Parents of queer children often say that they don’t understand their children, based on their behaviour and preferences which don’t seem to match the gender they were assigned. I started this series by exploring the inclination of parents to punish their children for being different, however, difference is also an opportunity for learning. I think parents expect to instinctively know and predict most things about their children because they are kin. This, again, is a consequence of the rigidity of family as a construct that follows a predetermined script. There is a different conversation that can be had if we open ourselves up to the idea of children as teachers. Of course, this conversation takes place completely outside of any religious or moral fallacies about what is right or wrong, natural and unnatural. That does not exist here. This is simply a conversation about learning from children who don’t conform to what parents expected.
For many, parenting styles are inherited from their parents, and punishment was a primary mechanism of teaching through negative reinforcement. The role of the parent in many people’s imagination is one of unequal power relations we’ve normalised in society, such as the boss and the worker. In that equation the boss is always guarding against the inevitable ill-discipline of the worker who will surely betray their generosity for which they must be punished. Let’s consider for a moment, what it could look like to replace punishment with inquiry.
When a child expresses something that can be interpreted as transgressing gender boundaries, if the assumption is that they don’t yet understand gender, it would then also be reasonable to conclude that they are not doing it to be transgressive. At this point alarm bells start ringing for many parents, alerting them to the presence of deviancy which is perspective informed by preconceived ideas of what is normal. This moment is an opportunity to ask your child, in a loving, curious way, why they are doing or saying what they are. Depending on the age of the child, the answers may deliver varying levels of sophistication, but guarantees to provide a wealth of insight. It is always important to approach this opportunity with the intention of being informed instead of correcting.
When a child responds that they are expressing themselves in a particular way because they like it, or it makes them happy, or it feels nice, juxtapose that with all the ideas you have of what is right and appropriate for the gender you have assigned to your child and take the opportunity to learn more, and subsequently unlearn. This can be a turning point where you turn away from your prejudices or lean further into them. This moment is where you decide to nurture the humanity of your child, as a unique being with their own embodied knowledge and preferences or train them to be an enemy to their own desires.
Devoid of all the expectations placed on you and your child, taking the time to be informed by what they need from you as a parent takes so much of the guessing work away and makes parenting a collaborative experience in which you don’t have to know everything. The consequences of such an approach are also more likely to be positive rather than negative.
I am reminded of an episode of the TV series ‘Pose’ in which the character Angel tells the story of being a young transgender girl, but still being raised as a boy, and wanting a pair of red high heel pumps for Christmas. She knew that her father wouldn’t get it for her, so she stole it from the shop, only for it to be discovered when she got home. She begged her parent to let her keep it. Her father punished her by slapping her across the face for stealing but as he says: more so for what she chose to steal. He treated her differently after that. It was there that she learnt that the real crime was being who she was – a realisation that would haunt her for the rest of her life, filtering into every decision she made.
To punish children for being different in ways that you are not able to understand only serves to instill deep insecurities in them and alienate them from you. When we don’t understand something, we should seek knowledge. Thinking of parenting as a team effort between you and your child can make for a healthy process of growth for both of you. They may be young, but at any given time, children know what they like and how they would like to be treated. Let that be your guide and take them more seriously as sources of knowledge informing you on how to be a better parent for them.