Tag Archive: children


boy in blue and girl in pink standing back to backI firmly believe that we do not give kids enough credit for their ability to navigate, question and deconstruct concepts that adults find incredibly confusing.  No, I’m not saying that it’s time to start teaching your four year old theoretical physics (although my dad loved to do that—unfortunately, I never really appreciated it…), but it does mean that we should question some of the basic assumptions about how we teach and interact with young children.

Case in point: gender.

I’ve been sitting on this article for several months, and every time I re-read it, I get giggly and smiley all over again.

“Hi I’m Alec are you the babysitter mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks do you like legos?”

“Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”

While I was saying this Alec was looking me up and down.

“Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”

I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.

“Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word pronouns.”

“Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”

“I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”

“Of course I do!”symbols for male and female

Alec, the star of this adorable article was raised not to equate gender presentation with gender identity.  Granted he probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas, but at the heart of it, his behavior towards others reflects a nuanced and tolerant, thoughtful way of looking at gender.

At one point he asked his mom and she said, “Honey, do you remember what Aunt Sarah said to do if you can’t tell if somebody’s a boy or a girl?” he didn’t respond. “You ask.”

You. Ask.

You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.

 

There’s an element of common courtesy to living your life this way—no frills, no guesswork, no assumptions or hurt feelings.  You just ask.  I can only imagine that Alec will grow up feeling much less constrained by the idea of gender himself, and feel free to experiment and explore his own identity, his likes and dislikes, and to define himself as a person, not as a boy or a girl.

pregnant woman holding blocks that say "boy"Unfortunately, most kids aren’t brought up this way.  Gender policing and gender messaging starts from birth and becomes so engrained into our psyches that it’s sometimes hard to disentangle our own feelings about gender from the messages we’ve been fed since we were born.  In this sense, it’s both easier and way harder for young kids to have meaningful conversations about gender.

On one hand, they are not authorities on the matter.  To a large extent, children rely on the structure and conditioning of their parents, teachers, family members, and other authority figures in their lives.  If those people are saying “Boys do this; girls wear that,” then it is incredibly hard for them to separate their own feelings from the opinions and conditioning of the important people in their lives.

On the other hand, children have had decades less of gender policing than their adult counterparts.  They may have experienced discrimination, but rarely do they fear for their lives or their livelihoods based on the way they perceive and present gender.  They are still malleable with their opinions, and open to the idea of contradiction.

So while it can be difficult to combat the harmful way gender is explained in our society, I think the work of Melissa Bollow Temple, of Jackson County, Wisconsin shows how important, and sometimes how simple breaking down those messages can be.

I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. …When we had two extensive lists, I read both lists out loud to the class and then studied them carefully.

“Hmm,” I said. “Here it says that Legos are for boys. Can girls play with Legos?”unisex bathroom sign

“Yes!” most of them replied without hesitation.

“I wonder if any of the girls in our class like to play with Hot Wheels?”

“I do! I do!” blurted out some of the girls. We continued with the rest of the items on our “Boys” list, making a check mark next to each one as it was declared acceptable for girls.

Then we went on to the “Girls” list. We started with baby dolls. Because we had just read and discussed William’s Doll, the children were OK with boys playing with dolls. “It’s great practice for boys who want to be daddies when they grow up,” I mentioned.

But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.

Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.

“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.

Conversations like these might be the most crucial to ensure that the children we raise grow up to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic men and women (and those who identify otherwise).  Working to blur the lines of gender early gives students critical thinking skills to challenge the messaging of media, consumerism, peers, and authority figures.  This generation can grow up to understand gender so much better than most of us do now.   And that will benefit more than just gender non-conforming and trans* people.  Because acceptance and critical thinking lends itself to a deeper understanding of people with all types of differences: disability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and yes, of course, gender.

Stay cool, queer kids, and keep pushing for acceptance and dialogue in all areas of your life.

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I Feel Good!

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about a pleasure-centered and consent-centered approach to sex: that whatever feels good and is done with the consent of all parties is a good thing for us sexually.  But that becomes a trickier message to convey when we start talking about sex to our kids, our nieces and nephews, and other young adults that “we” are not comfortable thinking about as sexual beings.  And that ends up being unfortunate for everyone, in my opinion.

On one end, I totally sympathize.  It’s awkward and uncomfortable to have a 10 year old kid ask you about sex.  Sex is a complicated topic that a 10 year old is not ready to handle in its entirety.  Even if you’re an open-minded adult who been prepping “The Talk” for your child, you’ll still get thrown off-guard when those questions comes up from someone younger, older, gayer, more emotionally distant, or just different than you were expecting.  How much is too much information?

