Supporting Gender-Variant Kids, A Guide for Conservative Parents

A reflection by Lindsey

Like many people, I’ve been following news about the Alcorn family tragedy. Although this story has gone viral, I know that there are many similar stories that have never been told on a large scale. I’ve seen many journalists and bloggers taking up the story. In particular, I was struck by this tweet from Parker Molloy:

I have been navigating the “Can you be LGBT and Christian?” conversation for over 16 years. During that time, I have always held my faith as the principal informant of the choices I have made. There was even a season between 2003 and 2006 where I thought ex-gay ministries might be the best way forward to answer the question. I find ex-gay ministries to be exceptionally spiritually abusive and have written more about my experiences and my journey away from ex-gay ministries elsewhere on the blog. It’s been challenging and tricky for me to discern the “right” letter of the alphabet to describe myself. We constantly say LGBT people are first and foremost people. It’s a challenge to figure out how to be yourself amidst a lot of noise.

Navigating questions of gender identity can be challenging. Several months back, I wrote a post on affirming kids in a gendered world. Today, I’d like to reflect on some things I wish more conservative Christians would consider, especially if they find themselves parenting a gender-variant child.

Gender emerges naturally and organically as children express themselves. Kids love engaging with their world in their own ways. We don’t come out of the womb with an innate sense of “This is for a boy” and “That is for a girl.” We do have a sense of “I like this,” and “I enjoy that.” Not everything works for all people. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any kid I know with siblings where two of the siblings are exactly the same with their sense of understanding gender. Kids typically don’t behave in gender-variant ways because they are trying to send dismissive messages to their parents. Kids are simply being themselves and interacting with the world in a way that makes sense to them in a given moment. Go ahead and affirm your budding scientist, actor, reader, or artist. Deliver authentic praise when your children do something awesome. Wrap them up in hugs, tell them how much you love them, and let them know how glad you are that they are in your family. Telling a child to avoid something associated with the “wrong” gender is a kind of discipline. There’s a lot of that kind of discipline in society, which leads nicely into my next point.

Your family home should be the absolute safest place for your kids to be themselves. I understand that many conservative parents fear for their gender-variant child’s safety. Social gender norms exist. Being a person to push on those gender norms can invite all kinds of teasing, harassment, bullying, and abuse. How do you help your children if they are teased for being too short, having too many freckles, or being a big nerd? It’s okay to let your child experiment with self-presentation. I’ve learned that the envelope of what works socially is often far larger than adults think. Your child may just be the child who can totally rock a bow tie, a buzz cut, an eclectic dress-vest-boots combo, a ponytail, etc. It can be a good idea to help your child problem-solve various unwelcome attention from others. However, your kids shouldn’t have to problem-solve ways to be themselves to feel welcome in their own home. They might decide that certain clothes are for home-only or that it’s best to explore particular interests in specific ways. Sometimes, they might want to talk to a counselor or therapist to work through their questions in their own ways. That’s a good thing. It can be good for kids to talk with counselors and therapists about how they understand self-determination.

Becoming an adult means asking a whole bunch of questions about oneself. I’m a rare breed of adult who thinks teenagers are awesome. Teenagers are some of the coolest people on the face of the planet. They spend so much of their time trying to figure out how they want to relate to the world. They have a sense that they matter, they can contribute to the world at large, and they’re getting ready to try and do those things to make the world that much better. But, they are encountering so many possibilities at once that it’s hard to cut through the noise. Their bodies are working very hard to become adult bodies. Everything is changing. It takes a good bit for the dust to settle. I wish someone would have told me that between the ages of 10 and 25, I’d be juggling through different senses of myself and that juggling was perfectly normal. Sometimes, I think it would be better if more parents could affirm that their teenagers are asking perfectly normal questions while becoming adults. If a set of questions really freaks parents out, then perhaps it’s better for the parents to find a way to talk with other adults about how to approach the conversations in a way that can be respectful of their teens. Suffice it to say, parents don’t need to have the final word on the conversations all the time. Chances are excellent that the conversation will be on-going.

