My career as a child care provider has allowed me some of the most delightful moments observing children as they role play different ways of being. So much role-playing comes from the world around them. I could hear my voice, see my mannerisms in their play-acting, pretending to read to others like at circle time; they’d even use my sing-songy gesticulations. I would see my way of being with children interpreted through their eyes. Sometimes this was good and other times their play would make me stop and wonder. Like the time someone said, “No, no, I can’t be Miss. Tanya, her back hurts, I wouldn’t be able to pick you up to cuddle right now.” The honesty at moments like this is almost palpable. But like my back problems, trying on of different identities during play is fluid and ever changing for children.
Other times during dramatic play, an identity needed to be worked on over and over again. A kiddo might obsessively run to their dress up first thing each morning, refusing to take it off until it was time to go home. My job, of course, was to support that play, allowing each child’s unique work to unfold. My job was not to analyze, but to watch, wonder and enjoy the show. Sometimes that brief obsession instantaneously changes, their particular theme completed; work with the concept is done. And other times I was almost certain, that the exploration became an integrated part of them.
During these early years, so much development takes place, and yet so much exploration still lies ahead. Even still, much of a child’s identity is an inherent part of them, like temperament. We can’t ever be certain about who they will become. Out of this uncertainty can develop a desire to control, or a perception that we can somehow control, the ultimate development of one’s identity.
Sorry folks, we as parents have no control over sex or gender identity. What we do have almost all the control over is whether our child’s sex and gender identity is a healthy integrated part of their life or not. And that indeed is a power not to be taken lightly.
So here are 8 helpful hints for your journey.
1. Be open to; what will be, just is
From the day your child is born their identity will start unfolding. Your job is to support it. Think of yourself as the scaffold on the side of a skyscraper, you work alongside the building, floor by floor, supporting the work. We are starting to understand that gender and sexuality is much more fluid than any of us were led to believe. And where do our preformed notions come from? Pretty much a man-made model furthered by religion, media and our own experiences. My recommendation, don’t wait for an all powerful moment to be ready for what may come. Be ready and happy for your children to become whoever they are meant to be. When you function as a scaffold for their developing identity; you are less likely to have to ever be a safety net. We don’t want to be a safety net if we don’t have to be. A safety net is the last resort as it means our child has fallen.
2. You don’t have to understand. But you do have to accept
I’m not sure we can ever fully understand another’s identity. Half the time we don’t even understand our own identity. The search for understanding is futile; the ability to accept, love and support another person regardless of gender or sexual identity is the first and foremost goal we should have. If you need to make a change in your semantics, then by all means do it. Perhaps it needs to go something like this: “I am trying to understand” to “I am willing to accept” whoever you are and whatever makes you feel whole. I get the desire to fully understand, I do, but the truth is, we can study to the ends of the earth and still not understand all things. Understanding might take a lifetime. So stop trying to understand, when at a moment’s notice, as human beings we have the unique capability to accept the truth. (Shit, think of all the untruths we as human accept!). Even if the truth may be hard to fully understand, acceptance can bring immediate and lasting relief to another person. As parents, our role is not to hold acceptance captive while in our futile search for understanding.
3. Have an open door policy
“Leave the door open. Whatever you do, whatever the situation, if your child knows the door is open, even just that little crack… they’ll come to you…or, at least, know they could come to you.”
I am paraphrasing Anthony Ross or The Outlet program, Adolescent Counseling Services at a panel meeting I attended in 2010 regarding a cluster of teen suicides in my then community.
To me, Ross was the only one willing to talk straight to the parents gathered that 2010 weekday evening. Ross knew what he was talking about and I immediately envisioned youth in this world behind a shut door with no one to talk to, and shuddered at the thought. Ross didn’t just spout statistics, take a pat on the back for the number of kids he’d supported, or make blanket judgments about “the problem” of teenage depression, he said it like it was. No matter how difficult the subject matter, if we are not available to hear it from our kids, they will be at risk.
4. Own your issues
What further inspired me about what Ross said that evening was when he said ‘no one is totally comfortable with everything.’ Even more specifically, he said no one is totally comfortable with transgender issues. It is confusing for our child, and is confusing for us, but for very different reasons most likely. For progressive thinking parents, I hope this is as much a relief to you as it is to me. I consider myself as cool as they come, and yet, I still have my stuck moments… I wish I didn’t, but I do, and I still will. Moments when my internal voice says ‘shit! I wasn’t ready for this yet!’
