In Part 1, we introduced the idea of Three Tools that help us grow healthy gender or personal identity in our children. The first tool was Awareness, which requires that we be physically and emotionally present in the lives of our children in ways that are healthy. In Part 2, I will describe the second tool called Assessment. I highly recommend that you read Part 1 first. These Three Tools are understood better if looked at sequentially.
Assuming that a parent is present in their children’s lives in healthy ways, the next tool is to assess the ‘energy’ flowing out of your child. I said in Part 1 that ‘energy’ (or inputs) will flow into our children and that ‘energy’ (or outputs) will later flow out of our children. I am not going New Age on you (smile). I am simply stating a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual fact – everything that we ‘input’ into our children’s development has an impact on the ‘outputs’ that flow out of them later on. This should not be misinterpreted to be some ‘formula’ for preventing our children from going down self-destructive paths later on; we all have the free will to go down any path we want no matter how good (or bad) our parents were. But as parents, we are called to take this process of raising healthy children quite seriously. That is our goal.
The Assessment tool has nothing to be with being paranoid about having a homosexual child or obsessively trying to prevent homosexuality from ‘striking’ our family. This tool helps parents to guide their children’s gender or personal identity development in gentle, affirming, nourishing and progressive ways. We as parents already ‘assess’ our children’s development every day: their academic progress, their heart attitude, their obedience, their sense of honesty, etc. Thus, the Assessment tool is a tool we already possess: we simply expand the use of this tool to measure or discern the ‘energy’ flowing out of our child’s identity development.
What are we trying to Assess? Our goal is to assess or discern how our children are developing in regards to their gender or personal identity. While the ‘energy’ we measure is ultimately endless, there are several categories of issues that we need to watch out for. I will start off addressing the most obvious concern: cross-gender interests. This is when a child expresses curiosity about or participates in activities that are clearly associated with the opposite sex.
Probably every little girl asks at some point, “When I grow up, will I be a boy?” Or “Will I get a boy pee-pee when I’m a big girl?” Likewise, little boys with older sisters will tend to mimic them by putting on makeup or playing with dolls. The child’s curiosity is almost always circumstantial and not indicative of an underlying gender confusion.
Parents should not overreact to circumstantial curiosity and should avoid shaming children for such exploration. Shaming a young child for exploration can form a root of embarrassment or anger that maps a path toward rebellion or increased cross-gender curiosity. That said, assessing whether such curiosity is temporary and age-appropriate is important. It is also important to measure your child’s response to the casual offering of alternatives.
There is no hard and fast rule in terms of what is age-appropriate but let me just say that I am unconcerned about cross-gender questioning or curiosity up to age 5. If cross-gender exploration persists after age 5, I would begin to assess these occurrences more seriously. I would not panic by any means and I would never shame. But a more forthright offering of alternatives or guidance toward alternatives is suggested. Parents must know their own children – the reality is that every child is different.
It is important to note that sensitivity or artistic talent should NOT be classified as cross-gender behavior. Some parents think they have to fix their son’s artistic talent – this is error. I am going to save addressing this in detail for later in this series but I cannot let this moment pass without making this point clear: many parents damage their children’s gender or personal identity development when they criticize or reject the way God has gifted them.
The second concern that we want to watch for is same-gender rejection. Boys who after age 6 or 7 persist in playing with girls and living in a ‘girls world’ may, for whatever reason, be withdrawing from interaction with boys in favor of girlish interests. Once again, I am not speaking of a boy’s artistic talent or dance interest or cooking hobby. I am not speaking of a girl’s interest in sports or her brother’s dump truck. It is not so much the activity as it is with whom he or she does the activity.
Boys and girls who withdraw from their same-sex peers can miss out on a natural part of their gender or personal identity development. When they later try to connect with same-sex peers, they can perceive that they are somehow ‘outside the box’ of a boys’ or girls’ world. Thus, we want to protect children from experiencing this later rejection (or perceived rejection) that can harm the formation of their gender-specific identity. We do this by ensuring that they are assimilating with their same-sex peers in a healthy manner while they are young.
Boys with only sisters who are older than they are may necessarily be more involved in a ‘girls world’ when they are young. This is not concerning – for many families, it is necessary because of the social relationships that have formed around older siblings. Despite this, it is important to do what is possible to get younger sons integrated into social networks where they can grow with other boys.
Every so often, I have to make a clarification and I need to make another one here. Families who homeschool their children often make that decision to protect their children from exposure to viewpoints outside of Christianity. They think that in doing so that their children will be protected from homosexuality in particular. Yet that presumes that homosexuality is some non-Christian spiritual disease: this simply is not true. Homeschool families who do not integrate their sons into the world of boys will risk having sons who experience an internal sense of rejection around other male peers later on. This can damage a boy’s identity. Once again, I am not speaking exclusively of homosexual orientation. We need to get beyond thinking of gender identity as solely an issue of homosexuality or heterosexuality.
