Should Schools Call Home When Kids Change Gender Identity?

State laws and regulations attacking the LGBTQ+ community continue to pop up all throughout the country. One analysis found that over the past two years, at least 306 bills have been introduced that specifically target trans people, and 86 percent of those target trans youth.

You're probably familiar with some of the policies targeting trans youth athletes, but more recently, legislation is moving off the fields and into the classroom. In some schools around the country, administrators are now mandated to notify parents if their kids change their gender identification or pronouns at school.

Alabama, Florida, and Virginia, for example, have all "passed sweeping laws or issued guidance that prohibit schools from withholding information about gender identity from parents," according to The New York Times. And even school districts are attempting to pass similar policies, all of which go against long-standing data showing that safe, supportive schools are lifesaving for many kids. Still, some parents and experts argue that caregivers have the right to know.

But what about what's best for the child? Or, how should one respond if their child's school notifies them about their identity? Ahead, experts explain the potential dangers of these policies, what parents can do if they receive a call like this, and how best to support the kids involved.

The Risks of Children Being "Outed" by Their School

When it comes to LGBTQ+ youth who choose to change their pronouns or identity at school, calling their unsuspecting parents is more than just tattling. Jillian Amodio, LMSW, a social worker and college professor who works with LGBTQ+ youth, says doing so could cause very real harm.

"The act of outing someone can be incredibly dangerous and can be a massive violation of privacy that can lead to traumatic outcomes," she tells POPSUGAR. "When people are outed without their consent, it can lead to fear, shame, anger, trauma, panic, and abuse. It can lead to detrimental and even deadly consequences."

Amodio says these policies might remove "the only safe space children have, especially if their home is a volatile environment." This can be particularly dangerous if teachers do not know how the news will be received by the family or what the consequences might be.

She also argues that if a child does not wish to tell their parents about their gender identification or pronoun change, it's important to respect their hesitation. For example, a child might fear violent or abusive backlash, and safety is of the utmost importance. "Children are not the property of their parents, and they have rights of their own that must be preserved."

What About a Parent's Right to Information?

In many of the policies that mandate disclosing when a child uses different pronouns or gender expression at school than at home, the reasoning centers on the belief that a parent has a right to information on their child and that refusing to disclose it violates their rights as the child's guardian.

Amodio counters that argument, arguing that the right to information isn't the top priority. "When looking at information regarding a child's personal identity, a parent's right to information should never supersede a child's right to privacy," she says.

Michelle Forcier, MD, MPH, FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician and Folx Health clinician, adds that "there has not been a professional medical or mental health study, report, or policy that recommends 'outing' an LGBTQIA+ person before they are ready, before they have a plan, and before they give their permission."

Amethysta Herrick, PhD, a mom to a 12-year-old son, tells POPSUGAR that school policies requiring parents to be notified may only serve parents who might not know because their child isn't comfortable sharing their gender identity or pronouns with them. Instead, she argues the policy is "nothing but harmful" for students and would allow "parents who disagree with their child's gender to interfere with a process that has never and will never belong to them: the normal human experience of discovering and manifesting our gender."

What to Do If You Receive a Phone Call About Your Child's Pronouns

Getting a phone call from your child's school is generally met with anxiety, no matter the topic of conversation. But in this case, it's important to remain calm. Whether you have an inkling about your child's identity or you're in total shock, it's crucial that you center your child and their emotions, rather than your own. Think about what it took for them to tell someone at school about something so personal, and then start figuring out how to create a safe space when they get home so that they can open up to you.

"Now you have an open door to broach this important subject with your child," Dr. Forcier says. But how you approach the subject can have a big impact. In this moment, you as a parent need to focus on "listening carefully and knowing that all children who feel safe, accepted, valued, and loved are healthier both in the short term and long run," she adds. "Time to step up and parent, even if this is new, scary, or not what you ever expected in your family."

As a supportive parent, you can also take steps to address the school and let them know your thoughts on the policy. "[Parents can] tell the school that they understand the legal requirements but do not agree and wish there was more respect for youth and families, less 'policing' in public venues, and that the school can still do things to support transgender and gender-diverse youth and families in their community," Dr. Forcier says.

If there aren't already supportive resources in place, parents can also work together to brainstorm how best to support children who may be "outed" by the school. "A school exists in many forms, and these many forms can all support transgender or gender-diverse youth regardless of the laws," Dr. Forcier explains. "For instance, the school media (newspaper, morning report, or other info) can talk about the issue and resources available to students. The school can establish a policy of handling this type of outing, which may include the youth if they choose, and a more supportive, educational, conversational way to establish support for that youth in school."

The school community at large, including a school parent committee, can step up too. "A school parent committee could create materials and resources, including establishing a gay-straight alliance, adding appropriate books to the library, and having a Pride day," Dr. Forcier suggests.

How to Talk to Your Child About Their Pronouns

Not sure how to start the conversation? The experts recommend leaning into honesty. "A parent could say, 'Hey, I got a call from your school. The counselor wanted to check in with us about names and pronouns. Can you tell me more about what you want, not just from the school, but maybe from me and your mom/dad/family?'" Dr. Forcier says.

She also suggests allowing your child to steer if and how the conversation goes from there. You might try something like this: "If you don't want to get into it with me, know that I support you and am here when you are ready to talk or need my help. I want to respect your privacy and your choices. But always, always know that I love you just the way you are and who you will grow to be. Just let me or us know how we can support you."

Dr. Forcier also offers the following pointers to start:

  • Ask your child what name and/or pronoun they would like you to use.
  • Give them permission to gently and kindly correct you when you forget and make a mistake.
  • Ask your child how they want you to support them.
  • Support their choice of clothes, hair, makeup, friends, and activities.
  • Offer to connect them to LGBTQ+-friendly medical, mental health, and community resources or other forms of support.

Most importantly, Dr. Forcier says to listen "carefully and respectfully" to better understand and support your child.

You can also have a conversation with your child about these policies going into effect and how to best support a friend who is socially transitioning. This way, if their buddy is struggling with their identity, your child can offer a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their preferences without fear of being outed to their parents. "There are many ways to support youth that are in accordance to legal requirements," Dr. Forcier says, "but take the direction of acceptance, love, and support rather than policing."