Today on social media a lovely article, about a year old, is making the rounds: “‘What’s the magic word?’ The routine shaming of children” on parentallies.org. It’s a concise article, scratching the surface and making some excellent points. I appreciated the read.
I’ve written many pieces on “manners” and the social framing of children. I long ago realized that we are constantly, and I mean constantly, rebuking, correcting, and yes – abusing – our nation’s children. In fact when I am out and about in a location with lots of kids – children we are, by the way, regularly segregating into institutions and adult-sanctioned and -controlled activities – I am exposed to a litany of aggressive correction and unwarranted personal evaluation heaped upon our younglings. I might be sitting on the sidelines watching at a sporting event, or assisting in a schooling environment, or hanging out with parents of young children. And I am astonished at how much evaluation children receive and how many demands they hear. It is obvious adults don’t realize how much they do this, even as they engage in the behavior. Children are told what to do, how to talk, how to think and feel. “Stop fidgeting!” “You need to use your words!” “Don’t get upset!” They are also talked about in ways that are dismissive, ridiculing, auditing, and just plain rude. “He eats nothing but junk food!” “He’d play [insert popular video game] all day if I let him!” “She is so bossy! She gets it from her mother!”
In these environments we don’t just talk about the children; we talk about parenting, too. Harsh, manipulative, and bullying strategies are openly discussed – and met with approval. On the bleachers recently I listened to a parent tell another how he gets his children to behave in a restaurant. He holds the children’s pre-paid gaming cards and threatens to snap them in half if the children aren’t quiet at the table. In hearing this the other parents laughed and nodded. I certainly understood the man’s impulse, but I felt horrified and angry. What a humiliating experience for those kids! And how smugly this father reports his method, as if it was something to be proud of!
We are simply swimming in these stories, in these strategies, and in the explicit and tacit endorsement of this kind of parenting.
And this is one reason I keep writing, and I keep posting, and I keep talking about how we did things differently, and why. My partner and I found a way out of this depressing, exhausting, ugly mess – and we are so grateful for this, and for those who helped. Our kids are doing really, really well for it. But the thing is, it isn’t only our children who are important. More children are being born, being raised, being schooled. New parents are finding themselves reverting to the way they were handled – or fearfully attempting to parent in reaction to their upbringing. More children are coming to believe that they deserve this kind of rough treatment – at the hands of the adults they love and esteem. They are learning that this is the way to parent; learning this, because they are being parented this way day after day. More children are being raised to repeat for example (to themselves and others), “I was spanked and I turned out fine!” despite the fact it is not “fine” to believe a a large, powerful person should hit a small, entirely vulnerable one, and despite every bit of scientific evidence continuing to strengthen the case that hitting harms children. I’ve had practicing Buddhists vehemently defend spanking to me! I’ve heard it all.
If I would have read these two articles – the parentallies one, or an article like my own – when my kids were very small, I would have been gobsmacked. How on earth is it possible to raise kids if we aren’t “allowed” to do any of these things (time-outs, punishing, spanking)? What kind of boring-ass/saintly/know-it-all parents could possibly stick to such a restrictive list of parenting behaviors? How will we teach children right from wrong? You’re going to tell me my parents were abusive? You’re going to tell me “time outs” and manners-prompting is out of line? For fuck’s sake! I turned out “fine”!
But I didn’t turn out fine, and a few years after starting my family I began to see this. Parenting is scary, and it is hard work. And I began to understand the way I was parented and schooled wasn’t as great as I’d previously thought. I have articles like these, to thank for this awareness.
Once we were exposed to gentler and more intelligent parenting methods, my partner and I went much further. As we came to see there was a different way to do it, that the logic was sound (if a bit foreign to us!), we knew we had to choose. The old way – or something new? We put our most treasured responsibility and our greatest assets on the line – our own children. It is one of the most deeply felt experiences of gratitude for me, to this day, that we did.
Keep in mind that even after I was on board, it took me years to stop reflexively parenting the way other people wanted (demanded) I parent. Like most American children, I had been regularly corrected and shamed, ridiculed and punished. My family and teachers liked and loved me, yes, but they also treated me like property, and they treated me as less than a person. Adults do this to children; it is very rare to find an adult who does not. As a result of my upbringing I wasn’t well-prepared to become a parent myself, even though I thought I was. I had unrealistic ideas about how children behaved (one family member told me to “control” a two-year-old at a gathering by “simply” making him sit on my lap for the duration). Looking back, I think I thought you could train a child like a dog (no one says it like that, but it’s how many adults operate).
More ominously still, I had a lifetime of programming that was very hard to dismantle. I became angry when my child said “no”, when he defied me. Nasty, toxic words sprang to mind when my child disobeyed (words like “brat”, “tantrum”, “throwing a fit” – and other words and phrases I won’t print). Publicly, I was eager to “prove” my child’s good behavior to every grownup I met. I deferred to adults, and to authority; their requests and whims and demands – from the waitstaff at the restaurant to my former teachers to the grocery store cashier to our dentist – were always more important than my children’s rights and development. It was my job as a mother to have “good”, clean, well-mannered children, and to parade them in certain public spaces on certain schedules, and to demonstrate how adorable and well-behaved they were. Of course, I didn’t put this in those terms at the time. But it’s what I was trying to do.
This? Was a nightmare. For the adult who has the main bulk of child-raising duties, it’s exhausting, and it’s terribly restrictive. It’s far worse, however, for the children involved.
It took me a very long time to stop parenting the way I was parented, and to start consistently parenting better. And this wasn’t just because of how I was raised; it was because of how people were still, in modern society, talking about parenting children. For one thing when I did rebuke, punish, or embarrass my children – I was praised. Not just within the family, but socially. I once corrected my youngest child in a cafe, scaring the hell out of him with stern words and mommy voice, but getting that short-term result: his obedience. Immediately afterwards a woman approached me and said, “That’s great! I love to see a good mom. Kids need to respect their parents!” I felt terrible. I knew I’d bullied my child. I knew he hadn’t learned how to “behave” – he’d just learned I was scary. But I was starting to realize I couldn’t stop being scary. I’d get a few days of being gentle, then I’d relapse.
