ignore it.

Tennis champion Martina Navratilova was recently lambasted as transphobic because she said trans men cheat if they compete in athletics as women. Navratilova is an expert on the topic, having won many titles competing with and against men in mixed doubles. As a declared lesbian, she is an unlikely target. But the trans community is quick to criticize those who question its ideology.

This short article cannot address every transgender issue, but I seek to equip parents to talk to their children about gender. It is vital to offer compassion and care to all who experience body dysphoria—the sense that they inhabit the wrong body.

Here are three great truths that can help parents discuss gender with their children.

1. God is the Creator, and he chose to create humanity male and female.  

Genesis 1 says: “God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them. . . . And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gen. 1:27–28; Gen. 5:2). Jesus reaffirms this text in Matthew 19:4: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female.”

The term “gender” can be defined in several ways. Some call gender the social and cultural (rather than biological) aspects of being male or female. Or gender is a person’s awareness of his or her sexual identity. But it is better to say that sex is a biological reality, and gender is the way we express that reality in society. That is, people are male or female—and societies expect people to show which they are. (About 1,000 people are born “intersex” each year. Still, genetically and chromosomally they are either xx or xy. There is also Klinefelter syndrome, wherein a few people who appear to be ordinary males have 47 chromosomes, and are xxy or xxxy. Like all who are born with genetic abnormalities, we must offer care and compassion.)

We do everyone a favor if we recognize that many cultural norms are just that—cultural, not biblical.

Because of sin, each society expresses gender in harmful ways; and because of common grace, each society expresses gender in helpful ways. Gender is grounded both in biology (the created order) and also in culture. Therefore, some aspects of gender are objective physical realities, and some aspects of gender are socially constructed.

Activities like giving birth and nursing are creational, not social. Reproduction is basic to how God designed us. People are male or female in every cell of the body, in both nerves and hormones—not in the reproductive organs alone.

Yet elements of gender are socially constructed. In America, professional men often wear ties; professional women usually do not. This is arbitrary, socially constructed. Ties were invented around 1860, so no one signified gender through ties until recently.

Similarly, Americans have agreed, somehow, that women cook inside the house, while men cook outside. And when they do cook outside, it gets a different name—grilling. This too is arbitrary. Perhaps it makes sense for men, who tend to be larger and stronger, to dominate construction projects, but women can be as adept as men at most physical skills.

We do everyone a favor if we recognize that many cultural norms are just that—cultural, not biblical.

Today, many assume that boys like the outdoors, while girls like the indoors; that boys like collision sports, and girls do not. There are tendencies in those directions, but innumerable girls like to wade streams and climb mountains. They love sports like soccer and ultimate frisbee where people collide. There’s nothing wrong with such girls (I fathered three of them). Nor is there anything wrong with boys who like to cook. Let’s not cause needless doubts by imposing purely cultural ideals on our children.

That said, we distinguish roles and clothes: It’s normal for boys to act like their fathers and for girls to act like their mothers. It’s also good for men and women to signal, by their appearance and actions, that they are indeed male or female, understanding that various cultures have varying signals. This principle is reflected in Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”

2. Your body is a gift, not a problem.

Parents, help your children appreciate that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Tell and show them that God enables their bodies to do marvelous things. We can run and shout. We can be still. We can dance, sway, and sing. Parents, let your children see you performing acts of dexterity and skill—making music, juggling and drawing, throwing and catching, making and fixing.

I suspect the love/hate relationship many Americans have with their bodies has contributed greatly to the transgender movement. We idolize perfect bodies, and we diet and exercise to form them. But food is everywhere, and most of us lead sedentary lives. High standards coupled with high failure rates creates high dissatisfaction. Tragic results include cutting, anorexia, and binge eating. The problem keeps growing and has spread from women to men.

I suspect the love/hate relationship many Americans have with their bodies has contributed greatly to the transgender movement.

Ryan Anderson describes the historical roots of the transgender movement in When Harry Became Sally, showing that radical feminists sought to sever the link between gender and biology. For them, the body is a problem; it enslaves women to reproduction and lactation and keeps them from asserting and defining themselves. A few feminists hoped to “seize control of reproduction” and end “the sex distinction itself” until “genital differences . . . no longer matter.” These radicals (not most feminists) claim that a woman’s body “opposes her existence as a person,” so she must resist it. Even if their program never became popular, the body-is-a-problem mentality has influenced Western culture.

To be sure, fallen bodies have many flaws, including genetic disorders and diseases. We must extend compassion and care to all who experience severe problems. But our bodies are God’s good gift, and there is a direct and positive relationship between our bodies and our identities as male and female. Wise parents help their children view their bodies as a gift.

3. Discover who you are within God’s providential gifts, including your body.

Parents can tell their children that God has chosen to shape us through genetics. We can “find ourselves” in our God-given gender, just as we “find ourselves” in a genetic heritage that includes height, weight, strength, and more.

My family is fairly athletic, but we are also prone to certain injuries. This winter, as I struggled with a torn elbow ligament, my daughter struggled with a torn foot ligament. She nodded as I said, “I’m sorry I passed this on to you, but you will need to work through this aspect of your heritage—you have gifts, and you are injury-prone.”

These matters, like our sexual identity, are elements of God’s providence.

Tapping into Authenticity

Since the 1950s, Western culture has extolled authenticity, which requires one to live according to the genius of one’s inner being, not the demands of society or family. Authentic people choose their path and reject the roles ascribed to them. The transgender movement taps into the current zest for self-definition. Our culture constantly tells us to “Follow your heart” to find our identity by looking within. The Bible never says, “Follow your heart.” In fact, Jeremiah 17:9 makes it plain: “The heart is deceitful.”

It is good, not evil, to find our place in the world through the body God gives us.

True, we may question roles that family and society have thrust upon us. Yet it is good, not evil, to find our place in the world through the body God gives us. If we believe in the sovereignty and goodness of God, we tell our children this truth applies to them.

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