Do you listen to the parent or the child?


I received an email recently from a mother who asked for my advice. I think it’s a great question and not an easy one to answer, but I tried, because I think it’s so important.

I’m curious what you think about this question and my response. I’m sure others have encountered this situation and I wonder how they dealt with it. Please let me know what you think!


Dear Marlo,

I wanted to ask you a question because you as a parent of a transgender child might be able to help me. I have a 5 year old daughter and one of her closest friends at school is a transgender child, a girl that sees herself as a boy. This child, Maya*, is as boyish as they come come, dresses, looks, and refers to herself as a boy. When I first met her I called her by her name, “Maya,” and she looked at me and said, “It’s ‘Max.’” It’s easy for everyone to assume that Maya is a boy, and the reality is everyone does. When I first met her, I assumed she was a boy, and referred to her as a “he” to her mother. I was corrected by her mother on the pronoun and apologized for my mistake. When I refer to her as “she” to my daughter, she corrects me and tells me, “Maya is a he, stop saying she.”

My question is, should I respect the wishes of the parent, or the wishes of the child?

Should I tell my daughter her friend is not a boy but a transgender child? What can I say/do that is fair to everyone but not feel like I’m lying? Every time I let my daughter think Maya is a boy I feel like I’m not being honest in a way. I’m afraid she’s going to find out and have a reaction that is not respectful, as a 5 year old may. I just don’t know. My feeling is that I should talk to her about Maya being transgender and prepare her and tell her that she should treat Maya as a boy because that is how her friend wants to be seen, but my husband thinks it’s best to not to even mention it because it could deeply offend her parents. Maya keeps asking for a play date but I avoid it because I don’t want an uncomfortable situation if Maya’s mom is present and sees my daughter refer to Maya as a boy. Is there any insight you can give me that would help me figure out the best course of action?


Dear Danielle,

img_5498That’s a tricky situation and I think it’s wonderful that you’re being so thoughtful about it. My advice would be to use this as an opportunity to explain to your daughter what transgender is (“Some people who are born with girl bodies feel like boys, and some people born with boy bodies feel like girls”). You wouldn’t need to mention Maya/Max. If your child knows that Maya has a girl’s body, then she will figure it out. And in my experience, she won’t care either way. Kids seem to accept this stuff much more calmly and smoothly than the parents. They’re generally far more interested in getting back to the important business of playing!

If it were me, I’d advise my child to listen to and respect what her friend is saying about who they are. It’s not about the child’s mother. It’s about what message YOU want to send to YOUR child. Do you want to teach her that we should listen to and accept what our friends say about who they are? I’m guessing the answer is yes. That doesn’t mean you tell your daughter that her friend is transgender (and frankly, we don’t know if the child is or is not – that’s someone else’s call and there’s plenty of time for that child and their family to figure it out). I’d simply say to my child, “Your friend is who they say they are,” and leave it at that.

As for the mother of the child, that’s tricky. She is probably struggling to figure this out. Sometimes it takes a long time. The family is lucky to have you in their circle, so you can be supportive if/when they need it.

Warmest wishes,



* I’ve changed all names to protect the privacy of these children and their parents.

13 thoughts on “Do you listen to the parent or the child?

  1. I agree with your answer. There is no way to know if the child is transgender or not and the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is respecting the child’s wishes. It doesn’t hurt anyone for the child to be honored and seen as they want to be seen.

  2. In addition to Marlo’s response, here are some of my thoughts.

    Dear Danielle,

    I see two questions in your letter. 1. What should you tell your child? and 2. How do you handle the friend’s parents?

    To answer you first question, I don’t think you need to have a special talk with your kid. She already gets it. She knows her friend and respects his identity. Kids can be cool like that. I think that you should use the name Max and he/him pronouns when talking about the friend to your daughter. You know this is the name and pronouns the friend prefers (he told you) and your kid is sticking up for her friend. Encourage the respect your daughter is showing Max by using his preferred name and pronouns and at least while you’re at home, use that name and those pronouns too. It’s not in any way dishonest to treat someone how they want to be treated, so don’t worry about lying to your daughter!