Now, I’m only human of course. And this piece isn’t about my specific story. The point of this anecdote, and what my cumulative decades of parenting has shown me, is that in our culture if you bully your child you will get far more direct and social kudos than if you are aware, gentle, consistent, and patient. You will get more public accolades if you demonstrate you are raising “good” children, than if you put your children’s well-being first. And unfortunately, bully-parenting works. For a while.
Unfortunately, there is a trade-off.
When I parent the way I was parented, the way I used to parent, there will be a cost. Sometimes I see the cost immediately; often, the results will reveal themselves over the years. When I parent punitively, I foster a great deal of fear and shame in my child. I will probably forget the specific rebukes, punishments, and time-outs, but my child will remember them – either explicitly, or through an unconscious deep sense of shame and “not good enough”. My child is now more likely to grow up with resentful, fearful ideas about children and childhood, about power. My child is more likely to seek out imbalanced friendships, and have difficulty standing up for himself with clarity and directness. My child is more likely to be fearful, and to keep secrets. My child is more likely to find unhealthy friendships and relationships (and I won’t be able to “fix” those, but I will want to). My child is more likely to do what she thinks will get approval, rather than what stems from her authentic dreams and desires. My child is more likely to seek consolation and anesthesia through food, dieting, social climbing, sex, drugs and alcohol. My child is more likely to develop constant anxiety or depression, to become a bully or a target for bullies – or both. He will see vulnerability as weakness. He will look forward to “when it’s [his] turn”, and in time he will develop his own controlling and manipulative strategies for his own children.
And unfortunately, that’s when all those social kudos I enjoyed will run out; they won’t mean shit. That’s when my investment in punitive parenting won’t feel so solid. When my child begins having outbursts in the classroom or on the playground. When my child starts disrespecting the property of others. When my pre-teen bullies vulnerable children, online or in the hallways. When my teen shares his ex-girlfriend’s nudes with other young men, or starts drinking, or starts stealing, or develops a drug habit. When my teen becomes angry and uncommunicative, or bullies her younger siblings (sneakily or overtly). When my grown child is just one of those miserable people, feeling grateful for little and martyred by life in general. When my adult child is a workaholic; when they visit only a requisite amount, and don’t let me in to their personal lives. When I watch my own grandchildren hit, or given time-outs and bribes.
At that point it won’t feel so great to have parented the way I did. I won’t necessarily know what I did wrong, but I will know something was amiss; I will have a general sense that I bear some responsibility. And unfortunately, time’s up.
I still have options, of course. I will be tempted to cling to comfort. I can try to not see my role in my child’s unhappiness, if I like. I can continue to try to interfere in my child’s life: to “fix” them. I can tell my neighbors about my daughter’s degree and her condo, while trying to squash my worries about her eating disorder and relationship difficulties. I can tell myself, “I did the best I could”, and try to make it up to my grown child by buying him things or pressuring him to come to family gatherings or letting him lash out against me as some sort of penance. I can loan or gift him money. I can take a self-affirming class and try to say my mistakes are in the past. I can do all these things, but they won’t blot out the vague awareness that something went wrong some time ago. I may come to a better awareness but by then, a tremendous amount of damage has been done and there is little consolation for that. (My advice if you find yourself there is to get your ass out of denial, because you deserve to make amends and to start healing!)
Hey, I told you: parenting is scary. And it’s hard work.
But like I said: there is a way out. I firmly believe it’s never too early, or to late, to start on this path.
Modeling good behavior, parenting gently, and trusting our children takes not only effort, it takes discipline. It’s essentially a reprogramming job. It takes time. It takes commitment. That’s OK! We have time. And we can commit! Being patient, aware, gentle, and consistent is harder than it sounds, but it is also possible.
Let me address that original topic, that of “manners” (that is, children saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, children learning not to take things or to interrupt, that sort of thing). For most children, 99% of manner acquisition will be attained through their observance of how we as adults model manners, and how gentle, consistent, and aware we are in correcting or helping our child. This means I need to watch my own behavior; I need to be courteous and kind. But of course, no matter how courteous and kind I am, my child is still a child. He will need a lot of help to learn. It is tempting to say he will make mistakes, but your small child’s manners slip-ups aren’t mistakes any more than a child’s crawling is, before she can walk! When you come to see children as needing a lot of attention, nurture, mindful parenting, and a lot of practice, you can relax a lot more while they do what they do.
In gentle and attentive parenting, we do not need to correct the child harshly when their manners fall short. And just as importantly, we do not need to rebuke the child in front of other people unless it’s absolutely necessary (it really, really, rarely is). If my child isn’t hurting anyone, I simply make eye contact and say “thank you” or “excuse me” for the child – hopefully with the same dispassionate, mindful, and kind energy I’d employ when I show the child how to use a fork. This strategy took me a while to figure out, but it is genius. This way I am addressing the social situation and the other human being(s) involved, but I am not shaming or humiliating my child just to placate other adults. This way, too, I am practicing my own mindfulness. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scold our child aloud; when I refrain, I discipline myself. The (small) social pain of the moment, not squandered by the energy of my own self-serving outburst, sharply focuses me on the job at hand: my parenting. I am less likely to see my child and my parenting as a constant stress and a struggle, but rather a responsibility I have mindfully agreed to, every day. And this strategy – hard as it was at first – became easier when I realized that I give way more a shit about my child’s development, than that a stranger think I’m a “good mom” for correcting my child showily.
