While they/them used as singular pronouns may be confusing at first, you probably already use them without even noticing. In my latest advice piece for MyKidIsGay.com I reply to a parent who’s struggling with the switch to their adult child’s gender-neutral pronoun. (Did you catch the “their” there?) I’m hopeful the tips that follow below will help keep you from messing up, too.
“My problem is that I rarely see my child because she has so much resentment that she doesn’t visit her parents very often. So there is little opportunity to practice the they/them pronouns as they are never around. And when they does come around if we mess up it’s quite a dramatic thing for them where they starts to cry and feels deeply deeply offended. So frankly the whole thing is quite ridiculous when there’s this expectation of perfection in changing to a different pronoun because the fact is that this is happening at the level of procedural memory where it occurs automatically. We can’t just change pronouns without thinking about every single sentence.”
If you want to see your child more often, I want you to know that is possible. It’s also in the realm of possibilities to have a close, trusting relationship with them. Now here’s the thing, it’s going to take real effort on your part. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. And I know you can do it. You switched to they/them/their pronouns in your letter above, right?
Let’s start from a place of compassion. First, have compassion for yourself. You’re worried about your current parent-child relationship. Maybe you’re concerned you’ll lose that child from your life permanently. Those stresses may be adding to the pressure you feel to use different pronouns, making it all the more difficult to focus on using they/them/their consistently. Those feelings are real.
Your child’s feelings are real, too, so try to think with compassion about them as well. Personal pronouns are fundamental. They/them pronouns are now inextricably linked to your child’s identity, and using the correct pronouns validates their personhood. It says, “you’re important and we respect you for who you are.” I suspect that their tears and being deeply offended when you mess up are because they feel hurt. Your words and actions matter to them. Whether you realize it or not, not using they/them pronouns is interpreted as a refusal to acknowledge and accept your child. Pain builds up quickly when one feels invalidated time and again.
The correct singular usage, by the way, is “they are.” They/them pronouns are used in the exact same way when you’re talking about a single person as when you’re talking about a group of people. While using they/them pronouns for an individual may seem like a challenge, chances are you already use those pronouns without realizing it. If you found a cell phone, I bet you’d say, “Somebody lost their cell phone,” referring to a single person. Right?
That being said, mistakes do happen. However, think about how you react when you’ve messed up. Do you tell them “the whole thing is quite ridiculous”? That they’re expecting too much of you? That they’re too sensitive? That you can’t just change overnight? Do you roll your eyes and shake your head? Or do you apologize immediately and correct yourself? I couldn’t help but notice how the tone of your letter changed after describing how emotional your child gets when you use the wrong pronouns. How you respond to their reaction is equally as important.
If you’re serious about mending your relationship with your kid, it is absolutely necessary moving forward to use your child’s pronouns. After all, it’s up to you to make your child feel loved, understood, and respected. Here are a few tips to help you.
Practice, practice, practice.
The more you use they/them/their pronouns, the easier they’ll be to remember—and you don’t have to wait for your child to come over. Talk about your child with your spouse using they/them pronouns. Practice how you’d introduce your child. For example: “Meet my child. They are a teacher. Working with children is important to them. Their specialty is music.” Write it out, tape it to the fridge, and practice saying it daily.
Think before you speak.
Yes, you can do this, even if you’re a fast talker. It may feel awkward at first, but you’ll get used to slowing down and being more intentional with your speech. It’s the same technique you’d use if you traveled to Mexico and were learning to say “Hola” instead of “Hi.” You’d have to think about it first, but soon enough you’d just start using it without thinking twice.
New habits can take several weeks to form. Along with practicing aloud, visualize yourself interacting with your child and using the correct pronouns. If you work on changing every day, you can retrain your brain.
Mistakes are common as you unlearn habits of speech. If you do mess up during this process, keep your cool and make a heartfelt apology. You could say something like, “I’m so sorry I didn’t use the correct pronoun for you. Let me try again.” Then correct yourself and move on in conversation.
As you commit to efforts that will bring you and your child closer, please know that they/them/their pronouns are here to stay. The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Associated Press all use “they,” “them,” and “their” as singular pronouns when referring to people who identify as non-binary. It’s also common practice on college campuses for students to introduce themselves with their name, their hometown, and their pronouns.
So, if you are ready to make the effort to build trust with your child, share the news with them. Tell them you’re committed to respecting them. Say how much you want them to feel loved and validated. And if there’s any crying, it will most likely be tears of relief and happiness.
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