We’ve provided this Parent Conversation Starter to help parents begin dialogue about gender incongruence with kids ages 2-12. The Starter includes step-by-step instructions for parents to (1) prepare for conversation and (2) have conversation with kids in age-appropriate ways.
These starters are just that–starters. These are not meant to be one-and-done conversations, but rather a place to begin ongoing conversation. We know these are difficult conversations, which is why we’ve created an on-demand Parent Course, designed to give parents all the tools they need to have compassionate and theologically accurate conversations about sexuality and gender with their kids throughout childhood.
Prepare for Conversation: Get Familiar with the Topic
Biological sex – Determined by biology – chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, skeletal structure, musculature, brain chemistry, etc. When we are born, we are male, female, or, rarely, intersex.
Gender – One’s internal sense of maleness or femaleness
Gender incongruence – An acute sense that one’s gender does not correspond with the experience typically associated with one’s biological sex
Transgender/Trans/Trans* – A general term for someone who experiences gender incongruence; use of this term does not communicate anything about theological convictions or the extent of transition. This article uses “transgender” and “trans*” to mean only “a person who is navigating gender incongruence.”
Transition – the process of adopting outward characteristics (style, mannerisms, pronouns, name, bathroom use, hormones, surgeries, etc) that match one’s internal sense of gender when one’s gender and sex do not align
What does the Bible say?
When God first imagined each of us, He created us to be perfect in every way, including our maleness or femaleness.1 But even as we were knit in the womb, we developed imperfectly and were corrupted physically at a genetic level, and then we were born into a world of sin.2 Nothing about who we are today is unmarred by the Fall, including our maleness or femaleness. We should not be surprised, then, when we find our sex broken at a genetic level or our gender broken by contributions from both nature and nurture. As in the case of the thorn in Paul’s side, being faithful a Christian doesn’t mean that God resolves all of our brokenness in this lifetime.3
From the study of over ten relevant Scripture passages,4 we can see that
- God intended for each of us to be either a male-bodied man or a female-bodied woman
- the Bible forbids genital mutilation, crossdressing as part of cult practices, the elimination of gender difference, and the intent to deceive another about one’s biological sex
- the authors of Scripture were aware of transgender people
- the Bible affirms the sex and gender binary
- the Bible makes clear that genital mutilation does not prevent people from being a part of God’s family
- the Bible is filled with examples of men and women who break what we would consider to be contemporary Christian gender norms/stereotypes
Common questions parents have
How does gender incongruence develop?
Like many things in life, gender incongruence is a combination of genetic and biological factors (nature) as well as cultural and familial influences (nurture). For most people, it is a combination of multiple factors that are typically experienced from an early age.5 No study points to one particular reason or source for why gender incongruence happens.
Does gender incongruence ever go away?
No one chooses to experience robust, enduring gender incongruence. Some may experience relief from gender incongruence over time, but there’s no proven combination of counseling, spiritual practices, and pastoral care to eliminate gender incongruence. Interestingly, about 80% of those who experience gender incongruence as a child see resolution as the individual grows and matures. It just fades away, though not because the child or parents did any particular thing. The children go through puberty, and everything feels congruent again. There’s no proven combination of counseling, pastoral care strategies, spiritual exercises that increases the likelihood of a child’s gender incongruence resolving. In about 20% of cases, gender incongruence persists beyond puberty.6 If an individual’s incongruence persists past adolescence and into adulthood, it is likely going to be a lifelong experience.
Is experiencing gender incongruence a sin?
Gender incongruence is a brokenness and one of many manifestations of the brokenness of all creation as a result of the Fall. Merely experiencing gender incongruence is not a sin, though it may tempt a person to soothe their discomfort in sinful ways or attempt to sinfully remake God’s gift of their biological sex, but a person does not sin until they say “yes” to temptation in thought, word, or deed.
What determines who we are, our body or how we feel on the inside?
