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4 ways to talk to your kids about gender and sexuality

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October 2, 2020

A friend sent me a link to an advice column this week featuring parents who are seeking to raise their child “gender-neutral” but are frustrated that their daughter keeps opting for a wardrobe typically associated with her biological sex. Our culture makes a lot of sex and gender today. In recent years, new words have entered our vocabularies to describe the way our gender or sexual identities align (or not) with our genetic makeup. A little more than a decade ago, words like cis, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming would have been nearly meaningless to the majority of the population. And even if you’re not familiar with these words, you can be sure that your children are or that they will be soon.

Our kids are going to grow in a world that is shot through with confusion about sex and gender and what it means to be male or female. So how can Christian parents help their children navigate this difficult terrain? Doing so will certainly be a challenge. But there is good news. Helping our kids navigate confusion about human sexuality won’t require us to learn much that is new. Instead, we mostly have to embrace something old. 

Made in his image

On our Bibles’ first pages, God tells us a lot about the way that he made us. When he creates Adam and Eve and places them in the garden, he tells us that both the man and the woman bear his image. I love the way that Genesis 1:27 puts it, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:27). The most important thing about men and women is something they hold in common—both are made in the image and likeness of God. So as a starting point, our kids need to know that God made them with a purpose. He made them to represent him in the world and to reflect his likeness in creation.

Made male and female

But in that same verse in Genesis, we learn something else about the way that God made us. Though men and women both bear God’s image, men and women are distinct. Together, they represent the two complementary halves of humanity. And this brings up a second helpful point for kids on this topic. Not only did God make them for a purpose, but he intentionally made them either male or female. It is not uncommon for kids to question, at various times and to varying degrees, why they happen to be their particular sex. Growing comfortable in one’s own body is challenging for everyone. One of the best things you can do for your child is to teach them about God’s design for men and women and reassure them that everyone feels awkward about this at times. Especially today, kids need to know it’s not freakish or weird to feel uncomfortable or to have questions.

Only male or female

One of the reasons this topic can be so difficult for parents is because we sometimes lack the vocabulary to discuss these things together. But truthfully, the basics are pretty simple. When we use the words male or female, we are talking about a person’s biological sex. A person’s anatomy and genetic (chromosomal) makeup determine whether a person is a biological male or female. So when we say that sex is binary, we mean that God makes us either male or female. And what our kids need to know is that this is not an accident. The Scriptures speak often of the special care that God takes in creating and caring for each one of us (Psa. 139:13-18; Matt. 6:25-34). A man I deeply respect once told me that as he prays with his children, he regularly takes time to pray for his sons, “I thank God that he made you a male” and for his daughters, “I thank God that he made you female.” Parents can do their children immeasurable good simply by affirming the goodness of God’s design to them.

Masculine or feminine

Because sex is binary, that means that your child will live their whole lives either as a man or woman. But this doesn’t mean that your child has to conform to various stereotypes about masculinity or femininity. Your son is a male regardless of whether he would prefer to read and practice the piano or camp in the woods and chop down trees. Your daughter is a female whether she prefers pink dresses and tea parties or woodworking and watching football. The reason we are so often confused about this though is because we’ve unwittingly embraced ideas about how our biological sex is supposed to find expression. But the answer isn’t to raise “gender neutral” children; it’s to understand the Bible’s full range of masculinity and femininity.

Though the world is confused about sex and gender, Christians can hold fast to what God has said and affirm the goodness of God’s design

No one doubts King David was a manly man. He killed both a lion and a bear to protect his father’s flock before killing Goliath the giant to protect the flock of God (1 Sam. 17). But David was more than a warrior. He was also a harpist and a poet (1 Sam. 16). If your definition of manhood excludes King David, it also excludes Jesus, who not only fashioned a whip of cords to cleanse the temple and bore the fury of God’s wrath against sin, but wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and routinely exhibited compassion for the lost and hurting. Darrin Patrick used to say that a biblical man must be tough and tender, and I think that is a helpful way to put it. 

The Bible’s depiction of femininity is no less compelling. God made men and women distinct, and a special part of his design for women is their beauty and ability to nurture and care for others. But the Bible nowhere reduces women to objects. Throughout the Scriptures we see acts of faithfulness and even heroism featuring women God used to preserve his people and advance the gospel. The Hebrew midwives defied the authority of Pharaoh. Rahab assisted the spies to help Joshua take the Promised Land. Esther’s courage saved God’s people from destruction. The Bible also recounts the faithfulness of Ruth, the fearlessness of Jael, or the significance of Mary the mother of Jesus. The woman described in Proverbs 31 has noble character, speaks with wisdom, and is clothed in strength and dignity. That is exactly the kind of portrait we should hold up for our daughters.

The beginning

There is much more to say, but my hope is that this provides a foundation from which to engage these conversations with your sons and daughters. Though the world is confused about sex and gender, Christians can hold fast to what God has said and affirm the goodness of God’s design. Aside from pointing them toward Jesus, the best thing you can do for your children to help them understand how God made them is to model biblical manhood and womanhood in front of them. Fathers should be tough, ready to protect their families. But they should also be tender, kneeling down beside the bed to pray. Mothers should bless their children with incredible nurture. But they should also model the incredible range of gifts God bestowed upon women. 

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author