    Entirely separate from Max, it would be worthwhile to talk about what transgender means with your daughter. Read books with her like “I Am Jazz” and “Introducing Teddy”. (I haven’t read these books myself yet but I’ve heard them recommended by people I trust). She’ll probably just think that they’re fun stories and that it’s normal to be trans. Educate yourself more on what transgender means before you have an in-depth conversation with your daughter, though. Your question, “Should I tell my daughter her friend is not a boy but a transgender child?” is making my stomach churn. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be trans. A trans boy is a real boy, period. Her friend is a boy if he says he is a boy. Max doesn’t have a girl body. If Max is a boy, that makes his body a boy body. It’s the rest of the world that would call it a girl body and that is wrong. I’ve heard that a good way to explain the concept of transgender to kids is “Some/most boys have a penis and some boys have a vagina. Some/most girls have a vagina but some have a penis. We keep our private parts private and we are the gender we say we are.” See also, “When a kid is born doctors and parents say if the baby is a boy or a girl, but sometimes they get it wrong because you don’t really know until the baby is old enough to tell you who they are.”

    The answer to your second question is more challenging for me to answer. (I’m not a parent, but I am trans. I’m brainstorming some ideas here.) How close are you to his mother? Would it be possible to use the name Max next time you talk to her and when she corrects you say, “Oh, your kid told me his name is Max” and see how she reacts? That might help you gauge what to do going forward. It’s tricky because you don’t want to disrespect the child, but you also don’t want to seem like you’re trying to parent someone else’s kid. I don’t think you need to avoid playdates altogether. It sounds like Max doesn’t get to be himself at home and being able to have playdates with your daughter would be a good thing in his life. Is it possible to use the name Max and he/him pronouns with just the kids but use the name Maya and she/her pronouns around the mother? Explain to Max that you have to respect his parent’s wishes and that’s why he might overhear you calling him Maya around his mom? I don’t know. It’s not an easy situation and there is no easy answer.

    Another relevant thought, we don’t know for sure if Max is trans or not. But the thing is, even if it is “just a phase”, the child is not going to be harmed from having had a safe space to be allowed to go through that phase.

    Best of luck!

    • Thank you for this, Riley. And I appreciate you pointing out my error in calling certain bodies “boy bodies” and certain bodies “girl bodies.” My daughter has a penis, but she would certainly never say that she has a “boy’s body” because she is a girl!

  3. An opportunity to teach what transgender is….brilliant!!!

    I am so thankful for your posts (both blog and podcasts). You are brave and setting new standards by simply talking about what most of us fear…the unknown certainties of life. Keep living your truth and from your heart! I love you and your daughter as you are!!!

    Love and hugs,
    Adventure Mel

  4. “Your friend is who they say they are.” Perfect. 🙂 My daughter didn’t realize that she was transgender until early adulthood. I wish that we had both realized when she was younger, so that I could have raised her as the beautiful daughter that she truly is. 🙂

  5. Marlo, very wise and helpful advice, and certainly a thought-provoking post. So generous of you to share in many ways in order that others may benefit from your experience. Also thanks to Riley for input from the perspective of a trans person. =)

  6. Great job Marlo, on how to deal with this issue.
    I would agree with you, as you’ve seen, the transgender kid has their own thoughts about who they are, and the parent might not realize that yet or sadly want to deal or realize it. No matter the age, you have to respect the wishes of Max. Max wants to be called Max and identifies as a boy, so he should be addressed that way.

  7. Hi Marlo,
    My name is Millicent, and while I’m not transgender, I am a woman who identifies as bisexual and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, so I have some idea of what it’s like to not feel accepted. I am not able to have children of my own, but because I have run into so much ignorance in my 43 years, I feel I can honestly say that if I had a child and they told me that they were not the gender that they were born as, I would immediately accept it, and do whatever I needed to do to be their most authentic self, just as you are doing with your daughter. I wish more parents of LGBTQ youth were as accepting as you and your daughter’s father are.

  8. Thank you all for your insight. One of my sons friends is transgender. When we met he was introduced as a female with the female name he was born with (which could also be a very nice male name). Later I was told that she felt more like he. Then he changed the name he wanted to be called to a more masculine name (in his opinion,I still like the given name better). And then he changed it to a different masculine name! I have trouble keeping names straight to begin with! I run through all my kids names sometimes just to get the right ones and called my cat my eldest sons name the other day. In my defense for that one their names do rhyme.
    I always tell my sons friend how beautiful he is. However I also tell my sons they are beautiful. He just seems to need to hear it more than they do. Poor self esteem runs rampant among teens no matter their gender. I love the insight I found on this page by the wisee author, the wise repliers (that’s most likely not a word), and mom wise enough to look for advise. I’m left questioning myself if I’ve insulted him by saying her and she and maybe more of a thousand small things I may have said. I plan on asking him sometime soon. However, I doubt there will be an issue and hope not since I have showered affection on him and scolded and praised and loved on and fed and hugged when he cried same as my own. What I think I am trying to say is in the long run i hope that the way I’ve treated him and not the mistakes I have made with misplaced pronouns that really matter.

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