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Sex, Gender, and Body Image

All the recent news about "coming out" and "transitioning" has prompted a conversation I wasn't quite ready to have with my 8-year-old. What do I say?

First, take a deep breath. When you're in unfamiliar territory, it's easy to overexplain and complicate things.

At 8, your child most likely is curious about something he or she heard and probably isn't seeking an in-depth analysis. Try to gauge what they know, and dig a little bit to determine want they want to find out before you launch into an explanation. Ask "What did you hear?"; "What do you think?"; and "Why do you think that?" Then you can figure out how much you want to -- and need to -- say.

Meanwhile, work toward two other efforts: developing media-literacy skills (for yourself and your kid) and asserting and reaffirming your own values so the messages your kids hear about life are yours, not just the media's.

On the media-literacy front, train yourself to think critically about the information you see and hear. Take the Caitlyn Jenner story. Her transition sparked heated conversation nationwide about gender and the challenges and courageousness of coming out as transgender. Talk to your kids about how the media turned her into a cultural icon and lightning rod for debate -- literally overnight. Also, talk about gender itself. Ask questions such as, "what does the media teach you about how boys and girls should behave?", "should boys and girls be treated differently based on their genders?", and "is it OK for boys and girls to act in ways that are traditionally viewed as typical of the opposite gender?" In early adolescence (around 11-13) when kids are developing their own sexual identity, consider watching movies and TV shows that defy rigid gender stereotypes. This will help them realize that their gender shouldn't be a hindrance to anything they want to accomplish.

As for your family's values, every family is different. The conversation is between you and your kid. But remember to be civil and understanding. In this day and age when everyone can post comments online -- and news shows encourage argument to increase ratings -- things can degrade rapidly into name-calling, stereotyping, and hate speech unless parents model respect.

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