If an individual is not intersex and their chromosomes, gonads, sexual anatomy, and secondary sex characteristics all indicate the same biological sex, then we know God’s intentions for the individual’s biological sex. Plus, when we know God’s intentions for an individual’s biological sex, we also know His intentions for their gender, since at creation God intended for individuals to experience congruence between their internal sense of gender and their biological sex. So when a person is not intersex but they experience gender incongruence, we know that their biological sex is as God intended but their gender is broken.
What steps can faithful transgender Christians take to reduce their distress?
In the range of steps considered social transition (taking steps within one’s social circles to mitigate incongruence non-medically, i.e. using the word trans to describe oneself, name and/or pronoun changes, adjustments to one’s appearance through clothing and hairstyle changes, “binding” to compress/flatten the breasts, using single stall bathrooms, and voice training to raise or lower the pitch of one’s voice, shifting participation in gendered activities), the morality of many of those actions depends on the motivation behind the action. Few of them are inherently sinful. A trans* person could take many of the steps of social transition in order to reject God’s gift of their biological sex or each step of social transition could be taken in order to reduce the distress of their gender incongruence while affirming internally and externally that they are ontologically the biological sex that God intended them to be.
For younger children who experience gender incongruence, Equip encourages parents to delay the embrace of a transgender identity. That is, encourage younger kids to continue to use their given name or an acceptable nickname, encourage kids to continue to use the pronouns associated with their biological sex (parents can also honor they/them pronouns while resisting the use of opposite-sex pronouns), and encourage kids to delay some of the steps of social transition (like binding or using an opposite-sex bathroom) while honoring that some of the steps of social transition will reduce distress (wearing gender-neutral clothing or a gender-neutral hairstyle, using a nickname, using they/them pronouns).
If a person who experiences gender incongruence is not intersex, if we know God’s intentions for the individual’s sex and gender, and if we know that the person’s gender is broken whereas their sex is as God intended (ie, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, chromosomes, etc all point in the same direction), taking steps to alter one’s body and reject God’s gift of their sex is sin. When a trans* Christian undergoes hormonal or surgical transition, they are responding to broken gender by breaking their biological sex, instead of recognizing God’s gift of their biological sex and faithfully managing their broken gender.
What about trans* suicide rates?7
Available research is inconclusive about the effectiveness of hormonal and surgical transition to reduce suicide risk. No one can claim that transition has been proven to effectively reduce suicidality. Plus, research has found meaningful health safety concerns (mental and physical) for both hormonal and surgical transition: increased risk of blood clots, cancer, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and even, in some cases, an increased risk of suicide. And while surgical transition generally produces high rates of satisfaction and a reduction in gender dysphoria, rates of depression and suicide often remain elevated, whith some trans* individuals actually experiencing an increase in suicidality after surgical transition. Again, neither hormonal nor surgical transition has been proven to reduce suicide risk.
If transition isn’t the answer to suicide risk, what can we do?
Those offering care to trans* people struggling with mental health challenges should first focus on addressing the mental illness directly with interventions proven to be effective while also helping the trans* person accept that transition is at best ineffective to address mental illness and at worst a contributor to mental illness. Research shows that the following have been proven to be most effective at reducing depression and suicidality (in no particular order): in-person talk therapy, regular physical activity, use of antidepressants, and a broad community of social support. While science hasn’t proven that transition is the answer to suicide risk for trans* people, science is confident that the social stress and rejection trans* people experience as minorities increases their risk of depression and suicide. So while evidence-based interventions of therapy, exercise, medication, and social support are most effective on an individual level, Christians can simultaneously work to reduce societal discrimination and harassment of trans* people. To reduce suicide risk for trans* people on a societal level, Christians must imitate Christ by protecting those on the margins from harm.
Should I use a trans* person’s preferred pronouns and name?
