Any engaged, active parent will tell you that children and teens go through stages we aren’t ready for. I’m not talking about childhood milestones – losing their baby teeth, learning to walk, mastering the ability to read – landmarks which are fairly universal and usually bring much delight in those whirlwind years of early parenting.
I am talking about those changes that we wrestle with, because they are shifts of personality and values that are stark, startling, and profound. I’m talking about the upheavals we weren’t ready for and that knock us back a bit – or a lot. These are stages we usually navigate pretty gracelessly – at first not seeing the sea change for what it is, fighting it or unconsciously resisting it – and then scrambling to keep up as we begin to comprehend: Our child is different now! Twenty years ago I remember my friend Parker telling me about the last time he held his son’s hand, when the boy was twelve. He had somehow caught that it would be the last time (what a gift!), and he’d treasured this deeply as they walked together down a forest lane.
I understand the pain and sweetness of such an experience just a little more, today.
My youngest child is going through such a change. I have not, in my decades of parenting experience, previously beheld such an abrupt shift. This is a child who coslept with me into his double-digit years, and who every day would approach me several times to hug and kiss, who has been sitting on my lap long past the time he surpassed me in height. This is a child who since the age of three would tenderly chide his “Little Mama!” and offer sly, loving affections most times I entered the room. I have homeschooled this boy and I have had more time with him than most parents ever get with theirs. I drank up deep draughts of those days and I never grew tired of the elixir; I always found it delicious. Day after day of these caresses and his beautiful brown arms tangling up in mine and his laughter like crystal warming the home. I had this Eden for as long as one could.
Those days – are gone.
And I mean they are gone, and the change happened within just a few days – after almost fifteen years of such a bounty. I can’t begin to express my shock and confusion.
At first, you know, I thought something was wrong. I thought he was going through a distraction; I thought he was having a bad couple of days.
I practice yoga every single day of my life; I have been doing so for a few years. The other morning I moved through several one-legged balancing and strength postures – Tree, One-legged Tadasana, Warrior Three – with confidence, with joy and swiftness, and with a smoothness that has been patiently earned. As I hung suspended in air I reflected on this stability; it has arrived only after years of fairly unglamorous body work, of actively and repetitively engaging all these muscles large and small, finding new support through a myriad of subtle counterbalances. Now these once-difficult movements are a joy to me and this physical delight carries me through the rest of my day. Such is the benefit of yogic practice.
I’ve been practicing parental yoga for years, every day, too. I don’t wobble like I used to. It took me about a week to realize my son had shifted; only a week to perceive things had once again changed, forever. Upon this awareness a torrent of emotions flooded my body and mind; surprise being the foremost, quickly giving way to shock. And I felt, and still feel, a profound grief radiate from within my body’s center, a body blow that is so massive and middle-deep that I can patiently feel this bruise and know that it will last, it won’t shift swiftly. Hello grief! Welcome. Again.
I know, too, that what my child needs the most right now is privacy, respect, and personal dignity; I know not to whine or complain about the change because I have other, better ways to process my pain. After a couple days’ awkwardness, I stopped asking him for hugs. I stood at my kitchen sink and held my loneliness in my hands and knew I would treasure it; it is mine after all, it is not something he or anyone else created within me. It is the gift of many years’ floods, swelling on the beach and warming the sands, and now the sky has turned cold for a little while and frost creeps around the edges.
I started, instead, offering hugs to this child – offering, not demanding – less frequently than I would like. After a day or two he came out of his standoffishness; he hadn’t asked me to change, but he clearly appreciated my retreat. I have slowed down and become more circumspect in how I address him. I ask his preferences. He hugs me differently, the earthy sunshine shifting out of his straw-colored hair and a remote coolness within his slender body; his shoulders ever-broader and his physicality a glancing one. I am patient. I can survive.
And of course, as is my prerogative, I have engaged him directly – but only a little. A little, a little – no lectures and no feelings-talk. I will tell him about my feelings at some point but I will give it time, and I will share with him two sentences or so. For now: I am a parent, and I have a beautiful obligation.
Two days ago I sit with this child over morning coffee and I ask him if he is angry with me; he’d spoken maybe fifteen words to me the day before. His face clouds and a flinch of irritation passes over his countenance and he says, “You said it was just a stage.”
I think carefully before I respond. “Yes – and no. The part of you that doesn’t want to hug or kiss, that doesn’t want to snuggle and that wants to spend all your time with your friends – that’s a stage. That’s a normal part of development, and it’s a good thing. That will pass and who knows what will happen next.”
