LTH is principally an evangelistic ministry. In the process, however, we end up offering hundreds of hours in free counseling to parents who have homosexual loved ones. We view our pastoral care or counseling role through an evangelistic lens: that is, ultimately, we believe that good counsel should equip parents to relationally nurture their loved ones for the sake of Christ’s love for their children.
I want to start by presenting one of the most common questions I get asked:
How do I raise my child to have healthy gender identity?
Many people will read this question to mean: How can I prevent homosexuality in my child? In light of this, I need to expand our vision before we dive further into this important topic. Healthy gender (or personal) identity certainly includes sexual orientation but a more holistic view of healthy identity would also cover a child’s capacity to:
- develop strong bonds of camaraderie with same-sex peers.
- respect elders and those in authority.
- seek guidance from healthy mentors.
- honor the dignity, value and unique contributions of the opposite sex.
- possess a well-rounded sense of self – who am I?
- pursue paths that lead to God’s purposes – why am I here?
- relate well to God and others.
For those in the LGBT+ Community who might be uncomfortable with this series, I want to say clearly that I am not attempting to share some ‘formula’ for preventing homosexuality. I am speaking to parents who wish to be the best mother and father they can be to their children, so that their children will have holistic health in their entire sense of personal identity.
With these clarifications, I want to begin presenting Three Tools that parents can use to work toward building healthy gender or personal identity in their children. The Three Tools are: Awareness, Assessment and Intervention.
Awareness is the tool by which parents of children become cognizant of ‘unconscious’ signals that our children are sending us. When my son asks me to tuck him in and says, “Dad, please don’t go back to your computer,” I don’t simply listen to his statement. I become aware that some internal – and often unconscious – driver is motivating him to express a need, a fear or a doubt. He’s saying in effect, “Dad, you always work.” Or “Dad, you say you’ll tuck me in but I don’t really believe you will.” I can either lay down the law that Dads must provide for their families and go about my busyness. Or, I can become aware. When my child speaks from the fears and the doubts of his heart, I either make adjustments to minister to those fears and doubts…or else I overlook his needs because of my mission in life. The former choice can bring healing; the latter produces great distrust.
Awareness necessarily requires Physical Presence. If I am not even present to hear my son say, “Dad never tucks me in,” then I miss these signals altogether. Even if my wife tells me over the phone in my absence, “Your son said tonight that you never tuck him in,” I still miss the signal. I miss it because second-hand reports are never as effective as direct reports. There is always a loss in translation or significance of the message. If I am far away from home, other priorities pull at me to lure me away from truly hearing this signal from my child’s heart. The end result is that parents simply must be Physically Present in order to exercise Awareness.
The problem we often come across is parents who think, Oh well, I know it’s important. But I do have to provide for my family. I’ll devote more time at home once my children get to be teenagers when they most need me to be there. This is deception. First, if you won’t be present today, there is absolutely no assurance that you will have a change of heart later on. Second, if you ever do decide to be present when your children are older, you’re going to come home at the season of life when your children are figuratively heading out the door. You may want their presence, but they may no longer want yours. They gave up long ago.
The reverse problem is parents who think, Well, I’ve been present in their lives since they were babies. Now that they are middle school, they don’t need me as much. This too is deception. Our children need our physical presence from the time they are born until the day they leave home. Our parenting role never ceases even after they leave home, but our physical presence during their years at home are very critical.
Why is it critical? It’s critical because both Mom and Dad play significant roles in calling or drawing or enabling their children into progressive stages of gender or personal identity development. If Mom or Dad are absent, this process does not just magically happen. Some kind of development WILL happen – their hunger to grow WILL consume some kind of energy (input) and later produce some kind of energy (output). The question is: will this development be healthy or unhealthy? Without Mom and Dad playing their roles, the risk of this development being unhealthy rises substantially.
There will be many clarifications throughout this series. At this point, I need to briefly say that single parents will struggle. Mom or Dad alone can do the job of raising healthy children, but it is difficult. “Substitutes” such as teachers, coaches, uncles, aunts, siblings or other significant and safe role models or mentors can fill any void that might exist. Finding safe and available substitutes to assist you can be a very challenging task. You need a local church and fellowship group that is willing to wrap around your family to help you – and this can be hard to find.
Notwithstanding this clarification, it must be stated that nothing is more effective than the physical presence of a child’s own mother and father to draw them into healthy gender or personal identity. Why? It’s simple. Humans crave attention – we not only need our parents to look at us face-to-face and listen to us; we also need mothers and fathers who affectionately touch us. Physical touch is critical in affirming identity in our children and we simply cannot offer this kind of affirmation if we are not Physically Present.
The second part of Awareness is Emotional Presence. Parents might be physically present but emotionally absent. If a parent is emotionally unavailable, there often forms a cavern between parent and child that deepens and widens as the years pass. This cavern prevents children from hearing the call into a healthy sense of personal identity.