For those who experience gender incongruence, their given name and biological pronouns could be a constant reminder of the pain and tension they feel every day. Some trans* people experience meaningful relief from that tension when they adopt different pronouns and/or names. Many people have a wide variety of opinions and beliefs when it comes to using the preferred names/pronouns of a trans* person. And your convictions will likely vary person to person depending on the depth of relationship, age of the trans* person, whether or not they are a Christian, the reason behind the name/pronoun change (a name/pronoun change could be taken as a step to simply reduce the distress of gender incongruence, it could be a way to reject God’s gift of biological sex, or something in between), etc. There is no blanket answer. In early conversation and in conversation with trans* individuals who aren’t Christian, I suggest practicing language-mirroring as hospitality. Listen to the identifiers, names, and pronouns that the individual uses, and then use those same words as an act of hospitality. You might ask the individual what they mean when they use those words. Choosing to mirror those words with those meanings in early conversation is not affirmation that the individual is using the best words and meanings, but is instead building what Laurie Krieg calls “relational equity” which can open the door for future conversation.
Parents, the overview above is not everything you need to know about gender incongruence. Before you talk to your kids, take some time to read through Equip’s blog posts on understanding gender incongruence and caring for trans* people. For even deeper understanding, get access to Equip’s on-demand Gender Incongruence Course.
Prepare for Conversation
With deepened understanding, prepare to have conversation with your kids about gender incongruence.
*Note: At creation, God intended for everyone to experience congruence between their biological sex and gender; those words were interchangeable before the Fall. But sin entered the world and broke everything, including how humans feel inside their sexed bodies. The world around our kids now speaks of one’s biological sex and one’s internal sense of gender as totally separate things. To avoid confusing our kids and to ensure our kids have a right understanding of God’s intentions and compassion for those who experience gender incongruence, we speak of sex and gender as separate things while maintaining that the separation exists because of the brokenness in the world.
A teammate on your child’s community basketball team uses they/them pronouns and has a gender-neutral name. Your child wants to know if the teammate is a boy or a girl.
“Boys and girls are the same, but also different. What are some ways boys and girls are different? (give your child time to answer) Men and women do have differences – they are, on average, different sizes. Men and women have different chromosomes and hormone levels. Men and women have different private parts, and only women can become pregnant and give birth to a baby. Those differences are good and right, and God made us to be different. What are some ways boys and girls are the same? (give your child time to answer) We’re alike in lots of ways, probably more ways than we are different: boys and girls can enjoy the same activities, like the same kinds of food, play with the same toys, have the same jobs, wear the same kinds of clothes.
“In our family, we believe that God meant for boys to feel like boys on the inside and for girls to feel like girls on the inside. But the world is broken, and sometimes a person has the body of a boy or the body of a girl, but on the inside they feel like a boy and a girl or they don’t feel like a boy or a girl. Sometimes people who feel like that choose to use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ as a way to be more comfortable with themselves. While God hopes those kids eventually feel comfortable in the body He gave them, we can honor their request to use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ That doesn’t mean we agree that they’re both a boy and a girl or neither; it means that we recognize they’re hurting and this is a small way we can offer comfort. I don’t know if your teammate is a boy or a girl, but I know God wants us to love them no matter what. We don’t have to know a person’s biological sex to love them well.”
Last year a student in your child’s class had short hair, wore superhero clothing, used he/him pronouns, and went by the name Luke. After summer break the child returned to school with longer hair, sparkly skirts, and painted fingernails. The child now uses she/her pronouns and goes by the name Lacy. Your child asks how Luke became a girl.
“We know that how we feel on the inside doesn’t change our body, but because of the brokenness of the world, some people feel really strongly that they were born as the wrong sex. They feel like a boy on the inside, but they have a vagina and uterus and breasts. Or they feel like a girl on the inside, but they have XY chromosomes. The people who feel that way aren’t bad or gross. They didn’t choose to feel like that. You might hear the words ‘gender incongruence’ or ‘transgender’ to describe those experiences. And some people who experience gender incongruence may choose to cope with the brokenness by assuming that God put them together wrong. They may decide to reject their body’s biological sex and instead take steps to align their body to the gender they feel like they are inside. That could include changing their name, wearing different clothes, changing their hairstyle, and saying that they’re a boy instead of a girl. We know that Lacy is biologically a boy, and we know that changing clothing styles and using a different name won’t make Lacy a biological girl, but we can choose to use the name ‘Lacy’ and use the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ as an act of hospitality and care. Maybe this isn’t what God hoped for Lacy, but she’s hurting, and this is the way she’s asked us to comfort her.”
