What And Just Like That Gets Right About Parenting a Nonbinary Child, According to an Expert

11 minute read

On Sex and the City, Charlotte was a woman in her 30s who dreamed of becoming a mom. In the show’s sequel series, And Just Like That, she’s a middle-aged mother of two and facing parenting challenges she never quite expected. Charlotte’s main arc on the new show has centered on one of her kids, who comes out as nonbinary midway through the season.

The first episode hinted that Charlotte’s child Rock (who at the time was called Rose) was uncomfortable with certain gender roles when their mother insisted that they wear a dress. In more recent episodes, Rock has adopted a new name and asked their teachers and peers to use they/them pronouns. And Just Like That has received mixed reviews, but some viewers have embraced the series for its attempt to portray realistic conversations about the gender spectrum, particularly between child and parent.

Lilly Rivera, the director of family program at Gender Spectrum, an organization that works to create gender-sensitive and inclusive environments for kids and teens, has been obsessed with watching each new episode. Rivera, who frequently works with parents of children who come out as nonbinary and guides them on how to support their child at school and at home, says that while Charlotte’s response has been far from perfect, it’s also common and the show’s portrayal of their relationship could be educational for parents across the country.

TIME spoke to Rivera about how And Just Like That handles Rock’s coming out as nonbinary, Charlotte’s reaction and what parents of nonbinary kids can learn from the series.

Read More: Breaking Down And Just Like That’s Big First Episode Twist

Were you a fan of the original series?

No, I wasn’t an original fan. I watched a couple of episodes and felt like I couldn’t connect with their life. It was way too decadent and so distant from where I am that I was like, I’m not really interested in your lives or Manolo Blahniks. But now this series, I’ve been really engaged in, and I don’t think it’s a surprise. I think they’ve been really conscious about the diversity pieces they introduce. It can be slightly nauseating, it’s so over-the-top, but it does include more audiences.

What do you mean by somewhat nauseating?

Like Che’s podcast is a bit much. No one in their life really talks in those ways, regardless of their knowledge of social-justice issues. We connect as humans and then have discussions about stuff. But this feels so self-righteous. I like the character, but the podcast is just a bit too heavy.

All the women on the original series were white, straight, cisgender and wealthy. Were you surprised that the sequel included two nonbinary characters, Che (Sara Ramirez) and Rock (Alexa Swinton)?

I’m totally shocked to have an adult who’s nonbinary on the show, an actor [Ramirez] who is nonbinary playing that character on the show and a child who is at a different developmental stage. I do think that the Che character is there to push one of the characters and push questions of what sexuality means for middle-aged women right now. I think that’s interesting, especially when thinking about Cynthia Nixon and her own journey.

Much has been made of the show’s heavy-handed attempts to update its themes. Sometimes watching the show it feels as if Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) were cryogenically frozen for 20 years and just emerged and were like, “Wow, the world has changed.” How realistic do you find their naïveté about issues surrounding gender in particular?

In my experience people in that age group living in a place like New York City will have specific questions about issues they’re curious about, but they won’t be totally oblivious to all of it. Especially with the last [presidential] administration when we had a reckoning about racial justice, we had a conversation about trans rights issues, people had no option but to have those conversations. In my experience, women living in that particular community in Manhattan would be very astute and aware and even involved in making change.

A major plot line this season has been Charlotte struggling with her child, Rock, coming out as nonbinary. What do you think of that story line?

I think it’s a brilliant choice because young people are identifying at higher rates around nonbinary identities. And parents are left really in the dark. It’s sometimes easier for parents to navigate a child coming out as trans and as gender-specific trans, right? Someone who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a girl or was assigned female at birth and identifies as a boy. Parents think, “These are the things that we as parents have to do so that our child can live congruently.”

For a nonbinary child, those things are really defined by the child and what they understand gender to be. I think Rock’s story line is great and leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, which is where we need to move around gender—moving towards more ambiguity so people have more freedom to define who they are. I think it’s brilliant that they chose Charlotte because Charlotte is someone who needs to control her environment, and when your child is nonbinary, you can’t control any of it. The child has to control it.

In the first episode, Charlotte insists on her child wearing a dress. Charlotte’s inflexibility is hard to watch.

Yes, it was really clear that dress did not align with the child and who they were. And they took it and tailored it to meet their needs. But Charlotte’s response is really, really typical of how parents respond at first. They often respond with, “This is not a thing. This is not who you are.” And then there’s the struggle for acceptance. It makes sense that Charlotte would go to someone who felt safe, and a gay friend [Anthony] in particular, to talk about Rock and process her feelings.

