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. The second tool was Assessment, which equips us to measure the ‘energy’ flowing out of our children’s identity development. In Part 3, I will describe the third tool called Intervention. I highly recommend that you read Parts 1-2 first. The Three Tools are best understood when looked at sequentially.
The third tool is Intervention, which is employed after we become aware of specific concerns and assess that additional action is needed. First, it must be noted that intervention is not always required. Indeed, we should always look for casual alternatives to the more invasive act of intervention. Casual alternatives, while less invasive, are nonetheless still considered an intervention technique. So let’s get started and I think the best way to do that is simply to illustrate a range of scenarios.
For the 3-year old boy who says he wishes he could be a girl, this is an age-appropriate expression of cross-gender curiosity that has nothing to do with gender identity confusion: rather, it is part of gender identity certainty. It is by asking questions and making these kinds of statements that a young boy or girl comes to discover the difference between the genders and where he or she fits in. Dad can simply say, “Son, I think you wish you could be a girl because girls are wonderful. But you know what? God made you a boy and He made boys wonderful too! And son, you will always be a boy just like Daddy.”
For the 5-year old girl who says she one day wants to have a boy pee-pee, the same type of gentle and affirming response is in order. This is not so much an intervention as it is a guidance of our daughters toward the permanent and wonderful reality that God made them girls and they will be girls forever – and that’s a great thing.
For the 4-year old boy who dresses up in his sister’s princess outfit, the form of action you take in getting him out of the dress can be casual and humorous. It is not a concern that a boy will do this – in fact, he will often do this to irritate his sister! He may also do it to play the comic. It is not critical that you immediately intervene – it’s OK to let the funny game play itself out as long as the ‘funny game’ does indeed play itself out. I offer this with a humorous smile: I always keep a Tom Brady jersey around for my son so that he has an option when his sister and her friends dress up as princesses.
The point is not that there is only one right answer to every situation or every child; the real point is that we need a ‘method’ of intervening that will not harm our child’s natural curiosity and their progressive gender identity development. For one child, the rejection of not being able to participate may cause his curiosity in girl’s clothing to dramatically increase. For another, allowing him to dress up and get embarrassed may damage his soul as he feels internal shame that he has violated – or been allowed to violate – an internal boundary. Sensitivity to each child’s makeup is critical in order to know how to effectively respond.
The issue is not to have zero mistakes in intervention – the issue is learning from mistakes and adjusting your response to the needs of each of your children. I fully recognize that sometimes we will make our children uncomfortable as we seek to reinforce boundaries that we simply cannot compromise on. That’s reality. But we can still seek to build our children back up with assurance and unconditional love in the midst of intervening.
Intervention is simple – at times, things just need to be allowed to play out. At other times, a more intentional intervention is necessary. At such times, you do it. You don’t ignore the repeated red flags hoping they will magically go away. If children are young, by all means rest in believing that questionable issues will very likely go away. But if they keep resurfacing, intervention must be done…not to punish, but to gently correct, guide, nourish and affirm a more healthy direction.
I must make an additional clarification at this point: If Daddy is abusive or neglectful or absent, it won’t matter what intervention method he employs – what Daddy says and does will only further create the barriers between father and son because the son knows (at some deep level) that being a man is a painful role. He may well go to extremes to reject the role of man that his father models. Unfortunately, this can take a son (or daughter) down many unhealthy roads of gender expression. Parents who abuse destroy their children. The abuse must stop…
Healthy intervention can increase a child’s security as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ as appropriate boundaries are lovingly reinforced and as he or she is protected from crossing inappropriate boundaries. This is true for discipline in general. As children grow older, the issues become more complex.
For the 10-year old boy who refuses to engage with other boys but spends exorbitant time with girls, this is a concern that requires serious assessment and likely some kind of intervention. Yet again, the method of intervention is critical. I know one adult man who still remembers the shame he felt when his parents sat him down at age 9 and coldly told him he can no longer play with girls at school. They instructed his teachers to block his path toward girls. Instead of protecting him, he was left feeling shamed, rejected and further isolated from his father. The fact that his father was rarely home only exacerbated the conflict between this boy and his father. Seeds of rebellion took root: but the rebellion was likely much more against a father who was not present than about the intervention itself. I prefer that Dad takes a more proactive role in casually drawing his son out into the ‘boys world’ instead of making demands that shame.
For the 14-year old girl who despises the emotionality of girls, there is reason to be concerned. Yet the real question is this: why does she despise the emotionality of girls? If she has not been able to adequately integrate with other girls due to her parents simply failing to draw her out into that world and affirm her in that world, then minor adjustments can be very helpful.
However, she cannot be held responsible if the atmosphere she has grown up in has affirmed in her that ‘mothers’ (women) get walked all over or abused, and that ‘fathers’ (men) are manipulative or abusive or live out their addictions in ways that tear families to pieces. The intervention she needs is a mother or father who intervene by pursuing healing from ‘their’ own brokenness. If parents are the problem, then parents need to get help…starting today.
