Published on January 16th, 2014 | by Marlo Mack


Mama, Ella Has A Penis!: MARLO MACK on How To Talk To Your Children About Gender Identity

So, you’re a progressive parent, right?  Sure you are. You’re teaching your children that all cultures and religions and skin colors are made equal. You’ve explained that some kids at school may have two mommies and some may have two daddies, and that when your children grow up, they can marry anyone they want to.  “Love is love,” you say to them.

Twenty years ago (perhaps even ten years ago?), it was a rare parent who would tell their children that it was cool to be gay – that their son or daughter could grow up to love a man or a woman, and that either choice was cool with Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad). Today, however, among progressive parents, we don’t assume that little Ella wants to date boys until she tells us so.  We let little Jack decide if he prefers Jill or… another Jack.

But what if your child came home and said this to you:

“Mama, Ella has a penis! She says she’s a girl, but she can’t be, because only boys have penises!”

You’re a modern mama, so you’ve also been open with your kid about bodies.  No more euphemisms, right?  No more shame about our “parts.” You have said to your child, “Yup, that’s your vagina, honey.  And your brother Jack has a penis.”

But what few of us question is whether little Jack is really Jack.  I certainly didn’t. Chances are, the moment the ultrasound tech delivered the news (“It’s a boy!”), Jack’s parents began to dream a thousand gendered dreams for that kid.  They saw that grainy black-and-white photo of their unborn child, with his tiny little “man bits,” and they assumed they knew certain basic truths about him.  And maybe they did.  Maybe he is Jack.  Then again, maybe he’s like my child, whose ultrasound photo clearly showed a penis – but she’s actually Jill.


When my son was three years old, he informed me – in no uncertain terms – that she was my daughter.  Something had gone wrong in my “tummy,” she said, which had made her come out as a boy instead of the girl she was supposed to be.  She begged me to put her back in my tummy to fix this terrible mistake.

It’s been three long and challenging years since that announcement, and I’m now the mother of a happy, confident little transgender girl who just started kindergarten. She’s doing well, but every time one of the other parents at school learns she has a penis, it gets interesting.

Sometimes our life feels like one long Public Service Announcement.  I’ve considered printing brochures.  I sure wish the other parents at school had read a brochure or two.  If there’s a gender-nonconforming or transgender kid in your child’s school, I’ll bet that kid’s mom wishes you had read some brochures, too. (And, for one in roughly 400 parents reading this, we’re talking about your kid.)

It’s pretty simple stuff, actually.  You can have this talk with your kid in just a few minutes, and – I promise you – your child won’t question you any more than they did when you told them that Hanna has two mommies.  The kids are cool; it’s the adults who have to work a little harder to wrap their minds around this.  (I know I did.)

So, here’s the brochure:

 How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity

Most people have either a penis or a vagina.  Some people have both, but that’s pretty rare.

Most people with penises feel like boys.

Most people with vaginas feel like girls.

Some people feel like boys but they really like “girl stuff.”

Some people feel like girls but they really like “boy stuff.”

Some people with penises feel like girls.  They are girls with penises. (My child falls squarely into this category.)

Some people with vaginas feel like boys.  They are boys with vaginas.

Some people are sort of “in between” and don’t feel like a boy or a girl.

All these people are normal.  All these people need to be loved and treated well, and we should respect what they tell us they are.

The “parts” that are covered up by our underpants are private.  It’s no one’s business to ask about them or talk about them.  (That goes for the parents, too!) If someone tells you she is a girl, she’s a girl. If he tells you he’s a boy, he’s a boy.  If they say they’re both, they’re both!

That’s it!  Your children are now equipped to be supportive allies to their gender-nonconforming and transgender pals. Nice job, Mom!

And thank you. My daughter and I really appreciate your support.


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About the Author

Marlo Mack is a freelance writer who blogs about parenting her transgender daughter at

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