Parenting a Gender-Creative Child

Parenting a Gender-Creative Child

Gender-bending kids need acceptance and support

Children who dance outside the gender boundaries have always brought a smile to my face. Whether it’s the child wearing Belle’s golden ball gown over his athletic pants or the kid wearing a full Oakland Athletics’ baseball uniform while playing the “William Tell Overture” on her trumpet—these kids inspire me with their bold insistence on being themselves. But when my own child expressed gender-bending tendencies, I got worried. I had a lot to learn.

Looking for support raising your gender-creative child? Here are some tips:

Follow your child’s lead

Should you let him pick the pink frilly socks? Yes, you should. Should you let her wear her big brother’s basketball jersey to school again? Yes, again. It takes guts to follow your child off the beaten track. But guess what? You couldn’t change your child’s innate gender identity or expression even if you tried. Attempting to do so would send your child the message that they are not OK the way they are. And who wants to do that to a kid? When it comes to gender expression, when you follow your child’s lead, you let your child know that wherever they go, however they show up in the world, you’ve got their back.

Practice affirming parenting

Strict gender rules aren’t good for any child, regardless of where they stand on the gender spectrum. A recent study from the University of Warwick's Department of Sociology concluded, “Our ideas of what constitutes a real man or woman are not natural; they are restrictive norms that are harmful to children of both genders.” The simple fact of your solo parenthood sets an affirming example of gender fluidity for your child: Who grabs the hammer and nails when the fence board comes loose? You do, Mom. Who bakes the cupcakes for the school picnic? Also you. Ultimately, your gender-creative child doesn’t need to change; society’s gender expectations do. But social attitudes—especially when it comes to gender—evolve slowly, and your child is growing up now. So how can you help your gender creative child? Gender Spectrum says “affirming parenting can significantly affect our children’s positive outlook on their lives, their mental health, and their self-esteem.” Gender Spectrum’s publication, “Affirming vs. Non-affirming Parenting Behaviors,” offers empowering, informative tips, such as “make home a sanctuary of security and support” and “allow zero tolerance for disrespect, negative comments, or pressure.” Read the article for yourself, and share it with the adults in your child’s life.

Beware of internalized criticism

The first time my own son asked to wear nail polish, I choked. I looked at his three-year-old fingers and toes. Instead of pulling open my nail polish drawer and inviting him to select from the rainbow of colors, I said, “No, nail polish has chemicals that are bad for little kids.” What happened? So often Solo Moms find ourselves in the crosshairs of societal judgment. Politicians, pundits, and religious leaders make no bones about blaming us for all kinds of problems: poverty, addiction, crime, Hurricane Sandy. For a moment I internalized that judgment and let it guide my actions. I could practically hear parents at the park saying my son needed a father figure, saying he was overidentifying with his mom, saying I was trying to turn my son gay. (That last one is not possible, by the way.) Once I understood the reason behind my knee-jerk “no,” I vowed that next my son asked permission to cross the gender line, I’d say yes.

Check your fears

As soon as a kid steps across a gender line, the questions begin: Is my child gay? Is my child transgender? Will my child be bullied? Just like solo parenting, raising a gender-creative child comes with unique challenges. I like to think of these challenges as opportunities to grow as a parent and a person, to check our assumptions, to examine our fears, to build resilience, and to live the notion that all children deserve to express their authentic selves and to be loved for who they really are. When you find yourself getting caught up in future-leaning questions and fears, remind yourself: I am strong; I am resilient; I am resourceful; I am my child’s best advocate; we’ll grow through this together; we’ll find the support we need along the way.

Find support for yourself

Whether you’re raising your child in wacky Berkeley, California, or in the buckle of the Bible belt, you and your gender-creative child are not alone on this journey. Many websites suggest both parents and children work with a therapist versed in gender expression and identity. No doubt a good therapist can be extraordinarily helpful, but often the price tag is more than a Solo Mom can afford. No worries. Solo Moms are the MacGyvers of the parenting world—between the Internet and your local community, you’ll weave a safety net for yourself and your child. Start by identifying your local allies: build relationships with people who understand your child, support your parenting choices, and are willing to be educated about gender identity and expression in children. Read the stories of parents who have walked similar paths, like bloggers Lori Duron of Raising My Rainbow and Julie Tarney of My Son Wears Heels. Check out ESME’s featured videos like these about two transgender kids. Connect with organizations like TransActive Gender Center, Trans Youth Equality, Human Rights Campaign, and Gender Spectrum, which offer a wealth of resources and materials to support you and your child.

Find support for your child

Your child is part of a vibrant, powerful tribe of colorful, creative, courageous people. But they might not know that until you tell them. Look for positive news stories, images of gender-expansive people, age-appropriate videos like this one of the fabulous eight-year-old who took NYC Pride by storm, and children’s books that introduce your child to the tribe. These positive representations show your child that, even if they don’t see anyone like them in their immediate vicinity, they are not alone. Look for opportunities for your child to meet other gender-creative children. For example, Trans Student Educational Resources offers a list of camps for gender-creative youth. Or check out online communities like Rainbows at Play, which “connects families raising gender nonconforming kids so they can playdate and find fierceness in numbers.”

Educate yourself

Just as people carry strong, ill-founded opinions about solo parenthood, they harbor strong opinions about gender norms. Reading about gender identity and expression can help you understand your child’s experience, and it can offer you evidence-based reasons to support your child’s gender exploration. Even if you need nothing beyond the smile on your child’s face to tell you you’re making the right parenting choices, when others unleash their unsolicited opinions upon you or your child, it can be helpful to carry these facts in your pocket. Start with Human Rights Campaign’s publication, “Supporting and Caring for our Gender Expansive Youth.” Then read Brynn Tannehill’s article debunking myths about gender nonconforming children.

Prepare yourself and your child

As a solo parent, you’ve probably already dealt with people’s pervasive assumptions about family structure. You know, like that well-meaning stranger in the grocery checkout line who looked at your pregnant belly and said, “You and your husband must be so excited!” You’ve probably become adept at answering kids’ questions like, “Why doesn’t Alicia have a dad?” You’ve probably developed a list of standard responses, something Todd Parr-esque, like “Families come in all shapes and sizes. In our family, we have a mom and two sisters. Who’s in your family?” Now you get to develop responses to inquiries about your child’s clothing, toys, activities, and gender. Ideally, these responses will affirm your value system and your child’s gender expression. For instance, when that preschool princess sneers at your child and says, “Pink is for girls,” you can respond, “You know, I asked pink about that once, and pink told me that pink is for anyone who likes pink.” You and your child might even collaborate on a “best one-liners” list, discussing which responses feel most useful and empowering.

Enjoy your child

Some of my most joyful parenting moments have been those in which my son has been bold enough to be himself, no matter what. Like the day he walked into a musical theater audition, carrying a Mary Poppins carpetbag and a Bert chimney brush, ready to play either part. If I hadn’t let go of my internalized criticisms and fears, none of those moments would have happened. Following your kid off the beaten path may feel scary at first, but trust me: it’s totally worth the ride.

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Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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