But we need to own our own shit. We need to separate your own identity and core beliefs from that of our children. Our job as parents is to own our own shit while allowing our children to explore with our unwavering support. Instead, do the work you need to do (talk therapy with someone who has expertise in this area). Based on your own personal experience of gender and sexuality this might be hard work, but it is YOUR work to do as a committed, loving parent so you are fully able to raise a happy contributing fully integrated person, regardless of their identity.
5. Rules shouldn’t change
Children are still children and still living in your home regardless of gender or sexual identity. Your same family rules, discussions about appropriateness and curfews should apply to your trans or questioning child as to any other member of the family. We still want our trans or questioning teens to be safe in both their exploration process and their day to day life. Statistics tell us that 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide at least once, and more than 20 transgender people are murdered each calender year in the U.S. alone. According to tolerance.org; compared to the general population, gender-diverse kids face drastically increased rates of bullying, assault, depression, school drop-out, drug abuse, self-harm and suicide. Gender non-conforming kids need the same support and structure a family offers.
6. Know what you’re talking about
Not only do we need to own our shit, but we also need to know our shit too. Every parent is faced with learning curves. Unfortunately, our kids aren’t accompanied by instruction manuals at birth. Nope, no troubleshooting tips attached.
Here’s an excerpt by an anonymous parent of “student A”– the center of the recent controversy over whether a girl who is transgender should be permitted to use the girls’ locker room reads:
“When we were struggling to understand, we sought out medical professionals and support groups. Through this education process, we learned that gender extends beyond the sex a person is assigned at birth. We learned that scientific evidence has determined that gender is also determined by the brain’s anatomy, which is why the sexual characteristics assigned to many at birth are incongruent with their true gender identity. We also learned that one’s gender identity is different from one’s sexual orientation.
Most importantly, we learned acceptance.”
Read more from this incredibly enlightened parent here.
7. Expect fluidity
Yes, we want to be open to our children’s exploration early in development. The earlier they know they are loved for their unique self, the better. That said, identity is fluid in childhood, and depending on each person’s unique makeup, fluidity exists even in adulthood. What a child wants at 3 years old has been known to change at 8 or 9, and even well into adolescence and adulthood the journey continues. Identity formation in some ways is ongoing, especially if someone has had roadblocks along the way. Follow your child’s lead during the process of development. Picture the scaffold, growing as needed throughout the construction job, and even returning to restoration projects at times.
8. Be the advocate, every day, no matter what
The more you practice the advocacy, the realer it is. You may not have ever expected yourself to be this type of ally; Parenting is full of surprises regardless of who our children are. At first, advocacy might feel scripted; I know, I’ve been there. You are using words foreign to you, you are on the greatest learning curve of your life, you are overcoming your own childhood biases perhaps. But you are your child’s advocate. You are where they should feel most safe. You set the tone for the rest of the family and the community where your child is concerned, and act as an ally if your child is not ready to advocate for themselves (and continue to do so after they are). This means navigating through schools and choosing environments where you can expect tolerance and support. You set the tone for how others treat your child, and how your child or children treat others. We do not need to have a transitioning family member for our children to learn the hurt words cause.
“The problem of bullying is that a lot of the underlying stuff is silent,” says Ross. “Adults are not speaking up and telling kids to not use the word ‘faggot’ or say ‘that’s so gay.’ Our Bay Area is a little conflicted in thinking that we’re progressive when there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
I know, I’ve thrown a lot out there all at once. I am weary and overwhelmed as I finish writing. And I now share this weight with you the parent, or caregiver, at whatever stage of development you are in.
As a parent, educator, and advocate, I look to the day we don’t label sexual identity. I look to the day I have done all my own work to be the best possible ally I can be; the day when people are just people, and they are allowed to love and create families with whomever they choose to be a mutually committed relationship with. Doing the work I now do for Wear Your Voice, I give great credence to the idea of ‘evolving’ thought. Where I am now, I certainly was not 24 years ago when I began my parenting career.
Here I am today, though, that if we all work hard to create a more inclusive and accepting environment, we can do our part as parents to make the world a happier place for our children.
Featured Image: Image screenshot via Youtube/ Cosmopolitian Mom, I’m Not A Girl: Raising a Transgender Child