I think this article from “The Good Men Project” does an amazing job tackling the issue:

So many adults are fearful that telling kids that sex is pleasurable will simply encourage young people to have it before they are physically and emotionally ready for the consequences. Better, they imagine, to emphasize that it’s important to wait and to stress the risks. But as it turns out, centering pleasure is a great way to minimize the chances that a teen will be pressured into doing something that they don’t want to do.

BINGO!  A five year old that asks you about sex is not going to run out an boink the next prepubescent he/she/ze sees if you tell them that sex is about feeling good.  They are just looking for a straight-forward answer, and will probably leave the conversation at that.  But long-term, the messages you send to children about sexuality will stay with them, and help them develop a sexual sense of self thatpostsecret: virginity is centered in what they want and feel, rather than the fear, guilt, and self-sacrifice that can be instilled by other messages.

So let’s break it down.

WHEN YOU SAY…. The implicit messages are…
Wait until marriage. There’s something wrong with sex.  Something about the covenant of marriage makes it ok, but in general, it’s a dirty thing.
You have sex when you love each other. Sex for pleasure is wrong.  It is something you do to show commitment to your partner, and you do it on behalf of them, not for your own enjoyment.
Getting sex will get you pregnant, so you shouldn’t do it. Having sex is irresponsible.
Save yourself for your husband/wife If you “give up” your virginity, you’re worthless to your partner.  Your only value is in your chastity.
You’re not old enough to make that decision; you’re not ready for it.

 

Having sex is only for adults
Boys won’t respect you if they know you’re easy Sex is inherently shameful; a girl who has sex is worth less than one who is a virgin
There’s only one step between having sex and selling your body. Prostitution is bad.  Sex is bad.  If you enjoy sex, you’re on your way to become a prostitute, and filling the world with moral decay.
Your first time should be special Pressure to save the experience for the “right person,” sex will only be good and ok if you do it with the person you’re going to stay with.

 

Now let’s try this with a pleasure and consent-focused approach

WHEN YOU SAY…. The implicit messages are…
Sex is something you do because it feels good Sex is generally a good thing; it has the power to make you feel good.  It’s not shameful- we can talk about it.
He (she/ze) doesn’t have to love you, but he should respect you. You may not be with this person forever, but the experience of sex with them should still be positive.  You should be in charge of the decision to have sex.
You’ll know when you’re ready. You know your body better than anyone else.  Your sexual desire is relevant and important.
It’s never perfect the first time. Having good sex take practice.  It’s ok to keep having sex, to ask for different things, to work towards sex that is enjoyable.

 

See how different that is?

Come on lurkers, I want to hear from you.  How would your adolescence have been different if you had heard some of the latter messages, rather than the former?  Do you have any messages that you would add to either list?

During my Sex, Gender, and Culture class last semester, I wrote a reflection paper on the idea of a genderless world and how possible/impossible/difficult it would be to achieve.  The idea seems much more relevant lately, as I’ve been finding numerous articles about parents and schools attempting to eradicate some of our most in-bred gender stereotypes through creative gender-neutral language and decision-making.

Take, to start, Storm, a now six-month old child in the Witterick and Stocker household (covered in this article) who is being raised genderless.  Zir parents’ decision not to disclose Storm’s gender has received a barrage of criticism for being an unrealistic approach to parenting which will leave Storm unable to interact normally with zir peers and will ultimately confuse and alienate the child.

I’ve seen a number of people’s reactions to this article, and what I find most striking is the difference between Storm’s parents and the general public’s assessment of how well children are able to self-navigate the world of gender.  I’ve heard many comments from people who believe that removing parents’ guidance about gender will inevitably confuse small children and become unsustainable as the rest of the world reinforces gender norms outside of their parents gender-neutral bubble.

I think there are three different ways to look at this kind of problem.  The first is to accept that enforcing gender neutrality has to be a life-long commitment, wherein parents cannot be the only outposts for this teaching.  This is the thinking that has introduced Egalia School in Sweden, which uses the Swedish neutral pronoun “hen” to refer to all students and guests, and calls them “friends” instead of “boys” and “girls.”  You can read from the AP about their carefully arranged plans for playspaces that deconstruct gender stereotypes and allow young Swedish children to learn about their gender in a free and non-assumptive way.

Now this approach is legitimate and groundbreaking in its own right for the way it expands the scope of gender-neutral parenting into a whole new realm by adding a peer group with which gender neutral-raised children can interact.  I imagine this goes a long way in helping children relate to one another and explore gender as a supportive group without worries about bullying, misunderstandings, or negative reinforcement from peers or teachers who do not understand a progressive parent’s objectives in gender neutral child-rearing.  Kids can grow up using gender neutral-pronouns with their friends, dressing in counter-traditional ways, and expressing themselves with the support of their friends.  However, the problem with this line of thinking is the limit of scope.  If you don’t live in Sweden and have the substantial money and connections to get your child into Egalia, there aren’t a whole lot of options for your child.  You must, like Witterick and Stocker, face raising a gender-neutral child on your own.

