Telling Your Kid “Do it But You’ll Be Laughed At”

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In parenting, the number one goal should always be to raise a happy child. Unfortunately, this is not society’s number one goal.

If you have a child who takes a route that society seems to shun, does that mean you’re obligated to warn them about the potential social disputes that could come with stepping outside a social construct? Or would that make them frightened to be themselves? For example, what if your child does not stay within the “accepted” socially constructed gender norms? What are the consequences of encouraging uninhibited self expression, but also warning them that they could be laughed at or bullied or even unaccepted?

If a young boy wants to wear a dress to school, how does a parent support him while also protecting against the possibility of severe bullying? Especially now, during a time where hate crimes are becoming more and more frequent, how can a parent still raise a happy child who is deemed different by society, when some part of society is most likely going to be against them?

It’s a tricky subject and one that bears significant consequences for children stepping outside archaic gender roles, many of which still unfortunately remain. There are quite a few psychologists nowadays that specialize with children who are going through this and scientists who study the process—you can even find blogs of parents documenting their experiences raising children who realize they are part of the LGBTQ society at a very early age.

We’ve all heard the horror story of a parent dis-owning a child or not accepting their child for who they are—unfortunately it still goes on even today. Our vice president-elect, Mike Pence, even said he wanted to defund Planned Parenthood and use that money for “conversion therapy” that works on shaming a child for being LGBTQ and “changes” them to be straight.

It’s already a rough time for a teenager to grow up with disapproving parents, but add in a therapist who also encourages you to deny yourself, and you’re going to see huge spikes in depression, suicide, and frankly just some very unhappy children.

Trans March in Berlin. Courtesy of Flickr user Franziska Neumeister.

So, as a parent of an LGBTQ child, how do you let them know you’re going to be with them through thick and thin, and that you love them, but that they’ve chosen a life that society is most likely going to make very difficult to lead? How can you encourage them, but also warn them?

Sounds contradictory and complicated.

But hey! It’s possible. One mom has taken to the internet to share her process—she goes by “Gendermom” or “Marlo Mack.” She’s raising a transgender daughter in the U.S., and naturally there have been some ups and downs. According to Mack’s blog, her daughter informed her that she was in fact her daughter, and not her son, when she was only around 3-years-old.

“’Mom, I think something went wrong when I was in your tummy, because I was supposed to be born a girl, but I was born a boy instead.’  He wanted me to put him back in the womb to right the wrong. He was sobbing,” she writes on her blog.

She explains that, at first, her doctors, friends, and Google searches told her it was most likely a phase. They explained that she should just ignore her child’s wishes and encourage her son to be a “boy” and that he’s probably just gay, not trans. So she did that.

These few years seemed extremely rough for Mack and her child, and eventually she started digging deeper for answers. She found that there was no real study proving this “phase” theory. In fact, she found out that the whole phase thing was just a made up concept, one could even call it an “educated guess” (though “uneducated” seems more appropriate).

Eventually, she decided to let her child be who she was, and that’s a girl. Her daughter has never seemed happier, so Mack must be doing something right.

Her blog shows bravery and encouragement. Her daughter was very young when Mack had to decide to either weather the storm with her child or be a part of the storm. Her online stories are full or hardships that the two have had to endure together.

According to Elizabeth P. Rahilly, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of “The Gender Binary Meets the Gender-Variant Child: Parents’ Negotiations with Childhood Gender Variance” (2015), there are three types of rearing techniques that parents raising children who challenge gender tend to use.

Rahilly examines the strategies of 24 parents who represent 16 cases of childhood gender variance. She concluded through in-depth interview data that parents tend to go through “gender hedging,” “gender literacy,” and “playing along.”

Gender hedging is allowing the child to explore outside the gender norms, like a boy can wear a pink shirt or play with dolls and a girl can play cowboy and be as tomboy as she wants, however they only allow this inside the household. With this comes weariness and skepticism within the parents; they started to wonder why their child couldn’t be who they wanted to be outside of the home.

Many parents would then move on to gender literacy. “Through ‘gender literacy,’ parents try to reiterate these discourses to their children during daily conversations, consciously articulating transgender and transsexual possibilities,” Rahilly explains on Gender Society. She gives examples of saying to the child, “if one day you think you want breasts like your mommy’s, there are medicines you can take” or, “some boys have penises and some boys don’t.” With this, the parents would gauge the child’s reaction to see how they felt.

Parents of transgender children became active in the 2000’s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Playing along is when the parents learn how to navigate throughout this process for their child’s sake. They permit their child to be who they want to be 24-7. With this the parents conformed to calling their child a girl or a boy, or no gender at all.

“Not all of these practices pose an explicit challenge to gender binary norms, but they all reveal parents’ strategic efforts to support their children’s nonconformity in the most appropriate ways they can construct, in diverse social situations, all while their awareness of gender-variant and transgender possibilities grow,” Rahilly adds in her article.

She concludes by saying that within these families, males and females can be whoever they want to be, including less binary altogether. The study showed that the parents where able to find new perspectives wider than just male and female, and are abandoning a simple two-sex schema.

Something Rahilly’s study and Marlo Mack’s experiences have in common is that when parents are accepting of their child and fight for their child, they’re more likely to rear a happy child. No matter what the child’s sex (or no gender) is, as long as the parents express support and love, their child is happy—if the parent tries to deny their child of who they are, it’s inevitable they will end up unhappy.

Ultimately, where society is at now might prove to be a rough ride for your gender-challenging child, so go ahead and tell them that it’s going to be quite the ride, but make sure you also express you’ll be there riding it with them no matter what.

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