But key also, is to not pretend the child doesn’t have a problem. I see parents doing this too: ignoring or excusing their child’s difficulties, or blaming circumstances instead of attending to their child and their family life. I see this often where there are unaddressed or poorly-addressed difficulties in the home – marital or relationship problems, eating disorders, mental and emotional health issues, or drug and alcohol use. The parent develops increasingly frequent and complex explanations for their child’s difficulties, instead of addressing the underlying dysfunction or difficulty. And for many parents, these excuses are made as loudly (and with sometimes rather complex, meandering justifications) as another parent might make a show of delivering a rebuke. So in the case of the child grabbing a toy, the parent will “explain” out loud why the child grabbed the toy – “Oh he’s so tired!” – or even blame the situation: “They shouldn’t have such tempting playthings here!” And let me be crystal clear in saying I see these things happen a great deal, but I also used to do the same myself. There isn’t a parenting mistake I write about, that I haven’t stumbled over.
I think these avoidance- and blame-rich strategies are also a grave disservice to a child, as much as the tendency to performatively punish her. They teach our child to look for an excuse for bad behavior; they also teach a child to focus on herself and her motives or feelings, rather than to halt harmful behavior and if possible turn focus on the person or property has been wronged. After all, saying “oh he’s so tired!” when my child has just pulled a fistful of your child’s hair, is not at all kind to any party involved; it’s merely my attempt to try to save face as a parent. It stems from the same self-serving behavior as scolding does. The truth is, our child cannot be allowed to hurt another person, full stop. The truth is, it is going to take children years to learn this, and seen in that light it’s no universal tragedy to be either the grabber or the grabbed-on (although it can feel like a personal tragedy for the child, and we can and should honor this feeling). In situations like these, if our child is frustrated or tired we should endeavor for the discipline and awareness to give him a nursing session, or a cuddle, or a snack, or to leave the playdate. When everyone is feeling better, we can assess the situation and plan an intelligent strategy. If we have a larger, systemic problem at home – financial distress, marital problems, dieting and disordered eating, drug and alcohol use, bereavement or loss, under- or over-medicated family members, or a myriad other miseries we all live through and with – those need to be addressed along with our parenting strategies. Making excuses is a damned slippery slope, and it never helped my parenting a jot.
A few more words about this “manners” business before I close. Children get older, and generally stop grabbing things from other children. They are likely, however, to need more time to learn to say “please” and “thank you”, and to speak with kindness. This will lead to socially embarrassing moments, and it is absolutely unreasonable if they public thinks kids should never have a slip-up and parents should always respond with grace. Again, as parents we need to model better desired behaviors ourselves, and make sure our children are exposed to other adults who do. We need to attend to the stresses in the home; to be honest about them and address them. And as for the embarrassing moments themselves, I’ve learned to simply redress the grievance myself, or at least attend to the other party as best I can. Over time, my children learned courtesy through this modeling.
Sometimes however, children do not catch that their behavior was rude or hurtful, and it may be helpful to talk to them about this. That’s okay, because they are human beings who are still learning! If necessary after an incident, when I am alone with the children and we are all reasonably rested and fed, I have learned to take the opportunity to say, “Hey… I noticed at so-and-so’s you didn’t say ‘thank you’ when she gave you your plate.” We go from there. Every single time I have practiced this, my children have been receptive. And they have learned better this way, rather than being publicly shamed. They are more likely to take personal responsibility, and watching your child take personal responsibility – without feeling a lot of self-conscious shame and low self-esteem – is one of the most special moments in parenting. This result won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with gentle, consistent, and attentive parenting. And while some children will need more help than others, what is more to the point is that many parents and teachers do not take the time to slow down, respect children’s dignity, and bring these matters for discussion in a calm, dignified way.
May we all continue to improve!
Our children are 16 and 14 now and regularly commended for their deportment, positive self-image, presence, and yes – manners. They have healthy relationships within the family, and within their peer group. They are joyful, creative, and they are strong and kind. Even with all my failings – too many to list here – the experiment of gentle parenting has clearly been a success. And what I am most astonished by and what saddens me deeply – and angers me! – is how consistently and frequently my partner and I were told it wouldn’t work. We were told through direct words, through argumentative strangers, through concern-trolling and “devil’s advocate” arguments, and through mainstream parenting strategies as pitted against ours, that if we didn’t do the things cited in “‘What’s the magic word?’ – prompt for manners, punish, scold, and correct verbally or physically in public – our children would turn out to be ENTITLED BRATS.
I am so glad I did not do what these people told me to. I hope you don’t, either. Just because this is what a lot of adults think (and parrot), doesn’t mean it is correct. Let these ideas die off like the shriveled, sad, malformed little strictures they are. Invest your time and efforts in something better. Your heart, your mind, and your children’s development and joy, will be all the better for it.
It’s worth it.
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HOW NOT TO FUCK UP YOUR CHILD
(ANY MORE THAN THE WORLD FUCKS WITH THEM ALREADY)
(shipping date TBA)
Content warning: homophobia, transphobia.
Recently on social media I watched as former classmates of mine blasted parents who support their trans children; that is, parents who allow their children to transition and who actively support them through the process. These children, my fellow alumi assert, are ‘confused’… but the parents are even worse. These parents are neglectful, disgusting, not doing their job. Familiar as I am with anti-transgender rhetoric, it is always a bit of a shock to see these kinds of sentiments from people I care about, or people I had previously esteemed.
My partner and I are both cisgender. Our oldest child came out as trans in December 2016. At the time it seemed such a wild coincidence that I’d been focusing on the writings and works of trans activists in recent years. Of course, I will always wonder if this was in fact a “coincidence” – after all, as a Buddhist, self-education on social issues is an imperative and an avocation – or if I had been perceiving something about my child before they came out.
Most supportive cisgender parents in this position are bound to start wondering what they might have missed and therefore worry about how much damage they did. I am not immune to that inquiry or that sense of regret. It has to be said though that for the parent of a trans child, any difficulty we may experience cannot take center stage when it is our children – raised in families that are neglectful or hostile and within a society that is terrifyingly alienating and aggressive – who need to be given center stage in terms of support and care.
