Written by Brandon Cleaver
The Christian life is grounded in the need for balance. Faith in Christ compels us to be uncompromising in our Christian convictions, while presenting our message in a posture of compassion. In sensitive conversations, though, finding the right balance can be difficult.
Conversations about sexuality and gender with your child are about as sensitive as conversations can get. There is a natural internal struggle that many parents feel, wanting to tread lightly so as to not unnecessarily offend, but also recognizing the need for honesty. If you’re feeling this tension, be encouraged that you are not alone. Thankfully, examples from Jesus’ life and teachings can help provide some important ways to have a healthy and productive conversation with your child.
A Foundation of Compassion and Conviction
Jesus is the personification of balance. The apostle John describes the incarnation this way: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, emphasis added).
In other words, Jesus didn’t come only to give grace, or unmerited favor. He also didn’t come to only bestow truth. Without truth, grace is moral indifference. Truth without grace is unloving. Within the context of Christianity, these two are inextricably woven together.
A similar relationship exists between compassion and conviction. Conviction conveys confidence in our beliefs about a matter. As parents, we often hold a unique place of trust in our children’s lives, and expressing our beliefs with conviction can help to communicate that we have genuinely thought through a subject.
But conviction without compassion breeds callousness. The late Catholic priest and spiritual guide Henri Nouwen says this about compassion:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears… Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
Many of the emotions Nouwen names can emerge during conversations about sexuality and gender—but compassion can help assuage them.
Love Through Listening
Compassion is derived from the Latin words pati (to suffer) and com (with or together), and literally means “to suffer with.” Our contemporary application is synonymous with simply caring for someone else’s feelings, but as we see, its real meaning is weightier.
John 11 tells the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. This is the story that carries the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). But Jesus wasn’t just weeping over Lazarus’ death. Verse 33 says, “When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus wept when He witnessed the suffering of Lazarus’ sister Mary. His tears of compassion showed how He suffered with her.
The art of compassionate listening is an important element of conversations around gender and sexuality. Your child, like any adult, wants to be heard. They want you to intently listen in a way that shows you’re “suffering with” them. Notre Dame University professor John Paul Lederach framed listening as “…a spiritual discipline if, like a spring, it bubbles up from genuine love.” And at the heart of a parent’s desire for these conversations is a love of their child. Listening is an act of love when we demonstrate it in a way that shows we’re “with” them.
The Disarming Power of Questions
As we pointed out in Movement I, it has been estimated that Jesus asked over 300 questions in the Gospels, but only answered 3 directly. While some debate the specific numbers, it is undoubtedly true that His normal practice was asking questions. Jesus certainly could have provided answers to all those questions, so why didn’t He?
Questions can be disarming in three ways:
- They open people up to their assumptions.
- They can help clarify others’ points.
- They can help people organically find answers through self-reflection.
There will obviously be times during these conversations that you provide answers or reply with a statement to your child. But it’s also important to be discerning about when to ask authentic and compassionate questions, which may help your child re-examine some of the thoughts they’ve communicated.
Choosing the right environment is critical for fostering healthy conversation. The location we choose can either add discomfort and anxiety or help to reduce it. A place where your child can feel secure in talking with you and bearing their hearts is an incarnational space.
Deuteronomy 6:7 talks about incorporating conversation into the midst of our daily lives. Regarding God’s precepts, it says, “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” In other words, when you have down time, talk; when you’re on the go, talk. Whatever else you’re doing, build conversation into it.
One of the best ways to diffuse tension in these conversations can often be converse side-by-side instead of face-to-face. Sitting down across a table from your son or daughter and saying “we need to talk” can lead to awkwardness and defensiveness. Having a partial distraction, like a car ride, a sports game, or a campfire can work wonders for conversation.
Also, don’t feel like you have to have the ultimate, 100% complete conversation in one sitting. As Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers puts it in her book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, “Children and adolescents do not need one 100-minute (awkward and painful) sexual health conversation; they need 100 one-minute conversations. They need sexual and relational education delivered in many, many sound bites, weekly, across their entire childhood and teen years.”
As you think about these things, think also about where your child feels safe. Where is a place where they might feel happy and secure, but which would still be private enough for you both to have a genuine interaction? Be intentional about prioritizing their peace in a place where they can feel free to be vulnerable and honest.
One of the hardest things about these conversations is knowing when your child is ready to have them. The truth is that the moment often comes for our kids before we, ourselves, feel like we are ready.
