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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15 thoughts on “Affirming Kids in a Gendered World

  1. “children are people who have intrinsic senses of the mystery of gender”

    Great reminder of the complexity of thought the young people in our lives can have. Thanks for the insights in the post today.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Hi Kenny, thanks for your comment. I’m less inclined to divorce the spirit inside from our function in society. After all, it’s our body’s job to show our soul to the world. I would agree that society could do a much better job at practicing kindness and giving people more latitude to express themselves. -Lindsey

  2. I read a particularly nasty rant about Ryland and his parents over at the Matt Walsh blog (http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/06/03/this-poor-child-is-confused-not-transgendered/). I appreciate your nuanced and respectful analysis of a child’s ability to intuit the truth about the child’s self. It truly negates Mr. Walsh’s desire to drive home his belief that children are completely unable to discern anything about themselves. His idea that Ryland’s self identity is a “fantastic and nonsensical claims about being something other than what she [sic] really is” is especially cruel and baseless given his lack of relevant experience or education.

    • Hi Jack, thanks for your encouragement. I took some time to read Matt’s post. He seems to be arguing that children are essentially blank slates for their parents to dress up and parade around the world. I would agree that parents definitely have obligations to their children. After all, children should be able to participate in society as children.

      As I shared in my post, I know many children under 5. Many parents have started letting children pick out their own ensembles before going outside. I get a good chuckle at some kids’ creativity, and I think there should be a tumblr for “Kids Wear the Darnedest Things.” To be sure, parents have to decide if they want their child going outside of the house wearing a leotard, a sweatshirt, a rain boot, and a mitten. Some parents will let the creativity go unhindered, other parents might gently guide the child into slightly more sensible choices, and still other parents will say, “Okay it’s time to put on outside clothes!” where the parents dress the child. I’m personally inclined to think that all 3 approaches have merit and can be done respectfully.

      Parenting is tough work. I’m honored to walk along my friends who are parents. However, I do my best to withhold judgment of another’s parenting until I have enough of a relationship to discern the particulars of the situation. It’s very difficult to know what exactly is going on in Ryland’s life from a 6 minute video.

      I hope to see you in the comments again! -Lindsey

  3. Thanks for that. I think there are several aspects to this. Firstly is how much parents, schools and others should seek to shape the identity of children, secondly how children are able to express themselves in ways which in some ways are much deeper than adults and thirdly what gender is and how it develops.
    My own view is that whilst children should be given freedom to some extent it is important to create environments where they will be accepted not stigmatised by others and I’m not sure if some of the desire some parents have to help their children conform to stereotypes is linked to a desire for safety. I believe children are able to let their souls dance more than adults. With regard to gender I agree with much of what you say and am glad you have outlined the nature of transphobic hate crime within this. You may find it useful to read something Karl wrote in response to a UK newspaper article which was talking about the dangers of giving trans young people hormone blockers http://karlsrandommusings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/on-hormone-blockers-and-daily-mail.html

    • Thanks for raising the issues of parents trying to protect their children’s safety. It’s a real concern when trying to come alongside a gender non-conforming child. Kids can be merciless when it comes to bullying. Sometimes parents can be caught in a truly zero-win situation.

      I appreciate you sharing Karl’s article. There can be an impressive amount of hysteria around any LGBT topic that only complicates the journey for people who need to find their way. -Lindsey

  4. Lindsey,
    I really appreciate your reflections on gender. Prior to coming out, I had no contact with notions of gender identity, expression, variation, etc. and in the last few years have been slowly learning more about gender and its relationship to…everything? 🙂 So I find your insights particularly valuable since you have more personal experience reflecting on these things than I. So – thank you.

    In all of these ‘controversies’ surrounding gender non-conforming and transgendered children – and adults – I am hard pressed to see any truly rational basis for NOT trusting someone’s self-identification. It is easy to understand that in a society heavily invested in structures that privilege particular gender expressions, not conforming to those gendered expectations can result in dangerous situations for the non-conforming person that result from the fear and anger and rigidity of others. But past fear, anger, power dynamics, etc…I don’t understand why gender expression is such a “big deal” to the people who so vehemently oppose/deny it.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. Thank you again!

    – Suzanne

    • Hi Suzanne, thanks for your comment and encouragement here.

      I’ve been thinking on gender quite a bit lately. Part of me wonders why we have some structures we have. For instance, must we have bathrooms that are constructed to have 5 toilets in one room? If these bathrooms expedite toilet breaks for school children, are we trying to industrialize the process of going to the bathroom? As a counter example, does having separate men’s and women’s basketball teams enable players of both sexes to shine? There’s not a lot of easy answers.

      There have been many seasons in my life where I haven’t been sure what labels work best to describe different parts of myself. I wonder if emphasis on self-identification puts pressure on people to decide right away which label works for them. At the same time, I can appreciate the robust experience of being in pain. It does make sense to try to ameliorate another’s pain using a variety of different strategies.

      Thanks for joining me as I stumble on my own journey with these questions. -Lindsey

  5. This is gorgeous. I have several kids and gosh, I like to think that their freedom to be who they are is going to be something they will be so grateful for later on in life. Our boys paint their nails, our girls are interested in ‘boy’ things, and it just doesn’t matter! They are people interested in peopley things and they are growing in self-confidence, and isn’t that what matters??? I’m probably screwing them up in all sorts of ways but their freedom to be who they want to be is not going to be one of them.

    • Thanks Caris. “They are people interested in peopley things.” Sounds like you’re trying your best to do right by your kids. May God continue to direct your steps and shine light on your family’s path.

  6. Lindsey

    This is written with care and deep concern for a young person’s dignity and well being. Thank you for that.

    Would you say the importance is to affirm their reality rather than imposing a biblical/traditional standard? And the other question that comes to mind is, what is the difference between gender confusion in a child and a child who is transgender? Or is there a distinction?

    • Hi Kathy, thanks for the kind word.

      I honestly hoped to write a post that could apply to every child. I’m not against welcoming a child into the world and celebrating her as Elizabeth. It’s totally cool in my book to name the most masculine guy you’ve ever met Reagan. However, a significant part of me gets nervous when expecting parents host “gender reveal” parties after their 21 week ultrasound. I get kind of freaked out when it seems that their whole affect towards their baby changes once they can call their baby a boy or a girl.

      I’ve spent a lot of time with the Scriptures, and I’m rather hard pressed to say that there’s a biblical standard for gender. It seems that even throughout the Scriptures themselves, we see cultural variations relative to gender.

      To be completely honest, I’m not sure where “gender confusion” fits into the mix. I’ve had plenty of people try to assert that different kids are confused about their genders because of x, y, or z thing the child was doing. I find myself squinting because it seems to me the person tossing around the idea of “gender confusion” is simultaneously throwing around gendered expectations.

      I’m going to hold off on saying something concrete about transgender as a category. I’ve done a lot of reading where various places have tried to offer a Trans*101 session, but I think this approach simplifies a topic that needs a good deal of nuance. I’m grateful that we’re talking about questions of gender identity and expression in addition to talking about questions of sexual orientation. The conversation best happens in time.

      Thanks for your comment, and I hope to see you again soon in the comment box! -Lindsey

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