Trans activism and awareness has been a part of our culture for hundreds if not thousands of years; sadly, few people study this history or this body of work (which is, thankfully, always expanding and receiving more general notice). I am thankful for not only the ouevre, I am grateful for its large-scale availability in the age of the internet. I believe my partner and I would have done a great deal of inadvertent and “innocent” but nevertheless severe harm to our child, had we not a small foothold on trans rights issues.
Trans children, teens, and adults endure so much discrimination, abuse, neglect, and persecution. They experience elevated rates of social exclusion and danger, and these myriad pressures result in an elevated suicide rate. Given suicide statistics alone, I feel so much anger when I think about my classmates’ disparagement of my attempts to be a supportive parent. As adults it is our responsibility to do better by these children, and as parents we are either their first bedrock strength or their greatest serial abuser.
I cannot express myself more firmly on this matter.
So I am grateful for this body of trans activist work, because I was raised in ignorance. My early life was pre-internet, and trans issues were presented as, at best, a fringe subject. You might as well study the mating habits of the Atlas Moth! I was raised in a liberal home (for which I am grateful), and my teachers and extended family always claimed to be tolerant and loving to people from all walks of life. Yet anyone raised by Baby Boomer liberality will be familiar with the well-intentioned but corrupted ideas woven through this familial-political tapestry. Let’s take sexuality (rather than gender identity, for starters. In this socio-familial worldview gay people were welcome members of society – but they were also Othered and singled out in conversation at most opportunities: John became “my gay friend John” (while we never have “my straight friend Mary”). These same adults persisted in using the word “homosexual” as a noun, even after being told it is an offensive and outré descriptive. Gay individuals were easily tolerated or even loved (if you can call it that), but men who were too “sissy” were disparaged (in favor of the stoic, silent, suffering “straight-acting” gay man), and lesbians who were too “mannish” were looked at as both admirable (for their supposed toughness), and alien (for their difference). The existence of femme lesbians was ignored. Any other sexual identity was simply not named and therefore erased.
If my upbringing with regard to gay and lesbian individuals was relatively poor, you can appreciate how much worse it was for trans identities. The first words I heard describing trans persons – words I heard on the playground or in adult conversation – were (I know now today) offensive, silly, scary, and inaccurate. When adults in my life talked about trans individuals they parroted harmful, ugly views – while absolutely believing they were being tolerant and kind. For instance, one friend of the family that was discussed was a “man who became a woman”, alternately referred to as “she” and “he”. This story was repeated to me carefully and persistently through my childhood without malice, but also with an ill-formed and inadequate viewpoint. Today I know that this story, and the adherence to the framing of this story, is tainted with transphobia.
This corrupted education wasn’t just in the family, or on the school playground either. Examples of trans characters in film and television (especially in the B-movie horror films I loved to watch) were simply nightmarish. Trans men were almost non-existent in film and television, usually portrayed (if ever) as tragic loners or sociopaths. Trans women were psychotic, evil murderesses or duplicitous divas. Non-binary or genderqueer individuals were invisible, occasionally presented as exotic, weird, and affected. Today when I re-watch these films I flinch; but as a child, I simply internalized these portrayals. The messages were clear. Trans individuals were scary; they were Other. They were on the outskirts of society and they deserved to stay there. Even in very recent history, film and television works demonstrate we have a long way to go.
As a child and teen I don’t remember once being exposed to a healthier view of trans identities. I believe that could have helped me a great deal. It would have made an incredible difference if the adults in my life – family, adult friends, teachers – would have cited a person’s pronouns properly, dropped the “male-to-female” lexicon of transition (“used to be a man”/”used to be a woman”), disavowed the practice of deadnaming, and spoke out against toxic (or absent) media depictions of trans individuals. Helpful, too, if the adults in my life would have explained that a trans person can be straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or any other sexual identity under the sun. I got a crummy, harmful, malformed education on the topic and it’s a crime that so many still do.
Today’s world is a little safer and a little more welcoming for trans individuals. A little. Openly trans individuals are able to run for, and attain, public office. If you are cisgender and reading this, you probably know someone who is openly trans (remember, no one is required to be out as trans, either). In our experience, living in a semi-rural ex-logging town, we have had a great deal of support – more than I would have expected when our child first came out (although as my classmates’ behavior demonstrates, a lot of people are hostile and unsupportive – just not confrontational in person).
Sobering, too, is the fact it is also still a dangerous place for our trans brothers, sisters, and siblings. 2017 had the most yet recorded murders of trans women (mostly women of color). Reprehensible “bathroom bills” dog our legislature in attempts to pathologize, humiliate, exclude, and criminalize trans individuals. Old myths have experienced a rebranding: the “social contagion” theory is making news recently with a poorly-crafted study and the pseudo-scientific term “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (with attendant faux-legitimizing phraseology like “desisting”). Our American president continues to humiliate the trans members of our military; the influence of his powerful position in our country is grievous and cannot be overstated. Quite simply put, adults continue to wreak havoc for trans individuals – adults, teens and children – within the home, in our institutions and law, and in every possible public venue.
That said, I have a lot of hope. Many people are trying to do better. This is a heartening but often messy experience. As the parent of a trans teen, I am often approached in private by people with questions. Most demonstrate their concern, their desire to do better, and their ignorance (for instance if I describe someone as a “trans man” the other party in the conversation is often confused; this shows a profound unfamiliarity with the community and the educational resources available). Sometimes the questions I get are well-meaning but inappropriate: personal questions about my child’s body, sexual preferences or practices, and medical procedures. I am also approached by people who need support or who are confused, because they have questions about their own child.
And then there are those annoying moments – for instance, people who want to burden me with a pedantic insistence that we should not allow an individual to use “they”/”them” pronouns. The argument isn’t that annoying – but watching people press their point over and over and place their personal convenience over the dignity and respect we should afford all citizens, is. This is the sort of self-described “well-meaning and open-minded” person who really, is neither.
