Article Jul 9, 2018

What do I do if my child doesn’t seem to fit with typical gender norms?

In a 2014 blog post titled “Let Kids Be Kids Instead of Sexualized Little Adults,”[1] writer Amy Julia Becker raised concerns about a YouTube video that tells the story of a child named Ryland. Ryland “transitioned” from female to male at age six. The seven-minute video, which had been viewed more than seven million times at the time of writing,[2] shows a cute little girl with attentive parents talking about herself as a boy. Ryland wants to wear a tie and sees herself as a big brother to her little sister. When her manner and these preferences stay the same for years, her parents decide this is more than a phase. Experts told them that children know their “true gender” by age five. So, the parents begin to support Ryland’s transition to a boy by cutting her hair short, using male pronouns, and supporting her desire to dress in boy clothes.

The Bible teaches us that our given gender identity is the identity that corresponds with our biological sex. Because God made mankind male and female, a man or woman’s gender is—in this sense—fixed (Gen. 1:27). It cannot become whatever we want it to be, because our gender is a part of our personhood. Being a man or a woman is a gift we receive from God.

While affirming this truth, it needs to be nuanced. It’s important to affirm ways in which gender expression is fluid and relational—even in the Bible. Think, for instance, about the two patriarch brothers, Jacob and Esau. They were both men. But Jacob imaged forth God’s orderly rule in the kitchen—he made a legendary lentil stew. Esau, on the other hand, expressed his masculinity as a hunter (Gen. 25:24-28). They were really different sons. And it’s not just Jacob and Esau. There are a range of ways masculinity and femininity are expressed across relationships and cultures today as well. In Scotland, for instance, a kilt is a cultural expression of masculinity. In the States, wearing one might seem more appropriate for a school girl.[3] Gender doesn’t emerge identically across all times and cultures.

So, on the one hand, our gender is given (Gen. 1). And, on the other hand, the particular expression it takes varies culturally and relationally. According to the American Psychological Association, the term gender refers to the “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.”[4] The APA’s definition captures well the personal and relational ways each person’s gender identity is expressed. In Genesis 2, the man and woman expressed their gender identity in the context of their relationship. And, since that time, gender has always taken a cultural shape.

What does this tell us about Ryland? Ryland’s parents and the experts who advised them made early assumptions about Ryland’s adult gender identification. It is true that kids begin to form their gender understanding early, but the process by which this happens is not well understood.[5] Children don’t typically need to be taught purposefully about their gender. They absorb this knowledge from the normal course of family life and their larger social environment. While a strong sense of gender identity is common by preschool, it can change, like any matter of self-perception, as children move into puberty and then adulthood. Becker relates anecdotes of other children, including her sister, who acted like the opposite sex as a kid but ultimately emerged with the typically masculine or feminine traits corresponding with their biological sex. She concludes,

When little girls want to dress and play like boys, when little boys want to dress and play like girls, it's too early to indicate their gender identity. Some of them will go on—in puberty and beyond—to want to change their biological sex. Some of them will go on to identify as gay or lesbian. But many of them—perhaps most of them—will simply grow up into the gender in accord with their biological sex.[6]

Jumping to conclusions about a child’s future gender identity based on their childhood interests fails to see children as who they are—kids, who still have a lot of growing up to do.

But simply knowing kids are kids doesn’t keep us from worrying, does it? What if your daughter is into boxing and will have nothing to do with ribbons and dolls? What if your boy cares nothing for sports but instead is interested in fashion and dance? Should you be concerned if your child loses interest in the toys and activities typical for their sex? Should you be worried that your children are on the road to a destabilized gender identity or that they’ll want to transition to the opposite gender?

God always chooses broken people who need him. He meets us in our discord, and he works out his glorious purposes.

A certain degree of anxiety about our kids is understandable. A very feminine mom can struggle to relate to her tomboy daughter. And if dad is a man’s man who loves to hunt, it can be hard to accept a sensitive son who prefers the kitchen to the woods (Just ask Isaac!). The biblical view is that our masculine or feminine gender identities are not established by our cultural gender expression but are rooted in God’s design. Sadly, our tendency—both within the church and in society at large—is to connect gender identity to rigid stereotypes. We think girls must wear pink and play with dolls while boys wear blue and play sports. Andrew T. Walker thinks this is a particular danger in our day:

Perhaps this is tempting for Christians in this generation, where, for the first time in history, questions of gender identity and a celebration of those seeking to change gender have moved into the mainstream. In our quest to stay true to God’s calling, it is possible to play to extreme stereotypes in such a way as to bring confusion . . . [But a] man who cooks or a woman who likes watching football is not blurring inappropriate gender norms; nor is that any sort of concrete evidence that a person has gender-identity issues.[7]

If we disentangle the biblical perspective on gender from our cultural biases, then we can be set free from these assumptions and fears. Since cultural norms don’t make a boy or girl, we can support our child’s interests, even those that don’t fit gender stereotypes, and at the same time encourage a gender identity that aligns with our child’s biological sex.

So, what does it look like to encourage your child to embrace his or her God-given gender without putting too much weight on cultural norms? Here are a few pointers:

First, affirm your child’s biological sex and their corresponding gender identity.