(L-R) Cathy Ang, Kristin Davis and Alexa Swinton in And Just Like ThatCraig Blankenhorn—HBO Max

Rock tells their teachers and friends at school that they want to be called Rock instead of Rose and use they/them pronouns before they tell their parents. What did you think of that development?

It was really well done that they were able to highlight that the child felt comfortable and disclosed at the school first—what their name is, what their pronouns are. I think the conflict is really not with the child. The conflict is with Charlotte, and this is usually how we see these issues play out in families: The child has had a long time to think about it, and they feel comfortable among peer groups having these conversations and supporting other children as they move towards who they are. And the conflict is really with the family struggling to not have that child in that box that makes them feel uncomfortable.

How did you think the school handled that situation?

Well, in New York City, where the show takes place, that would be protected information. So the teachers couldn’t necessarily disclose that information to the parents. But what they could do is respect and honor the young person because we don’t want to create any challenges at home that could create conflict, that could involve Child Protective Services. But what we do want to do is invite the parents in to have a conversation about how to support the children.

It’s a common occurrence because children know who is going to be their ally, who is going to judge them and who is not. They’re able to assess that really quickly. We want to make sure that children are telling their parents. But it’s not uncommon that they’d come out at school first.

I don’t think all schools have the capacity to be able to navigate that conversation with the family, but where the show is set, at a private school on the Upper East Side, that’s typical.

During the conversation with Rock’s teachers, Charlotte and Harry assert that Rock is too young to know what they want. What would you say to a parent who has that initial response to their child coming out?

That’s a very typical response.

The first thing I’d say is that gender forms very early. At 3 or 4 years old, we understand our life and our identity through a gendered lens. And we engage in the world in very gendered ways regardless of whether we know it or not. Even before the baby is out of utero, we’re having these conversations about gender. Like, we have gender-reveal parties in our society—they’re actually genital-reveal parties. Which is gross, right? So children know very young that they’re entrenched in certain gender roles.

The second piece is, if it’s not actually who they are, what harm have you caused in believing your child? If a child changes their name, and one day they go back and say, “I’m no longer Rock. I’m Rose,” what harm was done by acknowledging that they wanted to be called Rock? You’ve actually created a trusting moment with your child because you said, “Yes, I believe you. I understand you. Tell me more about this.”

Read More: Beyond He or She

Charlotte also suggests to Rock that they want to identify as nonbinary because another kid at school changed their pronouns. How do you respond to parents who believe that kids might want to change their pronouns because a friend did so?

There are lots of parents who think that it’s just because the peer group is doing this. It’s possible that is the case. But it’s part of the step towards an authentic identity for them and what that means for them.

I think when a parent says that they don’t take into consideration that the child also risks being rejected by their peers. Not all young people know how to accept or embrace difference or change. And I don’t think any child would purposefully, even for the acceptance of a peer group, change their identity or who they are innately to fit in.

And if they have friends [who are changing their pronouns], maybe [they’re friends with that child] because both children are struggling with the same thing. So instead of it being, “My peer group is changing their pronouns, so I have to do it to,” maybe it’s “I have found friends who are facing similar challenges.”

Do you think this portrayal of the Rock and Charlotte relationship is good or helpful for parents watching at home who might one day navigate the same conversations with their kids?

I think it’s totally helpful. I think Charlotte’s initial confusion and denial is normal. And then her seeking of support is key. I work with parents of nonbinary children all the time, and when parents are experiencing this, they’re usually experiencing it in isolation. What they really long for is to speak to other parents who are having a similar experience to ask how to navigate this. And I think parents blame themselves or feel really bad when they realize, “This is who my child is, and I shouldn’t initially have said no or rejected their identity.” But it’s a natural response.

It’s important for parents to have these conversations with their children because it may not be your child, but it could be one of their peers. And how kids respond to their peers could be positive or negative, so we want to make sure that there’s visibility of families struggling with this. And it’s timely because research is telling us that children understand gender in really complex ways. And younger and younger folks are identifying as nonbinary.

I do wish they would include a conversation between Charlotte and Rock just talking about what this all means. I get that parents are afraid to have these conversations, but I would encourage parents to go to their child and say, “Tell me about this. I don’t understand. I want to understand where you are and what this means for you.”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com