Part of what I love about this time of year is going through photo albums. Looking back at family pictures sheds light on who we were, also giving context for who we’ve always been.
Pictures bear witness to difficult times and perfect moments equally. They tell our stories before we have the vocabulary to share them ourselves.
Seeing your child for who they truly are can mean facing some uncomfortable truths. Truths about you, about the world, about the person you envisioned this amazing kiddo would become.
More importantly, seeing kiddos as themselves means holding their agency higher than your authority. Giving them space for self-expression, even when it seems like they’re straying from a “boy/girl” gender norm.
What the hell does that even mean? Glad you asked, follow me.
As parents, we spend too much time talking to kids and not enough listening. Quieting our minds and genuinely hearing what they share. To be fair, it’s challenging– kids are not the most efficient communicators. They defy the laws of conversational physics. It’s rarely a linear, cohesive story-line. I’ve spent 15 minutes just getting to the end (or what I thought was the end) of a story about an elevator ride. Seriously. You’re not alone in this.
After a while the brain skips ahead to “oh, I know where they’re going with this” and bounds to a conclusion. Our adulty know-it-all expertise prevents us from relating to their perspective and experience of the world.
When your daughter exclaims she’s going to be “Buzz Lightyear” for costume day at school, the immediate response could be a redirection, reminding her that Buzz Lightyear is a boy. If your son rushes over to a pair of sparkly pink shoes at the mall, cautioning him about ‘girl colors’ could fly out before he even gets to the box. It’s a knee-jerk reaction from an adult brain, that is shutting down their creativity and spark.
Sometimes it has to do with the child’s innate sense of gender, but not always. Kids are drawn to colors, activities, clothes that elicit feelings. As adults, we attach our lifetime experiences to each choice they make. In an instant, we evaluate the long and short-term implications of everything kids do. Choosing soccer over piano practice can have parents hitting fast-forward 20 years to an imaginary future. We limit our own child’s potential based on a world that pre-dates them.
While your adult brain is desperately seeking patterns that establish a “why”, their kiddo brain is focused exclusively on experiencing the world as Buzz Lightyear and having sparkle shoes.
The point is that they likely aren’t confused; kid’s motivations are typically clear. Buzz Lightyear is cool, I want to be Buzz Lightyear. It’s the adults who were observing this exchange who were confused. They need to assign a label and meaning to what fell outside of the expected. The conflict occurs when a child’s expressions don’t align with adult expectations around gender-based behaviors.
Redirection from adults comes with additional baggage for kids: shame. When teasing and ridicule are used to control behavior, the result is a deeply rooted sense of shame.
Here’s the thing about shame: it’s cumulative. It doesn’t somehow inoculate your kids from being ridiculed by imaginary future strangers. Shame taps into a deep human need to be accepted, especially by their primary caregivers. Shame builds upon itself and is given more, not less, credibility when grounded in the family.
Shame tells kids to hide themselves. To dim their light and build a façade that matches your expectation. That façade becomes the closet from which they’ll eventually have to come out. Your language becomes their internal dialogue. It’s the tiny voice they’ll hear whenever taking a risk, being creative, or putting themselves out into the world.
So, the next time your daughter wants to be a super butch character from ‘The Dark Knight” or wear “boy’s” underwear, resist the urge to stop them. Or worse, shame them.
Take a step back and examine why it bothers you. Because, let me tell you, boy’s underwear is way more comfortable. Bonus, they also come with badass superhero designs. If your son loves glitter and wants to be a ballerina, make sure they are the best-supported dancer in their class. This is their life and experience, it’s your job to enthusiastically show up for them.
And pink sparkle shoes? Those are like a giant high-five for your feet. Seriously, try it out sometime.
Let kids be complicated. And contradictory. And made from every possibility on the palette.
Originally published at goodmenproject.com on November 20, 2018.