I take an active role, both to be supportive as a parent and to be informed as a member of society. I am a member of a few online support groups for parents and allies, and these have been helpful and instructive. I also support (financially and by signal-boosting online) groups that are trans-centered. I participate, if they welcome cisgender members in the fold. I continue to listen to podcasts, to read essays and books, and to offer support not only to my child but to my many friends in the community.
In the present lexicon, a cisgender person who makes the time to do what I have just detailed is often called an “ally”. I don’t mind the term “ally” but anyone who so identifies needs to remember to center the work and experience of trans activists and individuals, always. For an ally, this work is less about being “right” (or getting it “right”) or learning “the rules” (which are in a constant state of flux and discussion), and more about being willing to look deeper, and do the attendant work. I can definitively state that you have everything to gain by being willing to change, and showing that willingness by your actions. The ideas I was raised with about trans individuals were ugly, incorrect, harmful, and pathetic. I benefit tremendously from leaving them behind. My child, and all the world’s children, will as well.
When it comes to trans children and teens, any harm we do to them is inexcusable, and there is no justification for continuing our harmful behavior. It takes time to change, and we will make mistakes – I have made many myself – but to simply ignore the harm we perpetrate is inexcusable. This is most especially true when, as I say, there is so much education at hand. To that end, I charge each person reading here to seek out trans activists and authors. Learn to recognize transphobic language and behaviors, and shut them down. Accept rebuke, censure, and anger from trans individuals without defending yourself. Commit to making the world a more just, fair, and kind place.
For every ignorant classmate online – or any other person I see who thinks of my family as disgusting – there have been ten, twenty, thirty acquaintances who support and love us. They simply use my child’s proper pronoun and they continue to deepen their education. These individuals demonstrate that quiet, shining strength and ability to change for the better – an asset in the human race that is quietly beautiful indeed.
Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas Teich
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HOW NOT TO FUCK UP YOUR CHILD
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We’re crossing F street and Phoenix asks me for the difference between empathy and sympathy. And this leads to a discussion on two tangential experiences: commiseration and understanding. Watching my children grasp new concepts so swiftly, it’s still breathtaking all these years in. I don’t know what brought these emotional-relations topics on but I can think of some salient, personal examples in our lives, and I share them with my oldest as I feel the steering wheel hot under my hand. I glance across the street at a carved wooden structure; the sun is hitting the swollen river and I’d planned to let my oldest drive us down to class today but we were feeling rushed. Phoenix has his new learner’s permit folded up in his wallet, which he’s learning to take everywhere with him.
Apologies have not come easy to me because growing up, the adults in my life did not apologize to me (or, as far as I could tell, to anyone else). They sometimes behaved remorsefully, but that is not the same at all. In fact, the remorseful parental behavior is rather damaging: because as a child, your parents’ distress and weakness (feeling sorry for themselves or embarrassed when they erred) will often precipitate a strong sense of your own culpability, and that is hard to recover from. If you are someone who had a childhood like this, my heart is with you. It’s a very difficult experience and it is hard to overcome.
A cardboard box filled with kraft paper; I remove gifts, setting them on the counter. Wrapped in tissue: findings from another sea. Teas, candied ginger. A paper-wrapped parcel of fine chocolate. Two bolts of sumptuous flannel fabric – a pea green plaid, a yellow plaid. Set aside and I run my hands over them each; fine robes for Christmas.
A wooden box, masterfully if plainly constructed, with a fire-branded logo. A note. And opening the box: a plastic shark. I recognize it as nearly identical to the one my children used to play with in the bath.
Then when I call my brother – to thank him and his wife, for the package – he laughs about the shark. “Do you recognize it?” I am confused for a moment. He can’t mean my children’s toy, as he never gave them baths and wasn’t there when they were small.
He says, “It’s just like the one I gave you a black eye with!” He is gleeful.
I am thinking, Oh that’s right. A childhood fight – we were still living in the bus, so I was seven years old or younger. I am set back for a moment. I am blinking at the road ahead, the phone on speaker in my lap.
What I say is: “That’s the only black eye I’ve ever had.” But now I’m thinking of a man who beat me. He never gave me a black eye. I think when you’ve been terrorized it can come to you, visit at any time. On a sunny day, in a lighthearted laugh with your brother.
The shark is now installed in my bathroom, hovering above the glass bar lighting fixture. I cooked and cleaned today, instead of leaving it for my children and spouse. I am coming out of a state of living where I was caring for the children, the home. We are moving and growing; I am working more, and the children are learning how to run a home. They are willing participants, and they are strong.
Yesterday they waited at a bus stop and went to the dentist. The children were gloomy; I woke them up and scolded them when they did not do housework quickly enough. We sat in the living room and we talked about the challenges in the household now that I work. The children listened, and ate the simple breakfast I made – creamed wheat, coconut oil, brown sugar. They put the dishes in the sink and I cleaned the kitchen after they left, then moved to the studio to finish my work.
After their appointments, my mother returned them home – food in hand, of course. They quite circumspectly did not eat hot foods for a couple hours, as the hygienist warned them off. Once they were home we piled in the car and off to the beach; meeting with a new friend who was visiting from inland. I realized well into the meeting that I hadn’t taken a break for quite some time.
After a coffee date, we two women and our four children climbed the jetty down to a little partitioned beach. We showed the visiting girls the tidepools: anemone, barnacles, limpets, chitons, starfish – and the little crabs under any rock you overturn. Every size – from a pinhead to a few inches across, and every manner of color: white, blues, greens, deep purples. The anenomes we instructed – you could touch them. Be gentle! They are gentle to you.
I know I live in a beautiful place. I never forget it. But I don’t often see it as it can be seen to visitors. That itself, was quite a blessing.
When I was thirteen, one evening during a week-long family reunion we went out as a crew to a drive-in theater. I remember what was showing – Bird on a Wire and Arachnophobia. (Great drive-in fare – and not films I’ve felt compelled to revisit later, either!)
