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Our child came out as trans at age 4. This is what we've learned since

A message of advice — and hope — for any parents who are embarking on the same path we found ourselves on more than six years ago.
Today Ellie is "thriving," J.R. and Vanessa Ford said of their youngest child, pictured.
Today Ellie is "thriving," J.R. and Vanessa Ford said of their youngest child, pictured. Courtesy Ford family

J.R. and Vanessa Ford are the authors of the new children's book, "Calvin." They live with their two children, one of whom is trans, in the Boston area. Together they wrote this essay about learning the true identity of their youngest child, Ellie, and what they want other parents to know about raising a trans kid. Nov. 13-19 is Transgender Awareness Week.

March 21, 2015, was a glorious spring day — our youngest child’s fourth birthday. The house was filled with laughter and friendship as our youngest flitted around in fuzzy red Lightning McQueen slippers and a flowing light blue Elsa dress and tiara. The cake, created by a dear friend, was a beautiful ice castle. When it was time to take the kids up to bed, we followed our youngest, carefully holding the back of the Elsa dress so those 4-year-old slippered feet wouldn’t trip.

“We hope you had the very best birthday, our sweet Princess Boy.” Upon hearing those words, our child stopped, turned, looked Vanessa in the eye and firmly said, “Mom, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl in my heart and brain.”

J.R. Ford with his youngest child, Ellie. Ellie, who uses they/them pronouns, revealed their true identity on their fourth birthday. Courtesy Ford family

In the second that followed, it was as if we were watching a movie of the previous two years of our child’s life on fast-forward. The withdrawn child who wouldn’t talk to anyone. The kid who didn’t like hugs and threw tantrums. The "Frozen" obsession and the subsequent six months of wearing an Elsa dress on top of or underneath all outfits ... including snow pants. The fact that at this very moment everything was about to change.

Gone was our shy child, who now pronounced, “I’m Ellie! E -L- L- I -E!” And in Ellie, who uses they/them pronouns, we saw smiles and laughter. We got hugs. We saw them make friends. We saw real confidence.

J.R. and Vanessa Ford with their children. Courtesy Ford family

Yes, there was a hurricane of emotions and questions — our own and others’. But we knew, without a doubt, that we would provide a safe and loving path for our child to realize their own happiness. In our minds, we didn’t have another option. As parents, we have an obligation to educate ourselves about the needs of our children and provide them with every opportunity for happiness and success in life.

Perhaps it was the 21 transgender women who were murdered that year just for living their lives authentically, many of them people of color like Ellie. Maybe it’s because we had already begun to watch the fights of fellow parents for their children to use the restroom at school or play on sports teams that match their identity. We quickly learned that families were fighting everywhere just to have their children live as their true selves, and we determined we were going to be on the right side of our child’s journey.

Over six years later, Ellie is thriving. They love school. Their teachers have been transformative and affirming, and they have a core group of friends. They are proud of living an authentic life. Isn’t that all we want for our children?

The family poses with the new book, "Calvin," written by J.R. and Vanessa Ford. Courtesy Ford family

In our picture book, "Calvin," we tell the story of a little boy who shares some of Ellie’s experience: Like Ellie, he tells his parents about his true self, his self “in his heart and his brain,” and with the support of his community, he is able to live authentically. We wrote this book for kids like Calvin and Ellie, parents like us, and maybe just as importantly, the people around them: the grown-ups and kids learning to support the gender-expansive kids in their classes, on their teams and in their neighborhoods.

As we talk with parents from around the country who are just joining this amazing journey, we are often asked, “What should we do?” Here’s a little bit of what we’ve learned.

Listen to your child

Early on, we met with a wise therapist who noted that people are who they say they are until they tell you otherwise. This is true even for our youngest children. When writing this piece, we asked Ellie for their advice and they said, “Let kids be themselves.”

Educate yourself

Read articles. Watch documentaries. Connect with organizations like The Human Rights Campaign, which provides resources around trans youth. The more you know, the easier it will be to affirm your child.

Find community and representation

You are not alone — and neither is your child! Tens of thousands of families supporting their children are here for you.

Get involved in local Pride or other LGBTQ+ programming so that your child can meet other trans youth. Join online groups or find a local chapter of an organization such as PFLAG or GLSEN. Not sure where to start? Reach out to us — we will use our network to get you connected.

Find books where your child can see themselves in the characters. Our book is one such story, but there are many, many others. Explore book lists and find stories that your child will enjoy.

Pronouns and names matter

Think about your own pronouns and name. How would it feel if people consistently got them wrong? If you are having a hard time switching pronouns — practice, practice, practice. If you make a mistake, correct yourself and move forward. It is not the job of our trans children to make us feel better about our mistakes. It is our job to stop making them.

Get ready to advocate

Be prepared to ensure your child is respected and safe wherever they go. Schools are a critical piece of the support puzzle. Meet with the school leaders and teachers. Request training from organizations such as HRC’s Welcome Schools. Create a Gender Support Plan to ensure your child knows who they can turn to and what to do in the event they are confronted with bigotry.

Find affirming health care

Access to gender affirming health care is a hurdle many trans people face. The guidance for affirming care from the American Academy of Pediatrics means more pediatricians are learning how to support our children, and the HRC has an Interactive Map to find qualified practitioners as well.

Be proud. Be joyful.

You have a child who knows who they are in a way many of us struggle to articulate. You have a brave, strong child. You have a child who is changing the world just by being themselves. This is something to celebrate!