I continue: “But the part of you that is angry with me, that has thoughts about me and how I behave, those are things we should talk about.” After a moment, he shares. He has been feeling acute unfairness with regards to a housework duty. He believes I favor his older brother in this regard. I ask questions. We talk. After a few moments I can see he feels heard and understood.
We propose changes to our routine, and later in the day we bring them to the other two family members.
I know there is more to talk about. But not all in one day.
When I was a child, my strong emotions and behavioral changes were not treated skillfully. I was called names – “little Hitler”, “asshole”, I was told repeatedly that I was selfish. I was yelled at to “Show some respect!”; I was slapped. I was mocked for displaying strong emotions and I was belittled for how deeply I felt them. I was told, “Don’t be upset!” By the time I was a teenager I felt ashamed of my strong feelings, particularly anger or aggression. I felt a strong pressure to hide these experiences under a mask of civility and inauthenticity. I’d long lost the memory of what it felt like to seek out my parents for physical affection and comfort.
How I was raised, was not good enough for our future. My partner and I have made a different path.
So: my children will not know these humiliations in their home. They will know respect, privacy, and deep nurture. These periods of change, these are the times when we most need to honor their dignity. This is when the habits of our earlier parenting come to the fore and we reap what we’ve sown.
I grew this practice. This balancing practice. It is not without its wobbles, but it is surprisingly stable all the same. I planted this practice while they were small; I patiently tended it every day with ferocity and with persistence.
It sustains us still.
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HOW NOT TO FUCK UP YOUR CHILD (ANY MORE THAN THE WORLD FUCKS WITH THEM ALREADY) (working title)
(shipping date TBA)
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.
If you like my works on parenting, please sign up to receive notices about my upcoming zine: HOW NOT TO FUCK UP YOUR CHILD (ANY MORE THAN THE WORLD FUCKS WITH THEM ALREADY) (working title) (shipping date TBA)
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.
I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.
If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.
There is a perfectly lovely woman at a local shop who always greets me warmly, and makes genuine, caring conversation with my husband and I when she sees us. She is a homeschooler and so that, I feel, is why she reaches out to connect. But she is a very different type of homeschooler than we: she uses a strict curriculum (for her several children), and the family is an evangelical Christian. Today I got to have that conversation I’ve had so many times in the last few years:
Her: “‘Boys’? I thought you had a boy and a girl?”
Me, smiling: “We thought so too! But we were wrong.”
I wait a beat. It takes most people a second to process what I might be saying.
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.
Our dryer broke today but only after I had about eight loads of wet laundry waiting. I search online and find a heating element but in the meantime, we need towels and clean sheets. So at 10 PM I’m sitting on my mother’s couch waiting for a single load to finish; the rest of our wet clothing and linens are bundled into large black garbage bags and rest on her tidy laundry room floor. We always talk about world events and cultural phenomena when I visit with my mother. Tonight I mention the disturbing, disgusting tax breaks our country’s mega-rich receive and my mom interrupts me to angrily hold aloft her popsicle, “Like these! These are half as big as they used to be, and they cost twice as much! It makes me so angry!” I look down at my popsicle – lime flavor, duh! – and I realize, Sonofabitch, this damn thing is smaller. Life’s a bitch.
Due to several factors I am not going to detail here, I have habituated myself to forgoing breaks. I don’t take hours off let alone days off. I am work, work, working and only slow down at all to sit with the kids while they game, or to grab a bite to eat, or take a little time with my husband. My daily session on the yoga mat – which I never skip – is an absolute screamingly silent exercise in discipline: trying to breathe and be present in the moment.
So days like today are special. Yes, I worked during the day but I also set aside my time for my volunteer commitment, which is grounding and while hardly restful, is at least a couple hours I am not thinking of my own plans, my own hustle.
And then later this evening, a trip to the beach to meet up with friends and enjoy the air, and watch a fire dancing show long after darkness falls. It is hard to believe a year has passed since we were here last; last summer I remember Phoenix and I split a huge order of greasy fries and we climbed on the rocks at the quay. It’s even colder this visit, but we didn’t think to bring blankets or even camping chairs to keep us off the frigid earth. Nevertheless there is nothing I like more than being tucked away with my family and with what warmth I can garner from my hoodie and the close-sitting strangers around us, drinking hot tea and waiting for the show to begin. Long after the tea is gone and the warmth has left my body and I’m still shifting, I feel peaceful and grateful to be nestled into a crowd with nothing more to do than watch performers swing flame and spit petrol to television hit songs.
We arrive home late and I’m too tired to even tell the children to finish up dishes for the evening. Tomorrow we will wake and be full of energy and we can houseclean then. But for tonight I light my candle and put up my hair and hit the hot shower, and fall into my pajamas and then to bed where my husband rubs my aching feet and slender ankles.