The adults in the family smuggled us in. My brother, sister, a few cousins – we hid in the back of a pickup. The adults were probably half-lit, or at least they hadn’t thought it through. We underpaid, pulled into our spot, and everyone tumbled out. At that point the wary drive-in employees – probably teenagers themselves – came over and required payment for all attendees. I seem to remember it was a very near thing – we almost didn’t have enough. I remember we weren’t able to get snacks for the films. I remember worrying about this. Because I was a kid, and the adults in my life didn’t have their act together.
Today I wonder at my parents, aunts, uncles – that they could be okay with this sort of behavior. It isn’t that they were full of avarice or greed. My family was always the generous sort, and very kind. But I suppose like most other families, their morality was relative. They didn’t care too much about other people, when they wanted what they wanted. Most people behave like that at one time or another.
I’ve tried to raise my children differently. I never wanted them to see me take advantage. I didn’t want them to learn that way of life. Not just because it isn’t kind, it isn’t right, it isn’t fair to others. But because it’s a scraping way to live – always thinking of the next grift, hoping for a rescue, hoping to not have to be responsible for one’s share. Hoping things go my way. Feeling “cheated” when Life Happens. An acquaintance the other day – who found a large amount of currency but didn’t get to keep it – because someone else saw them pick it up. And the thing is, for just one moment (or maybe longer) this person thought that money SHOULD be theirs. Because they live life thinking they don’t have enough. Scarcity. It becomes a way of life if you’re not careful.
I don’t want to have that mind. I don’t want to grasp. I don’t want to live in a fearful state, if I can help it.
Today my neighbor shouted at me, as I walked to my car. When I went to see what the matter was, they seemed very upset. They told me our cats had been climbing on their (new) car, and had made muddy pawprints and scratched the paint. I listened, and responded with feeling – “Wow – that sucks.” They talked a little longer – angry, but not telling me anything new.
I told them, I am open to your suggestions.
To my surprise, this person had none. They hinted they would “make” me pay for a new paint job on their car, and take pictures of our cats. (I’m not sure why they wanted to do that, except they seemed determined to have a fight.)
They then told me my daughter had been rude.
This, perhaps, is the only moment I felt my own anger rise. My daughter is unfailingly courteous, and conducts herself with a calm that adults sometimes find threatening. My neighbor was obviously upset and resentful, and had allowed adrenaline and rage to get the better of their faculties.
I held my tongue at this slight against Phoenix, though, while I made sure to listen. Not to argue. I thought of the ten cats or so that aren’t ours, who roam the neighborhood. The ones who climb on our cars, and run around under the deck doing cat-things, and scratch up our stairwell, and kill little birds and voles. I thought to myself what my mind would be like, if I were to get angry about all this and try to find these neighbors out and shout at them. I thought of “townie” life – a neighbor on one side with a sad, neglected dog who cries out during the day. A neighbor on the other who lets their dog wander around urinating and defecating in the neighborhood.
I thought, What would it be like if I were angry about all these things?
I thought, What if I cared about something like a car more than my responsibility to all living creatures?
So, yeah. I can’t help my neighbor much. I let them know I would not consider it rude if they were to make their grounds less hospitable – to shoo the cats. In a neighborhood full of cats as ours is, perhaps a car cover or parking in the garage might be an intelligent solution. I did not share this thought, as it seemed my neighbor wasn’t ready to move past their anger, not at this time.
One thing I thought of: we can keep our cats indoors. I wouldn’t do this just based on someone else’s car, but we had been discussing already for other reasons. In fact, Phoenix and I had been talking about it this morning! So, when I went back over to my neighbor’s later in the day, I expressed my desire to have a harmonious relationship while we lived near one another, and my hope an indoor cat solution might work for all of us (note: they hardly seemed mollified at this offering).
But, I said – “I’m not sure that will solve your problem.”
Because I can’t really solve my neighbor’s problem. Not their real problem.
But I am glad I don’t have problems like that, myself.
They’ve plagued me since my procedure, eight days ago. Two hospitalizations and one visit from paramedics, in the space of four days. Dehydration, secondary infection, and constipation. All of these are resolved today, but the combination made me so very ill and so very quickly so, that I am sobered by the experience. Now I’m on a regular medication schedule and that has been very interesting; I’ve never before taken loads of ibuprofen.
So in the last few days I’ve been able to do some work. More importantly, I’ve stopped fearing a sudden onset of pain that cannot be remedied. During the worst bouts, I had very dark thoughts indeed. Amazing how easily we can be brought low.
So the nightmares – why? Medicine? Stress? Both?
My children have been mastering more household work. Surprisingly, my son seems more focussed. My daughter has trouble.
Last night I sit at the edge of her bed, in the dark, and I ask her. Why didn’t she take the dog on his walk earlier? Why didn’t she finish laundry? She tells me, I don’t know. The room is heavy with her sadness. I ask, “How can I help?” She tells me it’s her thing. Her problem. She needs to fix it. I ask her if she still wants to do what she signed up to do. She says Yes. Her voice is firmer, now. I tell her, It’s okay, just try again tomorrow. It can be hard to learn new habits. I sense her easing off. She feels better. I say goodnight.
Downstairs to my son who has snuck my laptop and is trying to procure a half-dozen starfruit through mail-order means. He arranges his time these days between playing outdoors until all hours, and gaming in his little studio (Minecraft, mostly), and doing his household work. And then piling on me like a bag of sticks. Watching a little television in the living room while I’m resting after a bout of pain. He tangles up and kisses me over and over. I ask him, “What would your friends think if they walked by and looked in the living room to see you kissing your mom?” He smiles and says, “If they teased me I’d just say, ‘Oh you don’t like your mama? That’s so sad.'” We are giggling and wrestling a bit and he is trying to crack jokes, to make me smile. He wants me to feel better. He’s a child so he thinks its his job to fix me. I can’t really make him not feel that but I can reassure my children whenever I can.
