I have known my stepdaughter from the time she was three. I used to sit with her for hours and paint and draw and colour. She loved anything that required focus and calm and creativity. We made homemade ravioli, we would read stories together and at restaurants, she’d be happy as pie just sitting there with the little cup of crayons and a page to colour on.
And then I had my son. We are still not entirely convinced I birthed a human boy and not a full-blown F5 tornado. When we sat with him to colour, he’d scribble for about ten seconds and then proceed to snap the crayons in half and eat one after shoving it up his nose. When we made homemade pasta, I would later find my keys wrapped in pasta dough in the hoodie of his sweatshirt. Painting could only be done with watercolours because he’d create beautiful masterpieces but they ended up on every surface except the paper. And then I’d find a dirty paintbrush in the pitcher of iced tea in the fridge hours later. Anything we left near his person would be destroyed in ways no one could have predicted possible if we looked away for just 3 seconds.
I wanted to raise my son gender-neutral. I was prepared and ready to buy him glittery pink shirts if he wanted them. We would paint our nails together despite the fact that it meant I would be removing nail polish from all corners of the house for three solid weeks. When he asked for a My Little Pony for Christmas, Santa happily made it happen. There were no lines drawn in our house between male & female. I’d watched friends and family struggle with gender identity growing up. I saw how it affected them when people rejected them as they were. I didn’t want this for my kids. I wanted there to exist zero doubt in our house that we would love them no matter who they loved, no matter how they identified.
The thing is though, my son seemed naturally drawn to traditionally “boy things” and my daughter was drawn to traditionally “girl things”. I don’t know if it was something we did subconsciously that enforced traditional gender roles but they were just so different in all the ways previous generations would swear were a result of their biological sex at birth.
I am not entirely convinced of that. I think it’s all so deeply ingrained in our culture that my husband and I just didn’t realize we were enforcing stereotypes when we were. I think that, as a species, we have a lot of growing to do and we still have so much left to understand about ourselves.
In the meantime, I do believe that there are ways we can support our kids as they explore their own identities. Here are some of the tips I’ve found helpful:
1. Remember that things change fast when they are young. In the case of my son and the year he wanted the My Little Pony for Christmas, that lasted about a week and then it disappeared in the abyss of his toy box. He was back to lugging around Nerf guns and pockets full of darts. The point is, don’t take these small things as a sign of anything other than what they are: kids just exploring and interacting with the world. Let the child lead you. If my son had gone full-force into My Little Pony fandom, I’d have been right there by his side like I was with the Nerf guns (too bad for him, though, I’m a good shot).
2. Talk to your baby. Find out why they like the things they do. Listen to them and truly hear what they are saying. This creates trust and a feeling of safety. Your child will grow up knowing that no matter what they have to tell you, they are safe to do so. For some children, the fear of revealing who they really are is crippling and can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
3. Don’t be too adult about everything. This kind of coincides with the first point. Sometimes we apply grown-up logic to things that don’t fit neatly into the grown-up world. If your daughter picks up a hammer and seems to take a liking to woodwork tomorrow, don’t rush to the conclusion that she’s going to be the next Jimmy DiResta. Let her take the lead. Sometimes asking for a My Little Pony is just that and there is nothing more to it.
4. If your child is defying gender stereotypes, do not look at it as a problem. It’s not a problem. Don’t cringe and don’t get uptight. Keep your body language, facial expressions and your words as open and welcoming as possible. You have a normal child and there is nothing to worry about outside of the prejudices of the outside world. It is perfectly healthy and okay for your child to explore their identity. Don’t try to gently steer them in any one direction. They are who they are and all you achieve by doing this is teaching them that they can’t trust you.
5. Make sure your child understands that you love them no matter what. Say it constantly and then triple that. Be sincere and point out the things that you love about them. While the world is slowly approaching identity in a more relaxed way, there are still ignorant people out there who will cut people down for not fitting nicely into gender moulds. You’re not going to stop your child from experiencing this. What you can do, though, is arm them with the knowledge that they are loved and accepted by the people who matter the most. This alone can help a child weather the cruelty of a bigoted world.
6. If your child experiences that bigotry, talk to them about it. Make sure they understand the problem lies in the person spewing hatred and it’s not your baby’s fault. When my son encountered kids being cruel, I explained to him that it meant that the child doing the bullying was unhappy with themselves. You’d be amazed at how easily even a young child can grasp this concept. Now, when people are rude to him, my son often says “I feel sorry for them.” You can also teach them the facts about gender identity. The more they understand the science, the more they can feel confident that there is nothing wrong with them.
7. If you find that your child is truly struggling with their identity, don’t wait to get them in to see a therapist. It’s nice to think mommy and daddy are capable of handling any problem their children face, but there are just some things we can’t do. No matter how open we are with our kids, they will still find it easier to talk to someone else about some things.
Of course, I am not a parenting expert so you have to decide what’s right for your family and your babies yourself. These are things I have come to adopt in my household over the years. It works for us.
I wanted to share with you a poem from an atheist parent that fits here so well. I was so touched by it and he has agreed to let me share it with you.
Not Little, Not Lost: A poem for Lucy.
When the days become unbearable and you find your strength is waning.
The evening brings anxiety upon your your mind is reigning.
When the perils of existence leave you wounded, beaten, tossed.
You’ll find that you are powerful, not little and not lost.
When you sense that your identity is slipping through your fingers.
Desolation in your soul seems eternal as it lingers.
When holding to the tethers exacts an awful cost
You’ll find that you are capable, not little and not lost.
Never let them tell you what you can and cannot handle.
Never let them treat your inner beauty as a scandal.
Your love and warmth are paramount in burning off their Frost.
My dear you are a warrior, not little and not lost.
The author goes by the name Duke Bonanza. You can read more of his work here.
I want to know if you have any pointers for helping your kiddos explore their own identity. Have you had experience with your kids struggling with identity? Tell us about it in the comments!
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