When gender-variant kids are asking difficult questions about gender, parents have a range of options to give their kids more space. Parents have so many ways to affirm their children as unique and special people created in the image of God. You cannot go wrong in telling your child, “I’m so glad God gave me you.” Sometimes it’s good to throw in “I love that you’re mine,” or “I love having you as my child.” You can affirm your relationship with your child without constantly referencing gender. Your child has so many interests that have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with providing a safe space to be real. Let your child participate in places where you see sparks behind your child’s eyes. If a child feels out of place in a single-sex environment, parents can often explore opportunities that don’t require gender segregation. And, coming back to the tweet that inspired this collection of thoughts, please consider giving gifts that don’t make a direct statement about what your child’s gender should be. One tradition I like is giving gift cards to favorite stores that have awesome Day After Christmas sales. Alternately, parents can always consider gifts like books, board games, theater or movie tickets, or any kind of amusement that would be appreciated by your child.

Gender is tricky, but you’ve honestly been figuring out your children since the moment they were born. Children are actively figuring themselves out along the way as well. Your child is a precious gift, given to you by God. Many children want to know that their parents love them unconditionally, see them as individuals, and know that they are entirely far too multi-faceted to be reduced to a single descriptor of “male” or “female.” Look for the spark behind your children’s eyes, and do what you can do so that their souls have space to dance.

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8 thoughts on “Supporting Gender-Variant Kids, A Guide for Conservative Parents

  1. I think this goes double for gay teens as well. If as a parent you are trying to impose their only option is to stay celibate and never date someone of the same sex you are doing the exact same thing. Let them be who they are. I can understand teaching them not to have sex as teens but don’t tell them they cannot date, kiss etc. like other teens do.

    • Generally we’ve noticed that gay and lesbian youth have harder times if they display higher degrees of gender variance. A lot of the slurs for gay men in particular seek to shame men for acting too much like women. Often times, codes like “straight-acting” seek to emphasize that a particular individual conforms to expected gender norms. Many gender non-conforming, genderqueer, and transgender people report a significant amount of transphobia within mainstream gay and lesbian communities. Plenty of people are quick to police gender.

      • True and one of my best friend falls very much on the feminine side. I will agree with you there. But my comments was about gay teens in general. You say let them be yourself but you would not discourage parents from pushing celibacy on their kids?

        • Questions about vocation are distinct from questions about gender identity. Parents exert many vocational pressures on their children. I know many people who have experienced fractures in their relationships with their parents all because their parents had specific ideas of who they should be when they grew up. Self-determination is an important part of the transition from being a child to being an adult. I believe that Christian parents have an obligation to model what a Christian vocation of marriage looks like to their children and should help their children learn how to discern their own vocations. The general observation that “becoming an adult means asking a whole bunch of questions about oneself” relates broadly to teenagers in any life situation.

          I believe that trouble results when parents push any vocation unto their teenagers.

          • You seem to make a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. Both are not chosen. You seem to be advocating for one to be allowed to be themselves(gender identity) but not the other(Sexual orientation) in that you believe parents should model that their GLB kids should not act on them. To me that is a disconnect.

          • There is no disconnect. We’ve said again and again on this blog that we do not advocate the forcing of any vocation upon anyone. Parents can model the vocation to marriage because they are living the vocation to marriage. That does not mean forcing a vocation. It is our opinion that kids and teenagers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, should not be engaging in sexual activity. There are some parents who would disagree with us on that, but it’s their business. We don’t see where you’re getting the idea that we advocate not allowing LGB kids to “be themselves.” We believe that teens should be encouraged (though not forced) to be sexually abstinent, period.

          • I have no trouble with anyone advocating teens not having sex. But let’s be honest that isn’t what Christians are talking about. There is a double standard. Straight teens are allowed and even encouraged to date while conservative Christians like Leelah’s parents believe that GLBT teens should not even date. So it is a very similar situation.

          • Tim, we see both marriage and celibacy as mature vocations people enter into as adults. We’ve said absolutely nothing about dating. We don’t think it’s our business to advise any teenager on if or who he or she should date. We’re not parents ourselves.

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