Affirm God’s creation of your child as a unique person and affirm the gender identity that corresponds with your child’s biology. This may be in ways that fit common gender stereotypes. But it may also be in ways that do not—such as encouraging a young man who is interested in music to see a great male musician like Bach as a role model or encouraging a daughter with mathematical skill to look up to an outspoken female engineer.[8] Rigid gender norms should be avoided. They may appear to codify biblical manhood and womanhood, but, generally speaking, they do more harm than good. A father who feels shame, for example, over a son who wants to pursue cooking may invalidate his son’s legitimate desire to cultivate a real gift and ability simply because it doesn’t match with his preconceived idea about what it means to be a man. And if a child fails to live up to such inflexible and extra-biblical standards, this may create a sense of internal distance between the child and his or her gender identity.[9] Biblically speaking, seeing your child affirmed as a man or woman according to the culture’s values is not the most important thing. More important than worldly affirmation is encouraging your son or daughter to grow in confidence as the person God made them to be.

Second, give your child focused attention and appropriate affection.

In his classic book on parenting, How to Really Love Your Child, Ross Campbell wrote, “A child is the most needy person in our society, and the greatest need is love.”[10] Most parents know this intuitively, but they find it a challenge to convey their love in a way their child can receive it. Many parents only touch their children when necessity demands it, such as when helping them dress or buckle into their car seats. This is a travesty. Children need the emotional encouragement that comes from regular affection. God means for every child to be held, touched, and snuggled. As kids grow, they need wrestling, back-slapping, high fives, and physical contact from sports and games. We can help our sons and daughters grow in confidence by giving them unconditional love, eye contact, focused attention, and physical affection.

Finally, face the obstacles presented by a destabilized gender identity with grace, truth, and hope.

Sometimes preferences and desires, like Ryland’s in the YouTube video, do persist. Loving parents sometimes watch their child progress from harmless interests to deliberate, regular cross-dressing and a destabilized gender identity. Godly, Christian parents have children who experience discord and inner conflict between their gender identity and biological sex. Psychologists label this gender dysphoria.

We don’t understand much about the causes of gender dysphoria, but we do know the experience is real. It might be tempting to label a child’s feeling that he or she would feel better as the opposite gender (or no gender at all) simply as an example of wrong thinking or a lack of faith. But when a child experiences distress, anguish, and conflict about their perceived gender identity, this is usually a complex, unchosen experience. People experiencing gender dysphoria experience the feeling that their biological body is lying. And, when their experience is severe they may also experience depression and thoughts of suicide.[11]

Please don’t be dismissive with your child about their experience. Rather, show compassion and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Supporting your child by empathizing with their pain does not mean affirming gender dysphoria as natural and normal. And it does not mean supporting a “transition” or transgender identification, that is, their expressing a gender identity that does not match their genetic sex. Parents should be wary of hormonal or surgical treatments that seek to change an individual’s body and chemical balance and bring them into alignment with their perceived gender. As Nate Collins writes, “God designed personhood to be constrained and shaped by bodies, and efforts to make permanent, fundamental changes to the body are inherently traumatizing.”[12]

We know that God made men and women to live out our masculine and feminine gender identities with joy and confidence. But in a fallen world, broken bodies, broken family systems, and broken human cultures can conspire against us. Our love must not change nor shrink back. Instead, we must respond with grace, truth, and hope.

Even if an experience of gender dysphoria persists for your child’s lifetime, God remains faithful. I briefly mentioned the story of Jacob and Esau above. Have you considered that God didn’t pick the most gender stereotypical son to be the patriarch and namesake for his chosen people? Jacob wasn’t even the most obedient and faithful son. Scandalously, God chose the deceptive son who pretended to be someone he wasn’t. You see, God always chooses broken people who need him. He meets us in our discord, and he works out his glorious purposes. Because he is faithful to broken sinners like Jacob, we can faithfully love our kids as well, facing whatever obstacles may come with hope.

Notes

  1. ^ Amy Julia Becker, “Let Kids Be Kids Instead of Sexualized Little Adults”, Thin Places (July 10, 2014), accessed online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/amyjuliabecker/2014/july/let-kids-be-kids-instead-of-sexualized-little-adults.html.
  2. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAHCqnux2fk
  3. ^ Andrew T. Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (The Good Book Company, 2017), pp. 31-32.
  4. ^ “Definitions Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in APA Documents,” accessed online at http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf, p. 2.
  5. ^ Douglas Davies, Child Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, Third Edition, (Guilford Press, 2011), pp. 296-298; Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, p. 167; Stan and Brenna Jones, How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Character, (NavPress, 1993, 2007), p. 104.
  6. ^ Becker, “Let Kids Be Kids.”
  7. ^ Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, pp. 55-56.
  8. ^ Stan and Brenna Jones, How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Character, (NavPress, 1993, 2007), p. 109.
  9. ^ Nate Collins, All but Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality, (Zondervan, 2017),  pp. 218-19.
  10. ^ D. Ross Campbell, MD, How to Really Love Your Child, (David C. Cook, 1977, 2015), p. 14.
  11. ^ Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, p. 33.
  12. ^ Collins, All but Invisible, p. 220. Also see Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, pp. 33-35.
ERLC2018