The third concern is defensive detachment often associated with the same-sex parent. Children who are verbally condemned or abused (any kind of abuse) may detach particularly from the same-sex parent in an attempt to protect themselves. If we as parents have an anger problem or consistently yell or demean our children in moments of frustration and impatience when disciplining and teaching our children, there is a risk that some form of detachment will occur as the child seeks to protect him or herself. This can occur due to destructive episodes of abuse, explosive moments of anger, or in as benign moments as being impatient with our child’s learning style.
In other words, this detachment does not just occur in cases of hot anger or abuse – it can occur with a simple, “Come on son, don’t you get it by now.” Keep in what that it is not just what you do or do not do – it is your child’s perception of their interaction with you that will drive how they process who you are to them. So when you assess, it is not only your actions or inaction but you must get inside your child’s heart and mind to understand their perception of the matter.
At this point, I will share an unpleasant illustration of my own making. Our family returned from Haiti last summer and we were in our third of six weekly doses of malaria medication. Our daughter refused to take her dose. We tried every possible creative solution we could think of. We tried everything! Instead of letting this moment pass and sneaking the medicine into her breakfast the next morning, the tension built as we imagined the worst case scenario of what would happen if she did not get that dose in her system ‘that night.’ So for hours, we pressured and prodded her. We so upset our daughter with our attempts to get her to take her medicine that she finally threw up all over the kitchen floor from holding in all her anxiety over this situation.
When this happened, I broke down and wept a pile of tears as I realized I had exasperated my little girl. On the one hand, out of my concern for her health. But more practically, out of my need for control and fear of deviating from the ‘exact’ instructions on the prescription. In other words, I could have let the situation cool down instead of letting it stay so frazzled until her belly became so upset that she was throwing up. I held her in that pile of vomit and just wept and kept apologizing to her and telling her that I love her.
This is my point: I dare not let that moment pass and play like it is history. I want to understand what impact that had on her. Every so often, I will say, “Honey, remember when Daddy was so mad at you about the malaria medication until you threw up? Well, I want you to know that I have not forgotten about it either sweetheart. Daddy sinned. And I cry when I think about how upset you were that night. I love you very much.” Children do not need us to be perfect – but our willingness to talk about how we have sinned against them will help them to process their ability to forgive and mature instead of allowing seeds of confusion, anger and rebellion to take root. These destructive seeds often play the devastating role of inviting our children to defensively detach from us in order to self-protect.
The fourth concern is internalization. The opposite of defensively detaching to self-protect is to internalize verbal or other forms of abuse, neglect or condemnation into ones’ psyche. In this case, children believe the lie that they are not worthy; that they deserve to be condemned; that they deserved the abuse; or that they were a willing participant in their own sexual abuse. In less severe cases, this is a child who ‘perceives’ voices that say in so many words that he or she does not have what it takes to do well in school or sports. Or this is a child who ‘perceives’ voices that say that they are no good. The role of parents is to assess if their child is ‘perceiving’ any of these damaging voices: such voices may come from outside the family – from peers or teachers or others. If your child starts to believe the lie that they are unworthy or don’t have what it takes to do well in life, this can damage their sense of well being as well as their identity development.
The fifth concern is self-pity. If we invite our children or allow them to venture into the place where they enter into self-pity, children can develop very serious problems in their identity development. Moms who baby their sons after a certain age invite their sons to enter into self-pity. Moms play a critical role in verbally and emotionally affirming their sons but over-pampering them or relying upon them to compensate for emotional emptiness can damage a son’s sense of masculine self. The same situation can occur with our daughters.
The final concern is in regard to overt activities. If your pre-teen or teenage children are exposed to the following areas, there is reason to be concerned about their identity development: isolation from same-sex peers, unprotected access to the internet, unmonitored use of instant and text messaging, active use of pornography, or sexual activity. Clearly, there are degrees of privacy that must be extended as our children approach adulthood – I am not suggesting we over-control and over-monitor their private affairs. I am suggesting that we create the physical presence in their lives to such a degree that we reasonably know who our children are and what they are involved in. We cannot know everything: we aim only to get close enough to adequately assess their development.
The first tool is Awareness. The second tool is Assessment. In Part 3, I will cover the third tool: Intervention. Please join me as we continue this series on raising children with healthy identity.
SPECIAL NOTE: This series is not intended to prescribe a formula for preventing homosexuality. That is often what parents mean when we speak of gender identity. I hope this series expands your view of ‘identity’ to a more holistic picture of your child’s entire self-image.