Which brings up the second way of looking at this parenting conundrum.  Critics argue that by raising a child without introducing zir to the concept of gender norms will actually CAUSE gender confusion for the child later in life.  If maladjusted to the way that society treats gender, children may not be able to distinguish between their own unique perception of self-identity and the how it relates to these norms.  This school of thought focuses, I think excessively, on the idea that gender neutral parenting is trying to “eradicate gender,” a process which they claim is both impossible and a distinctly misdirected aim. The primary claim here is that gender creates structure in our world, and there are positive effects of teaching boys and girls how to act in accordance with these structures.  It makes the world run more smoothly.  If small children are not taught how to blend into these larger sub-groups, chaos ensues as gender collapses on the superficial feet it was built on.

However, I have a number of objections.  I agree that the objective of erasing gender is foolish.  Gender does offer structure and a sense of identity that is crucial to many people.  But gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to erase gender.  It is a way of postponing the judgments of gender (what clothes to wear, what toys to play with, what professions to strive after- don’t believe me, see what an average parent says about a boy wanting to be a hairdresser when he grows up) and allowing children to grow up free to express themselves as they wish.

Gender-neutral parenting is also an exercise in acceptance of trans and gender non-conforming people (who, incidentally, I imagine don’t all believe in the erasure of gender either).  If a child can grow up and grow into any gender role that ze feels fit for, it prevents years of torment and judgment aimed at children who don’t fit the conventional standards of behavior, AND prevents the alienation and loss a parent often feels when their child announces that they want to transition, or to be start living life as an opposite/different gender.

Now the third school of thought regarding parenting suggests that regular ol’ boys and girls who are raised gender neutral will somehow be maladjusted without the introduction of gender roles early on in their lives.  I have only this to say: children as much smarter than you give them credit for.  Many trans-identified people note that they have known as long as they could remember that the body they had did not match the self they felt inside.  They were capable, at the tender ages of 3 and 4, to pick apart the difference between gender and sex in regards to their own personal identity.  Witterick and Stocker’s first child, Jazz, exhibits an even more nuanced understanding of his own gender, differentiating gender identity from gender expression: though he often wears dresses, keeps his hair long, and loves the color pink, he very strongly identifies as male, and requests that his mother tell his camp councilors that he is a boy.  This shows that Jazz understands not only his own internal conception of gender, but recognizes how gender norms influence how he is perceived by others.

My proposal is that Jazz is not an unusual child.  If given the opportunity, I imagine many, if not most, children are capable of the same understandings and navigations of gender.  With support and guidance from parents who help their children uncover and navigate a very gender-biased world, I honestly believe this style of parenting is legitimate and sustainable.  After all, we were all picked on in school for being different in one way or another.  If we grew strong from it, if our parents explained to us why other kids bully and why we should never stop being ourselves, shouldn’t we pass these values on to our children?

Did you ever “play doctor” when you were a kid?  Ever get caught?

I love this exchange between a mother and her doctor published by Carnal Nation about young kids’ sexuality.

The door was closed.
Did you knock?
No. She’s never closed her door before.
Oh. I guess the closed door meant something to her.
They jumped when I walked in.
Well, you interrupted them.
They looked guilty.
Since your attitude was that you “caught” them, I guess they felt “caught.

The full exchange is here: http://carnalnation.com/content/58503/98/catching-your-kid-playing-doctor

The brilliant thing about this conversation is the way it puts kids behavior into a conscious context.  5 year olds know things.  They learn and understand the world based on millions of sources of input, including TV, advertising, conversation they overhear from parents (and their parents’ friends!), and through playmates.  Children do not remain blank slates forever, and parents do not selectively insert ideas and practices into their absorbent brains as they so choose.

So it’s perfectly normal that children play doctor, that they are curious about social rules that have been instilled in them without any explanation.  “No, don’t touch Jimmy there.”  Well, why not? “Because he’s a boy, and we don’t touch little boys there.”

Face it, parents are really bad at giving explanation for these seemingly senseless social rules that they inflict on their children, so their kids are bound to utilize their own means for understanding them.  Well, if doctors can look and touch little boys there, maybe I just have to be a doctor and I’ll figure out what’s so weird about that. The game is a research method- a tool for understanding biological and social ideas that are very difficult and awkward to spell out to a small child.

