A Child Is Lost: I had already begun to draft this post with the focus on parents faced with questions regarding their developing child’s gender preferences when the news of a suicide at Rutgers University made the headlines.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Tyler Clementi and all the youngsters who fall beneath the wheels of an out of control vehicle of hatred and bullying that our society does not yet know how to stop from destroying what is innately precious, all our children: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/us/04suicide.html?ref=tyler_clementi
Parents Have Notions: No child is born or brought into a family free of parental and societal expectation. Perhaps amongst the most powerful is gender development. If a young child displays atypical interests, boys playing with dolls, girls who prefer tough sports and action figures, their parents may find themselves watching anxiously from the sidelines; even restricting non traditional gender play. The dynamics between parents and child influence how this developing human being ultimately feels about him or herself. It can also put a strain on The Coupledom.
Strongly Held Views Of What Is Acceptable: Counter to romantic notions, parental love does come with strings attached. And those strings, in no small measure, are laden with belief systems. Whether based on religion or societal norm, (hard to separate these out) parents see each child’s unfolding through the lens of their beliefs. Gender development with the long-range view toward sexual preference is scrutinized at any point that the expected norm is not followed. Parents whose religion has taught that same-sex relations are sinful or perverted, will be particularly panicked when the boy chooses dance and the girl eschews dolls. Parents who pride themselves on their liberal perspective towards “difference” might find themselves challenged too when a child displays mannerisms that appear more jock than girl, more femme than boy.
Ballet For Boys; But not all couples panic. Some realize that their child is young, developing and who cares anyway. Others applaud and celebrate the budding talent, no matter conventional associations. One mom described with pride and awe, her young son’s skill experimenting with eye make up and nail polish coupled with an astonishing gift for clothes design, fashioning tissue paper and fabric dresses for his sister’s Barbies. Another couple marveled at their four-year old son’s passion for dance and though Karate was pursued as well, ballet won, hands down, for this talented young fellow. So precious was this child’s development that the mom kept a diary highlighting his choices, his training, the unfolding of his art.
For other families, boys who do not conform to the conventional norms of play and appearance raise the hairs on their parents’ heads, and possibly quite a few eyebrows.
Girls: Girls are given more latitude: tom girls can be tough and sporty. They can take Karate and be seen as cool. But they too may be teased or taunted even by a mom who wants her daughter to be interested in “pretty” or “femme” and is angry when the young girl chooses everything jock. Rather than marvel at the power and independence of such a female, disapproval and embarrassment may be the message that mom or dad conveys to this child
The Bonsai Solution For The Coupledom: Are these fears always spoken? Probably not. Instead action may be taken. Perhaps a parent gives away the sister’s Barbies; refuses ballet classes to their son; insists their reluctant daughter find new friends; drags the son out of the house Saturday afternoons to shoot baskets when he’d rather practice the violin. Nimble parental fingers start to apply infinitesimal wires of restraint to young roots to insure that they grow in the proper direction.
“But How Do You Know If Your Child Will Grow Up To Be Gay?
You Don’t: Whether boys do plies or create a line of clothes for dolls, or girls throw baseballs like boys, or outrun their brothers does not mean anything. Peter Martins and Baryshnikov, world-famous ballet dancers and choreographers, are straight. Chris Evert is straight; Billie Jean King is gay. Is every girl on the Husky’s incredible basketball team lesbian? Are all Olympic female runners gay? Does Ralph Lauren have to apologize because he designs clothes and sheets and is straight? Is a female supreme court justice lesbian just because she is single, brilliant and powerful. Of course not.
Parents, It Is Not Your Job To Know: Guess what, only your child can know, will know, and should know when the time comes, what their sexual preference is. Respecting that journey of discovery is essential to good parenting. It is their discovery, not yours. And usually that discovery begins with the onset of puberty and may be solidified even later, perhaps in the freshman year of college, where separation from home aids exploration and discovery. For Tyler Clementi and others who may be embarking on just such a discovery, the world can be a very cruel place.
The Coupledom Conflict: When one parent finds the unique trajectory of their child’s development acceptable and the other parent is less enthusiastic, does the child pick up on this difference? One building block of self confidence installed; another just removed. Hard not to feel it. Conflicting parental messages will confuse and hamper the development of a child’s self image, a vulnerable, impressionable entity throughout childhood and adolescence.
Facing The Fears And Keeping Your Eye On The Ball: Here is a giant head’s up. What is important here is not manipulating the story (or the child) so that the “ending”, their sexual preference, is “happy” and meets your criteria for normal and acceptable. Nope! What is key here is following with encouragement and support the unfolding of a human being, from generic male or female infant to unique and distinct adult.
Take This Concern To A Higher Level: If something your child does or doesn’t do, spells difference to you, talk it out with your partner, find an expert and air your concerns. Check in with your belief systems before you fling them out at your developing child via disapproval or manipulation. Avoid triangulating the child or responding to pressure from “well meaning” relatives. Together seek solutions.
Your Child Is Still Unfolding: The jury is out on what direction their sexuality will take. And only they will know and should know, when they are mature enough and free enough to know. Attempts at imposing some directional on that process is like taking a sunflower, trimming its petals and plucking out bits of its big brown center, so that it may resemble a mum, because you think mums are more in season. Won’t work, just mutilates.
Your Input: All our children have challenges growing up in this world. At least at home, where it all begins, the integrity of their unique and individual self can be respected and celebrated by you, their parents. Parents can’t control everything, but they can work hard to control this.
Here is a link to a video for all kids and adults that speaks to the enormous challenge of being “different” in our world: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/showing-gay-teens-a-happy-future/
rachel loeb says
love this article. i agree on the importance of being sensitive to the authenticity of our children and getting out of their way. the out come is none of our business.
Rachel, amen and thank you!
Anne Carpender says
Another brilliant article. Too bad that some parents can’t see through their own stuff to allow their children to bloom. I think that a lot of parents want to shape their children no matter what, gender preference aside.