We’ve had a break from hot weather; balmy days with an ocean breeze, but a threat of heat. In the night when I wake to take medicine, I pad into the kitchen for a drink of water and there is Herbert Pocket our little tuxedo kitty, all curled up on top of the stove. I know I should shoo her off but I can’t. I have to pet her and she stretches and splays out her back toes and curls her spine, belly up, asking for some love. I don’t particularly like being up in the middle of the night and being ill, but I do love my house and the safety I feel, and that I have in some measure provided the same to a few other sentient beings.
This morning, a moment after my husband left the bed, I sensed our son climbing in beside me, under our comforter and quilt. He came in close to me and, half asleep, I put my arms around him as I’ve done thousands of times. We held one another close for a while, then we turned away from one another and fell back into our own kingdoms, our own sleep sanctuaries. For all the years we’ve known one another we’ve shared sleep, every night.
I think this is so incredibly special.
My son turns twelve today. I used to think of twelve as the “age of accountability”, the age of reason according to Scriptural sources. Later I discovered there was no such age set-upon in the Bible. But the impression has stayed with me. At twelve I remember coming to believe I was more a citizen of the world. I remember feeling by turns fierce and gentle, elated and despondent. I talked back to my teachers and was reprimanded. Twelve was the age where I began to sense this was bullshit. I also began to experience depression. This is The Way Things Are?
My children are given more freedom than most, at least in this country. I am glad of this. It hasn’t always been easy to live so differently, but it has been the right thing for us. All of this experience is showing, coming to fruition, as they near adulthood. It has helped heal me, as well.
This time last year my son was in his first year of public school – his only, so far. This morning as I stroked his hair – right before or after I took the above picture – I told him, “I’m glad you’re not in school this year.” He asked, “Really?” and I responded, “Yes, because I missed you.” Then thought a beat, and added: “and you seem happier now.” And he said, “Oh, yes.” without hesitation.
It came to me that his choice to stay enrolled for a full year was a fair-minded one on his part. He stuck with it and gave it a shot. He has learned more through that process than I could.
Today as I type this, and my son finishes sleeping, I am doorman to a host of boys in the neighborhood – three, one of them twice. They all want him to play. They want to tell him happy birthday.
Perhaps the most precious thing to me about Nels this last year concerns these boys. When we first moved in, several of them were throwing rocks, catching voles and cutting their heads off, smashing insects. That sort of thing. I felt a reflexive anger at these boys but then tried to soften. After all, it was their fathers who hadn’t been teaching them better.
From the beginning, my son was a model of different behavior. I remember early on in our tenure here, he rounded up a few boys in our backyard raking leaves. As they unearthed humus they came across large soft caterpillars, and the boys began destroying them. Nels intervened, told the boys not to harm them. He made a little hut out of twigs, with a hydrangea roof and a small square of dried moss as a welcome mat. He relocated every grub there and within only minutes the boys did the same.
Several months later these same boys are kinder. One of them today, as I talk to him in the doorway, spies a spider dangling from the doorknob. I tell the boy to relocate the spider to the nearby bush. “Spiders like bushes,” I tell him, and the boy does so, without hesitation. These children have learned our cats’ names and are very tender to them, instead of chasing them or grabbing them.
It occurs to me that children are quicker than adults to want to do better, to leave off old harmful habits. They just need to be shown, with love, another way to do it.
Now my son showers, and watches a bit of Minecraft on YouTube. He makes some breakfast and walks the dog as he waits for the dishes to finish their cycle. I know that after he finishes his morning routine, he’ll be outside all day playing. I know even if I catch him up and apply sunscreen that in a couple weeks he’ll be brown as a nut. This time next year he will be taller than I, if not sooner.
I would cry a little bit and sometime today I expect I will.
Every year I post Nels’ birth story on this date. Several families have told me the story has influenced their birth choices; several women that it was the (beginning) inspiration for their home birth! Thank you to all who read. Much love, to you all.
Nels David Hogaboom
a birth story
Born at home to mom Kelly, dad Ralph, and sister Sophia [/Phoenix] 1:20 AM Wednesday April 7, 2004
8 pounds 7 ounces
21 inches long
April 6th, 9 AM – is it or isn’t it?
A couple hours after I wake up on Tuesday I’m having mild contractions that are only a tiny bit more intense than the Braxton Hicks contractions I’d had throughout the last half of my pregnancy. These contractions are only slightly painful and certainly not too intense. Nevertheless, they are somewhat distracting and never truly subside, coming anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes apart. Ralph senses things are going to go into motion and comes home at noon, starting his two weeks off of work. He calls my mom at about 3 PM and tells her to head up to see us (she leaves about 5 PM). At this point I am hopeful of labor but also feeling somewhat silly at the thought I might be treating everyone to a false alarm. My mom arrives at about 9 PM time and she and Ralph start writing down my contractions, calling midwives, and cleaning the house up a bit.
April 6th, 10 PM – the real thing
My mom and I are watching a movie together and my contractions are still coming about 10 minutes apart. I still claim I am unsure if labor is going someplace. But everyone is noticing I pause the movie during each contraction so I can concentrate on getting though it. I’m undecided if I should walk around to “get things moving” or lie down and rest in between contractions. I’m trying not to be too fearful of another long labor like I had with my first child. Suddenly at about 10:30 PM I hop up from the bed and turn off the movie, since contractions have sped up to about 4 minutes apart. Naturally my mom and Ralph are very excited and go about making phone calls and preparations while I pace the floor and cope with each contraction. It is going quite well but I keep telling myself these are the “easy” contractions and I try not to worry about what’s to come.
Around 10:30 my midwives and my doula start arriving and I am focusing inward in the classic “Laborland” manner. I notice peripherally how efficient and friendly everyone is, setting up the bed, laying out blankets and birth supplies and getting snacks. Everyone is wonderful to me and provides me with water and encouragement between contractions, respectful silence and privacy during. I feel very protected and honored and so it is easy not to be fearful. My doula Elizabeth arrives and strokes my back and speaks softly to me. She puts me nearly to sleep in between contractions. I am feeling so grateful for the love and encouragement I am getting. I know I am coping very well and in fact since I am doing so well I don’t think I am very far along.