Your child has a nonbinary friend who attends church youth group, and two of your child’s school peers have recently come out transgender; both have socially transitioned, and one is taking puberty blockers and, with parental support, is considering cross-sex hormones. Naming these three individuals, your child asks you how God could expect a person to continue to be a girl when they know they’re not actually a girl.
“That seems really tough, right? When someone feels very strongly that they were born with the wrong body, they might assume that God made a mistake, that God gave them the wrong body. But people aren’t a body with a mind and soul or a mind and soul inside a body. Humans are body and mind and soul. In God’s family, we recognize that we are the sex that our biology and body points to, that God didn’t make a mistake, and that sometimes the brokenness of the world means some people experience a mismatch between their body and how they feel on the inside. A person’s body is as God intended, but their mind is broken; they feel that they’re really a different gender than the one their body points to.
“While God never intended for anyone to experience incongruence between their biological sex and their felt gender, God isn’t surprised when people experience brokenness, and He gave us His Spirit, Scripture, and the Church to comfort us and support us. The same is true for our friends who experience gender incongruence. God desires for transgender people to seek His wisdom with the support, love, and care of His people, the Church.
“As Christians, we know that God intends for us to accept the biological sex He gifted us with. That doesn’t mean we must embrace cultural gender stereotypes, but it does mean we don’t reject our biological sex. But experiencing gender incongruence makes accepting one’s biological sex pretty difficult. Transgender people often suffer as gender incongruence persists, sometimes for a lifetime. Fortunately, Jesus is no stranger to suffering. Though He may not take away the suffering that comes with broken gender, He is compassionate toward trans* people as they seek ways to alleviate some of the pain suffering causes, even as they know that it’s only in the New Heavens and New Earth that suffering will be completely eliminated for all Christians. But in this lifetime, some trans* people will find at least some relief from the pain of gender incongruence by using gender-neutral pronouns, using a nickname, dressing in a different style, or using single-stall bathrooms. And while, as Christians, we believe that breaking one’s sex through cross-sex hormones or surgery to align with one’s broken gender isn’t what God would want for that person, we recognize that not everyone believes the same things we do. We will seek to honor and show love to every transgender person we meet.”
Parents, I give you these examples with caution. Circumstances, mental health, age, and more will vary widely among those in your child’s circles who experience gender incongruence. Plus, you/your child won’t have the same relationship with everyone you know who is trans*. In many cases it is wise and hospitable to use a transgender person’s new pronouns and name; in a few cases, you might feel convicted that you shouldn’t or prayerfully feel that you should gently push back against a step of transition a transgender person is considering. I urge you to pray and seek out God’s wisdom as you discern the best guidance to give your children. Mark Yarhouse’s book Emerging Gender Identities has some good examples in this vein, and I’ve found his wisdom to be helpful.
Equip’s Parent Course features a deep dive into gender and gender incongruence, including more scripts for conversation with kids and how parents can respond if their child experiences gender incongruence. Check out a free preview here.
1 Genesis 2, Psalm 139
2 Psalm 51, Romans 5
3 2 Corinthians 12
4 Gen 1-3, Deut 22:5, Deut 23:1, Is 56:1-5, Matt 19:3-12, Matt 22:30, Acts 8:25-39, 1 Cor 6:12-20, 1 Cor 11:2-16, Gal 3:27-28, Psalm 51:10-11, Micah 6:8, 1 Sam 18:1-3, Prov 31, Jud 4:4, Acts 16:14, Lk 7:47-50; see Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course for a full exploration of these passages
6 Steensma, T. D., Biemond, R., de Boer, F., & Cohen-Kettenis, P. T. (2011). Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: a qualitative follow-up study. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry, 16(4), 499-516.
7 You can find all of our sources and Equip’s full article on trans* suicide risk at https://equipyourcommunity.org/does-trans-suicide-risk-justify-transition/