If Mom – or more commonly Dad – is distant, escaping or otherwise unequipped to deal with emotions, this is a major danger sign. If Dad, for example, cannot relate to the present because his mind is addicted to sexual fantasy or pornography or gambling or work or substances, these addictions rob his ability to relate well emotionally with his children. The physical presence will not only fail to draw his child into healthy development; his presence can actually squash such development.
Another clarification is needed: fathers, in particular, tend to know when they are failing to be the father God calls them to be. Further, fathers tend to not handle this failure well. They tend to sense ‘shame and blame’ and they generally run from this sense of blame. They run because the pain is too great to face. In running away, they further withdraw from their families. Speaking from exposure to many men (including myself!), I have noticed that men can be quite weak when it comes to confronting difficult family relational challenges. Some men get convinced their children will be more healthy if they simply leave; and many do literally ‘run away.’ This is deception. Your children don’t need you to leave; they need you to get help for your addictions or personal brokenness so that you can be a better father. To leave is NEVER the right answer Dad. Your families need you. Children are quite resilient when they see their parents trying to get better. Dads, your children need you present…physically and emotionally.
The third part of Awareness is Verbal Affirmation. Parents might be physically and emotionally present but their emotional expression can tear down instead of build up. The voice of an earthly father or mother echoes the voice of our Heavenly Father. If that voice is abusive or condemning or never satisfied, there is a sizable risk that some form of damage will come to rest at the core of your child’s gender or personal identity.
This does not mean that your child will develop a homosexual orientation. I said at the outset of this series that we are not establishing a ‘formula’ to prevent homosexuality but rather a plan to build healthy personal identity in our children. It is myopic to view identity solely as sexual orientation and yet this narrow view is quite common. The reality is that voices that abuse, condemn or tear down reflect the parents own brokenness; this ‘brokenness’ that we deposit into the hearts and developing lives of our children often later manifests itself in numerous destructive ways: unhealthy self-image, self-destructive choices, self-inflicted violence, violence towards others, codependency, promiscuity, sexual immorality, alcoholism, addiction, perfectionism, rebellion against authority, and impaired definitions of male and female.
Clearly all of us have hints of the above forms of personal brokenness; none of us escape the condition called sin nature. Even children raised in the best of circumstances can internally develop these various forms of brokenness. Despite this, our goal is doing our part as parents to raise our children to be healthy. With that in mind, let us continue.
I’ve focused a lot on fathers and for good reason: they have a unique God-given ability to call or draw out gender identity development in children of both sexes. Yet Mom is critical as well: she plays a distinct role in this process. For her daughter, this role is a passive one – it occurs naturally where there is not abuse. For her son, it too occurs naturally but Mom can interfere if she seeks to hold onto her sons instead of allowing them to be ‘boys.’
Many (not all) boys need to explore, roam, and tackle exciting challenges that Mom may view as dangerous. By no means do I suggest that boys should be allowed to stand on ledges and climb off the sides of mountains without help, but there is an ‘everyday’ way in which many boys need the flexibility to move beyond the comfort zone of their mothers. Moms commonly intervene and stop such endeavors. I’ve seen this done and it can literally squash a boy’s exploration of his identity. Thus, mothers need to exercise what I call ‘masculine latitude.’ Masculine latitude is allowing boys a little flexibility to enter the world of exploration. Caution can and should still be exercised, but the key point is that mothers convey to their sons that their boys have ‘got what it takes’ to become a man. Moms should remember that the damage caused by over-protection will not be visible until later in a boy’s development.
A second aspect of over-protection is not really protection at all, but abuse. This is when a mother actually uses her developing son as a primary source of emotional support. If a boy is challenged to be something for his mother that he was not designed to be, the internal gears of his identity can become stripped. He can lose a sense of who God made him to be as he feels forced to work against his design to meet the emotional needs of Mom. Moms should not write off this concern too casually just because her son seems to enjoy her closeness; she must protect this boundary – for a child is unable to know where the healthy boundary lies. I meet many adult men who are not homosexually oriented; yet they desperately struggle with codependency and the root of that struggle can often be traced back to an over-protective and emotionally demanding mother.
For boys, a Dad needs to ensure his presence is adequate while a Mom needs to ensure that her presence is not repressive or overly emotionally demanding. For girls, a Dad needs to ensure that his presence conveys safety while a Mom needs to show her daughter how to be emotionally dependent in a way that is not codependent or otherwise unhealthy. Deviations – by fathers and mothers – from the path toward healthy gender expression can distort a child’s sense of self-identity and damage their impressions of what it means to be male or female.
In Part 2, we’ll look at the second tool – Assessment. I hope you’ll join me.
SPECIAL NOTE: Check out my series on Brokenness to explore our human brokenness as well as positive paths towards enhancing personal health and identity in the community of faith.