Affirming Kids in a Gendered World

A reflection by Lindsey 

The story of Ryland Whittington has been traveling around the world at viral speed. Ryland’s family created a YouTube video to tell a bit more about Ryland’s story. The video highlights two events in Ryland’s life where the family really had to come together: 1) Ryland was diagnosed as deaf, received a cochlear implant, and learned to talk a bit later than most children, and 2) Ryland took to saying “I’m a boy!” almost immediately. The family sought advice from various folks in preparation for permitting Ryland to live as a boy. The video ends with Ryland making a public remark at the 6th Annual Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast saying, “I’m a transgender kid. I am six. I’m a cool kid. I am the happiest I have ever been in my whole life. Thank you to my parents.”

From where I sit in the world, it’s not incredibly surprising to see Ryland’s story making waves. Facebook has unveiled myriad gender options. Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Students at Christian and public schools have been suspended until they wore clothes and accessories associated with more traditional cisgender presentations. I’ve heard plenty of people lamenting the degree of “gender confusion” present in the world while others gleefully shout, “Down with the gender binary!” However, I’m more of the opinion that adults frequently forget that children are people who have intrinsic senses of the mystery of gender.

I’ve been absolutely blessed beyond measure by getting to know many kids from birth. My current Christian tradition has greatly facilitated these introductions by welcoming people of all ages to the same service in order to affirm the oneness of the Body of Christ. As I’ve known more and more infants and toddlers, I catch myself thinking frequently, “Wow, what a marvelous little person!” These kids strike me as being full of a personalities uniquely their own. Some parents have told me that they think of their children first and foremost as “children of God who had been entrusted to [their] care.” That idea has really stuck with me. Oftentimes, I think the world gets caught up as viewing children as emerging adults rather than people.

If we posit that children at all life stages are people, then it makes sense that our call when getting to know children is getting to know them first and foremost as people. I’m at that age where lots of my friends are having children, and I find myself particularly in awe of parents who wait a few days after their child is born before settling on the child’s name. I regard naming a child as a sacred duty. If I’ve remembered my own naming story right, my parents had picked out two names for me before I was born and decided to go with Lindsey, a choice much farther down their list, when they met me. (And of course, if I’m remembering my own naming story wrong, I know my mom will correct me on the details.) I’m proud of my name, and I’m grateful for the time my parents took to discern my name. Many parents have shared with me their angst in naming children. I can appreciate that; a name is a big deal. Names are reflective of so many things. Taking time to discern the personality in a child, even before giving a name, can go a long way in helping affirm a child in a gendered world.

Kids have natural ways of expressing themselves. Freedom to explore different hobbies and personal sense of style can go a long way in helping kids become comfortable in their own skin. Will the world come screeching to a halt if a 4-year-old wants a buzz cut, a 10-year-old wants to learn how to solder electronics, a 7-year-old wants long flowing locks, a 6-year-old wears a suit and tie, a 3-year-old brings a doll everywhere, a 12-year-old begs to take babysitting classes, or an 8-year-old wears a dress? We communicate something about the intrinsic value of any of these things when we assert “No, sorry son, but that’s a girl thing.” or “Well, you know you have to because all boys should.”

I’m personally grateful for all of the ways that my family has allowed me to be Lindsey. I rarely experienced any sort of consequences for how my sense of self developed. I could experience great comfort in my own skin, knowing that my family totally supported me shrugging my shoulders and saying “So?” when others confronted me in an effort to use gender to police my activities. However, I am all too aware of how different people have been pigeonholed by the gender police. It seems that the wake of various feminist movements, women have greater latitude in gender expression than men do. It’s not terribly uncommon for gender non-conforming women to carry on without consequence up to a certain point. Nonetheless, the more a person brushes against various social expectations of gender, the more that person risks all forms of violence. Transwomen of color are frequent targets of violence as evidenced by the recent case in Atlanta were two transwomen were assaulted and stripped of their clothing on a public bus.

I think it’s a gross oversimplification to describe gender as a set of social interactions. Gender, in my best estimation, goes deeper. If pressed, I’d say something like the mystery of gender allows our souls to dance. When we love children, we want to see them come alive as their souls dance. Our bodies are the vessels that present our souls to the world. All of our embodied capabilities exist to showcase the dance of the soul. And in this world, all of us encounter difficulty as we try to present our soul to the world while seeing the beauty in another’s soul. My own opinion is that aggressively policing gender is one way to squash the soul of another.

I wonder what life would look like if we tried to peer more deeply into a person’s soul in order to see the image and likeness of God imprinted therein. What would happen if we accepted all children as, first and foremost, children of God? How would we journey alongside children if we wanted to see their souls dance?

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