In our monthly Ask Janah advice column, our resident sex ed expert Janah Boccio, LCSW, answers questions about sex and all the touchy things you may not know how to approach with your children on your own. She has over 12 years of experience teaching students and parents about sex and sexuality and in addition to working at an independent school in New York City, Janah maintains a psychotherapy practice where she works with adolescents and adults focusing mainly on anxiety, relationships and gender and sexuality diversity issues. She is currently working towards her Ph.D. in Sexuality Education at Widener University.
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My eight-year-old asked me, “How would I know if I was gay?” How should I answer?
Seeking the right words
Thank you for submitting this question. I can imagine hearing this question created an internal whirlwind of emotions and concerns, with the main worry being about responding ‘correctly’ to convey support and love and reassurance! The first thing I would do in response to this question would be to tell my child how glad I was that they came to me to talk about this. It’s so important our children feel secure in their connection to us so that they do bring difficult things to us for support in figuring out.
Next, I would ask the child what his or her idea of being gay is. Something like, “Tell me what that means to you,” so you could gauge just what they were asking and thinking about. Sometimes when our kids ask us these questions, our minds jump to all sorts of conclusions when they might be asking something much more simple or direct.
If they answer by saying that a friend said being gay is liking certain colors or activities I would have a conversation about gender-based stereotypes. Some people think that you can tell who someone likes based on the colors or activities they like. Tell them that you cannot know who someone likes unless they specifically tell you. It’s also normal for kids at this age to start talking about crushes and who likes whom, but it can feel uncomfortable or alienating for some kids. I would also explain that while many people do start to have different kinds of feelings for others as they enter puberty, some people don’t, and that’s ok too.
If they seem to be asking about their own sexuality and sexual orientation, I would start by giving them a simple definition about being gay (the word gay is used to refer to someone who likes and/or is attracted to people who are the same sex or gender that they are). Having bigger or special feelings for others is part of growing up, and sometimes it’s very clear who we like, and sometimes it’s a little confusing. There’s no need to apply any label unless that label feels helpful or comforting or empowering. End by saying how much you love them and that no matter who they love, your love for them will never change.
If being gay is hard for you to accept or it causes you discomfort, seek support from a friend or therapist. Having the support of a parent is crucial to the health and well-being of a child. Not being accepted for who they are increases their risk for depression and substance abuse.
Finally, there aren’t a lot of books on this subject that are good for upper elementary school kids, but Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg covers having feelings and crushes and sexuality in general and is for kids 7-11. For lower elementary children there is Red: A Crayon’s Story, which is a metaphor about being not what people expect, and And Tango Makes Three, about same-sex penguins at the Central Park Zoo (based on a true story).
There are also two books for parents that are good: This is A Book for Parents of Gay Kids by Danielle Owens-Reid & Kristin Russo and When Your Child is Gay by Wesley C. Davidson & Jonathan L. Tobkes.
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