Playing doctor might be sexual…and it might not be.  The curiosity of young children knows no bounds, and maybe discoveries from playing doctor lead to other “socially unsavory” games like playing “married,” yet once again, this isn’t always a bad thing.  If children are able to explore their own bodies and sexualities when they are young and in a safe place, without the shame of embarrassment or the need to hide their practices, they’ll grow into healthier functioning adults.

And that’s a pretty good prescription for a 5 yr. old, isn’t it?

Focus on the Family

Every parent wants to raise a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child.  But sadly, finding out that their son or daughter is gay is rarely “part of the plan.”  When a teen comes out, their parents are generally taken by surprise, no matter how obvious it may have seemed.  They may feel overwhelmed or confused, asking , “How can a child that we have raised become something so alien to us?”  Accepting an LGBT identity dramatically changes the interaction between child and parent- suddenly, the child is the teacher, the one who has come to an understanding of a deep and complex idea without any prior knowledge from the parent.  And the parent is suddenly the student, trying to understand the new needs of their child.  Sadly, there are still households where coming out as LGBT is not acceptable religiously or morally, and worse yet, there are parents who are simply unwilling to learn about LGBT people and accept the role of student to their child.  This switching of roles does not, however, ALWAYS shatter a family dynamic.  In fact, in many ways, I feel that my coming out has brought my family closer.  And there are ways to make coming out and subsequent interactions easier and more beneficial for all family members.

Initially when I came out, my mother was worried, and with good reason.  The world was, and still is, often a hostile place for LGBT people.  I had a lot of Catholic friends whom she (and I) worried would reject me.  Although she accepted my orientation (and has a generally positive view of LGBT people in general), she urged me to stay closeted and never brought the subject up again.  At my request, she told my father, whose reaction was similar, but perhaps even more worried about the societal problems I would face become of sexuality.  Although I was initially relieved that my parents hadn’t been angry or upset, I knew in my heart that complacent acceptance was not what I was looking for from my parents.  I wanted them to better understand my sexuality- beyond just “Bianca likes girls and boys.”  They still clung the hope that I would “fall on the straight side of the equation” when I found a permanent partner.

So this is where my deep and abiding love of dialogue comes from: a lot of long, painful, sometimes tearful car rideswith my father, desperately trying to explain why I wouldn’t “grow out of being bi” and why his hopes for my marrying a man were hurtful, even though he only wanted the easiest life for me (one without the societal pressures of a lesbian relationship).  I can’t say we’re in a perfect place regarding that, but after 10+ months with my most amazing and supportive girlfriend, he is beginning to see that a relationship with a woman can be equally healthy and wonderful.  We’ve had several exchanges, but the most touching of which was an email I received telling me how happy he was to see me enjoying my time with Beth.

My parents have come a long way- my mum reads this blog as often as she can, which makes me infinitely happy, and my dad has reached out to Beth and her family in every way he is able to show his support.  Point being, there’s room for everyone, even the most accepting of parents, to learn more about you and your sexuality, if you’re willing to put yourself out there.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, I know many teens that are still closeted at home because of their family’s strong religious beliefs or simple blatant prejudice.  I don’t have much in the way of advice for you, sadly.  At the end of the day, you have to decide if sharing your true self with your parents and family members is worth the hurt and anger you may encounter.  I truly believe that any parent worth the air they breathe would still love their LGBT child, even if they are hurt, angry, confused, or conflicted.  But I have been proven wrong on this point.  And that’s a horrible reality to know.  For those of you living in situations where you fear the backlash of your family, from the deepest part of my heart, I apologize for your pain.  I invite you to search out people and organizations in your area who can help support you in your struggle.  It isn’t a fair one, but it need not be one you face alone.

PFLAG, as I have mentioned before, has chapters across the country and is the best support group I know for LGBT teens who need the love and acceptance of their parents’ generation- they can be a family in their own respect.

There are a lot of local organizations as well- Pittsburgh has a Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Grant Street and they hold youth nights every Friday night.  DC has everything from a Gay Jewish Shabbat service (Bet Mishpachah) to a Brazilian GLBT group.  ((The magazine Metro Weekly has an AMAZING listing of all the groups in DC))  And there are places like this in every city.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you.

I have always believed that family is who you let closest to you.   My girlfriend, my best friend George, my crazy neighbor Sarah, my 11th grade high school English teacher- these people are my family, even though they don’t share my blood.  They are there to support me, to listen to me, to share in my pain and my triumphs.  They are also the people who have accepted me unconditionally for the person I am and have embraced my sexuality as a part of my integral whole.  I hope that each and every one of you finds as good a family.

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