The average age for pornography exposure in 2023 is 11 years old or younger, according to some sources. Adult content is one of the ways that children may first encounter the possibility of same-sex attraction. In these cases, a child may show another child this type of content, or they may stumble across it as a complete accident. You can do a lot to keep your child protected from pornography, but you cannot account for every circumstance to ensure that it absolutely isn’t going to happen. And even if you could, any kid who is paying an ounce of attention to the world around them is likely to recognize that same-sex couples exist, as do gender non-conforming people.
If your child is already coming to you with questions about sexuality and gender, delaying the conversation until a time when you feel fully prepared won’t help them get biblical answers in their moment of need. If you are hesitant to talk about sexuality with them, they will ask their questions elsewhere, and you may not be happy with the answers they come home with. Instead of talking around it, try to address it directly in an age-appropriate way.
Again, you can aim for micro-conversations that address one question at a time, and you don’t have to reach a firm conclusion at the end of every one. You may struggle and utter a prayer or two during these moments, but after they’re over, you’ll be so glad that these truths came from you and not from somebody who isn’t interested in your child’s salvation.
Children who might be ready for a conversation about these ideas include:
- Kids who have developed the physical signs of puberty (8 to 13 for girls, 9 to 14 for boys)
- Kids who are asking questions about dating relationships, including who they might be “allowed” to date and when
- Kids who are broaching the subject or testing the waters by bringing up friends who have different gender or sexual identities
- Kids who are having sexual identity and gender discussions as part of their school curriculum
- Kids who have expressed sexual or gender identity confusion or who have come out to you already
Starting the Conversation
We want to provide you with a few questions to help start these conversations, whenever you and your child are ready. But first, we want to remind you that God is with you, and God is in you. The Apostle Paul rhetorically asks, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Finding spiritual rest in this fact can make the difference between a conversation brimming with anxiety or one where the Holy Spirit’s role is truly valued.
Information can help change the mind, but only the Holy Spirit can move the heart. As parents we desperately desire for our children to flourish abundantly. We want them to live incarnational lives that abide by Jesus’ teachings. But life is a journey full of hills and valleys. This is why Jesus comforted His disciples with news of the coming Helper: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
The Holy Spirit is with you always. Lean on Him to help you. Stay prayerful and patient with your child. Know that however much you love your child, God loved them first. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a message to you, your child, and the world. It was his way of saying, “I love you.” While His love doesn’t promise that things will be easy or go exactly as you hoped, we can find peace through the power of His presence.
In order to help you talk with your teens about gender and sexuality, here is a list of questions that you might consider asking:
- Is there much pressure at your school to be in a romantic relationship
- What kinds of things are your friends saying about boys, or girls?
- What do you think about that?
- Have you ever felt like you were attracted to someone of the opposite sex?
- Have you ever felt like you were attracted to someone of the same sex?
- What do you do with those feelings?
- Why do you think God created relationships?
- Why do you think God created sexuality?
- Would you say that you feel comfortable in your own body?
- What do you think it takes to feel truly comfortable in our own bodies?
- Why do you think God gave us bodies?
- What do you think it means to be a man, or a woman?
- Do you know anyone who has experienced gender dysphoria?
- Have you ever experienced gender dysphoria?
If Things Go Sideways
We don’t want to pretend like having these conversations is easy. It’s possible that you’ll receive answers you weren’t prepared for, or your child might say something that you don’t want to hear. You may rehearse the conversation in your mind to be prepared for all possible outcomes—a strategy we recommend—but even doing that isn’t guaranteed to make the conversation smooth or easy.
Your child might not want to acknowledge the conversation, or might simply state, “I’m not comfortable talking about this with you.” Your child might come out to you as having a different gender identity or sexuality while you are discussing these things. Maybe your child will say that they are having gender dysphoric thoughts and ask to see a mental health professional. If they have come out to you as questioning or queer in the past, your child may double down when you try to discuss a biblical sexual ethic or ask them questions about what sex is for.
In these moments, too, we’d like to offer you encouragement. You may choose to let them know you hear their desire for a better time or place to talk and drop the subject. You may choose to maintain a posture of questioning and try to find out more about where your child is coming from when they express a different point of view from yours. You may feel your emotions rising and choose to disengage completely until you can be calm.
No matter what happens, the key here is to demonstrate that you love your child and are committed to seeing them where they are, no matter their response. Letting your child know that you are on their team unconditionally will give you many more opportunities to continue this discussion and keep the conversation line open.