April 7th, Midnight – silliest labor quote
Things are intense but I don’t want a check to see how far I’ve dilated. I am somewhat afraid to discover all the work I am doing hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Laura (one of the midwives) suggests I get into the tub. I’d always thought of the tub as what you use as a last resort toward the end of labor so I tell her I can wait. After a few more contractions I decide to get in, hoping for some pain relief. I spend about 40 minutes in the tub with contractions edging up their intensity. Everyone is around me encouraging me and vocalizing though my contractions. Elizabeth holds my hands and breathes with me through the contractions, then puts a cold cloth on my head and neck in between. Everyone helps keep me calm and focused, as does the knowledge I have to take each contraction one at a time. Close to 1 AM I feel the urge to have Ralph hold and kiss me while I rest, and help talk me through contractions (he’s repeating something I read from Birthing From Within: “Labor is hard work, it hurts, and you can do it”). I don’t realize at the time but I am going through transition. After a few contractions I start to feel a little of that, well — grunting urge. I know it is perfectly okay to grunt and push a little to help with the pain and I instinctively do so. The midwives clue into what I am doing and are back in the room. Laura says, “Gee Kelly, it sounds like you’re pushing” and I reply (idiotically) “I’m not really pushing, it just feels good to bear down a little bit”. These contractions are pretty rough but everyone is helping me so much it is still very manageable.
April 7th, 1:10 AM – OUCH, OUCH, OUCH!
Kathy convinces me to let her check me and informs me not only am I completely dilated, but that the baby’s head has descended quite a bit. I am completely amazed at this (despite knowing I am feeling the urge to push) and even accuse everyone of just saying that to make me feel better! (I feel a little silly about this later). During each contraction I am feeling the pain in my hips, all the way to the bone, which my midwives tell me is a sign the baby is moving. Kathy tells me later I comment that it is like a crowbar prying my pelvis apart. Despite the pain I am coping well and in between the contractions I am still calm. I comment that I am not feeling any pressure in my bottom yet and I think to myself this means I have a ways to go. Oops, I speak too soon — with the next contraction I feel the baby AT THE DOOR, so to speak. This takes me by surprise and my labor sounds change from low and powerful to very alarmed and – well – a little screechy. Everyone is talking to me and trying to help me calm down and focus. I am amazed at the pain and pressure and overcome with an almost frantic need to push. I am pushing, pushing, pushing, before I can tune into my midwives telling me to ease off. I do the best I can and manage to ease off a bit and direct my energies more constructively. Despite the pain I am overjoyed to know I am so close and my baby will be here any minute. “I know I will feel so good when I see my baby”, I tell myself and this helps me. Kathy tells me to reach down and feel the head and after an initial hesitation I do, surprised again at how soft and smooth it is. I can feel each part of the child’s head I deliver. It hurts! But I know I am close. The head is out and then I am surprised by the fullness and difficulty of the shoulders, which I do not remember from my first birth.
April 7th, 1:20 AM – Nels is born
With one final push I feel my baby being delivered and I am surprised it is already over. I have been kneeling in the tub and so immediately turn around and Ralph tells me later I am saying, “Give me my baby! I want to hold my baby!” to the midwives who are doing their thing. I have a vision of my baby’s long, smooth body floating in the water, the room lit by candlelight in a soft glow. Within seconds he is in my arms and I am crying and Ralph is crying and the whole room is full of a collective soft and surprised murmur. I am holding my child to my chest and saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it” over and over, feeling so filled with surprise and happiness. The child is perfect and so soft and I feel wonderful. I realize I have done it, I have given birth to a healthy baby in my own home, with my own power.
April 7th, early morning – getting to know you
I stay in the water crying and holding my baby for several minutes before anyone thinks to discover the baby’s sex. I hold my newborn away from my chest and in between squirming legs and the umbilical cord I see we have a boy! Of course, this is perfect. Everything feels perfect! After a few more minutes I am ready to get out of the water and get cleaned up, but I know we have to wait for the delivery of the placenta. I feel like this takes forever but it probably is only a fifteen minute wait. Another surprising feeling of fullness and then the placenta is delivered. Kathy has to pull the cord a bit and gently massage my tummy to get the whole thing in one piece. My mom is on the phone with my dad and has to pass the phone around so she can cut the cord. I am ready to get out and dry off and nurse my second child.
I am helped out of the tub and into some dry clothes. I am so happy to have so much loving help. I prop myself up on the bed and hold my son to my breast. He latches almost immediately like a pro. I keep asking my husband, “Is this really happening?” because it has gone like a dream and I am so happy. After some time of nursing the midwife eventually takes my son to the foot of the bed to weigh him and check his limbs and reflexes. Elizabeth brings me food — cheese, bread, apples and oranges. My pulse is checked and found to be high (100) so I am encouraged to drink a huge glass of water (this happened with my first child, too). My afterpains are intense, more so than with my daughter’s birth, but I know this to be normal. I breathe through them. My daughter Sophie wakes up and is brought into the room, looking cranky and confused. I kiss her and introduce her to her brother (she is unimpressed) and Ralph takes her back to the bedroom to settle her back to sleep. Kathy checks my bottom out and finds only two tiny tears, no need for sutures. The energy of the house is settling, people are packing things, Elizabeth says goodbye. Laura leaves too and I take a shower with Kathy’s help. She stays long enough to give postpartum instructions and asks me to page her when I can pee. I am a little anxious about this myself, for vague fear of a catheter. Kathy leaves about 3:20 and as her car is pulling out I am able to pee, feeling now finally that everything is alright.
My husband is looking dead tired. I am wired and unable to sleep. We send my mom off to bed. I hold my son who is still awake! He is drowsy though and wants to snuggle. At about 4:30 AM I finally fall asleep on the bed, Ralph on the couch, holding his son. We are awakened just before 7 AM to the joyful sounds of our firstborn running through the house talking excitedly to Grandma. Grandma looks like she really needs a cup of coffee.