Yet in some families, mothers and fathers are not willing to get such help. In that case, there is no help for this helpless child: she will go about developing her own version of being female and it is likely to be based in her personal pain, warped by abuse and thus emerge quite unhealthily. This child needs someone to positively intervene in her life. If the abuse is obvious, she needs someone who will help her family obtain much needed outside assistance.
If, however, the abuse is denied, then this girl needs anyone who is naturally positioned near her – teachers, neighbors, other relatives – to speak into her life as the still, small voice of God. She needs others to see the tremendously valuable person that God made her to be. She needs others to affirm every gift, talent and beautiful characteristic flowing out of her life. She needs others to extend to her unconditional love and acceptance…no matter what externals we might be concerned about! Body cutting, tongue ring, spiked red hair, seductive dress – all these externals must be overlooked and ministered into by looking her right in the eye with a smile and affirming that you see her as a beautiful, whole person made in the image of God.
I would like to say much more but I must move on. I will say that if you need additional advice about a particular circumstance not addressed in this series, you are free to call me toll-free at (877) 683-6867.
For children between the ages of 8-16 (I use a wider range than many counselors only in an attempt to be conservative in recognizing that different children mature at different rates and ages), it is critical that Mom and Dad (and particularly Dad) play an intentional role in drawing out their child’s calling or life purpose. As the child grows, this becomes the path by which parents ‘hand off’ their dependent child into the hands of God as they approach independence.
This ‘hand off’ is not a ‘throw off.’ Rather, it a long-term, gentle, progressive ‘hand off’ as a mentor would work very intimately with the one who will one day assume his more advanced role or take on his more sophisticated responsibility. If teens are not affirmed in their calling, they will miss an important ingredient in healthy gender or personal identity development. To avoid confusion, affirming a child’s calling is not determining their calling but walking beside them in a supportive role as they explore what their calling might be.
I don’t want to suggest that a parent’s authority disappears completely right when a child turns 18, but the reality is that a parent at this age has no further legal authority. Technically, our adult children can now do whatever they determine to do. Thus, our goal is to slowly yet progressively transition from an authority parental model to one of influence as our teens approach the legal age of independence. This requires letting go progressively and allowing our children to make mistakes. We want to earn the right to influence their lives by making this transition for our children as smooth as possible. If they see us aligned against them, they will run from us and refuse to allow our influence in their lives. If they see us positioned for them, they will more than likely seek out our help and accept our influence in their lives.
At some point, however, for better or worse, we have to come to the place where we recognize that the days of discipline have passed. We can no longer keep correcting or prodding them or else we’ll propel them away from us and God. If our children are determined to be ‘prodigals’ (as many of our children will be), then we must switch from the authority and influence parental models to a third model: the prodigal father model.
The prodigal father model recognizes that our child is now an adult. He recognizes that the days of discipline are over. He recognizes that some prodigals must wander – and for some, they must wander far from home. The prodigal father knows that he is powerless to rescue or protect or intervene or change his child – he knows his child is now fully in the hands of God. He knows that the only seeds he can deposit at this stage are the seeds of the Gospel – he must treat his son like the lost soul that needs rescue. Yet he knows he can not rescue his son or short-circuit his son’s prodigal journey. So he adapts a long-term vision of the day when his son (or daughter) will one day return home to the heart of God. He invests in his child’s future return. He lets his child go (without turning them away!) and extends nothing but MERCY at every step of his child’s rebellion. (Luke 15) Mercy becomes the ONLY option; the ONLY seed that will one-day enable his child to move toward repentance (Romans 2:1-4).
My point is that intervention looks different for every child and different for different seasons of life for the same child. Intervention can be quite overt when children are young. As they grow, it must become increasingly covert. By the time they are legal adults, our interventions must progressively cease as we come to recognize that they are now adults. That said, I must add that MERCY is a form of intervention that we can use for our prodigal children. But the reality is this: once they are on their own, they are on their own. Whatever they have become by this point, that is who they are. We cannot easily change the adult child with poor gender or personal identity into one who has healthy identity. It’s just too complex. Our adult children will have to want that greater health for themselves – we can gently encourage them in that direction and faithfully work to help them; but if they don’t want help, we cannot force it upon them.
In this necessary surrendering of control, however, the most common mistake parents make is depositing seeds of anger, frustration or condemnation in response to their child’s rejection of their authority or influence. Many parents read how they should ‘turn over their children’ in the Bible; they read into the Bible angry emotions that accompany this ‘turning over.’ They think they need to express anger and push their child out (turn them over to Satan) so that their children will one day return in repentance.
It must be noted that we often apply this model quite unevenly; this makes this particular option quite ineffective. I refer readers to my series titled Kindness to look at the problems with this model of discipline in more detail. Further, I encourage such parents to read Luke 15 in order to discover how Jesus reveals our Heavenly Father’s response to all of our prodigal ways. He offers us, unconditionally, HIS great mercy at every stage of our rebellion against Him. We can learn much from this Prodigal Father who offers us extravagant mercy. He is the One who wastes His mercy on sinners like you and me – all because of His great love for us. This might just be the exact kind of intervention that our adult prodigals need from us…
Join me in Part 4 as I close this series with a few last thoughts.