Back in September, I wrote an essay for Parents.com containing my advice for raising a gender creative boy. I got wordy – as I tend to do – and the word count of my original essay was edited down. I get asked (a lot) for my advice and, so, I’m publishing my full essay here now. If you have advice, please leave a comment below.
My youngest son is six years old and his life is divided into two parts: before Barbie and after Barbie.
During the first two and a half years of his life, C.J. was largely underwhelmed buy the clothes and toys passed down from his older brother. Nothing seemed to excite him, until he discovered a new Barbie in the back of my closet. He insisted on opening the box and playing with her. By his third birthday he could name every Disney Princess and her movie of origin. Shortly thereafter he started dressing like a girl at home. When he was old enough to explain himself, he told us that he is a boy who only likes girl things and wants to be treated like a girl.
I wanted information about raising a child like mine – a little boy who was a girl at heart, with a penchant for pink, sparkles and everything fabulous – but couldn’t find any. I searched for blogs. Nothing. I searched popular parenting sites. Nothing. I conducted countless, random Google searches. Nothing.
I complained about the lack of information to my friends. They all agreed that I couldn’t possibly be the only person cyber-searching and that I should start my own blog.
After months of procrastination, I did it. RaisingMyRainbow.com went live in January 2011. My readers quickly educated me; they are the ones who taught me that my son is gender nonconforming. That was back when I had no idea what I was doing or what I was writing about. Now that I know a little more, I try to help the people who contact me with questions or concerns about raising a child who shuns traditional gender norms.
Here are the things that I most often tell them:
Chill out and give it some time. My husband and I have been there, in that early, panicked rush to figure out what was going on with our son and if he was going through a phase or if his behaviors had some deeper meaning. The only way to tell if something is a phase is to wait it out and patiently observe it. If the behaviors go on for an extended period of time your child may be gender nonconforming. My son has definitely taught me patience.
Search out resources and funnel your energy into getting educated. Learn the distinct differences between sex, gender and sexuality. Sex is what’s in your underwear that determines if you are male or female. Gender is what’s in your brain that tells you if you are male or female. And sexuality is what’s in your heart that tells you who you are attracted to. Read Diane Ehrensaft’s Gender Born, Gender Made and my book Raising My Rainbow. PFLAG and Gender Spectrum are amazing organizations and resources for families like ours. Support is out there, I promise.
Ask yourself some tough questions and make decisions. Is your job to love your child or change him? Is your child free to be who he was created to be? Is there room for shame in childhood? Who are you working to make feel comfortable, your child or everyone else? Will you be his first bully?
This isn’t about you so don’t take it personal. According to Gender Spectrum, significant gender variance or a transgender identity occurs in as many as one of every 500 births – making it more common than childhood diabetes. A few months after C.J. found Barbie, I found the following quote: “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.” I want my son to live a life. I have to let him go the way his blood beats.
Gather a stellar supporting cast. Like any family raising a child with special or unique needs, you’ll benefit from help. We’d be lost without our family, friends, pediatrician, therapist and child advocate. Children like C.J. have the highest rate of suicide attempts in the world and are much more likely to suffer from major depressions, substance abuse and unsafe sexual behaviors. To raise a healthy gender nonconforming child, it’s going to take more than one or two people.
Don’t forget the siblings. Diane Ehrensaft recently said, “It takes a family to launch a gender nonconforming child, but that’s not necessarily what a sibling wants to do or how they want to spend their time. Are we asking siblings to step outside their comfort zone and/or do too much?” Siblings have their own anxieties, confusions and vulnerabilities. They need empathy and support, too.
Know your child’s rights at school and know that their siblings are a protected as well. We always expected that C.J. would be bullied and teased for his gender nonconformity, but we didn’t anticipate that his older brother would have to endure it first. The Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program has a wealth of information, as does Gender Spectrum. Get yourself really familiar with Title IX and your state’s safe school laws.
Show your child examples of other kids like him. We are lucky enough to be a part of a gender nonconforming playgroup. Every month or so, my son gets to play with a group of boys just like him. Not everyone is that lucky. Before we had our playgroup, we read lots of books about kids who are gender nonconforming or different from the norms of society. Our favorites are The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, A Fire Engine for Ruthie and anything else by Leslea Newman. We also love My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson. Todd Parr books are great, too.
Enjoy the path less traveled. You’re not weird, you’re different and if everybody were the same this world would be a very boring place. Paint nails, braid hair, tap dance, smile big. We watch everybody stressing out to keep up with the Joneses as our son sketches a dress he wants to sew for himself. Then he takes a bath with strawberry scented soap and spritzes himself with raspberry-vanilla body spray before putting on his nightgown.
Diane Ehrensaft has said, “Gender creative children are blessed with the ability to hold on to the concept — that we all had one time in our lives — that we were free to be anything we wanted – boy, girl, maybe both.”
Or son continues to hold on to the concept and he has retaught it to us as well.