Since opening A KID LIKE JAKE on February 6th, we’ve had the great pleasure of welcoming a variety of gender and parenting experts to participate in our Sunday Symposium series. These discussions have been a rigorous, thoughtful, and informative addition to the dialogue inspired by the show. We are pleased to present here a blog response from Dr. Scott Leibowitz, Head Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Gender and Sex Development Program, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago who was a recent panelist for one of these discussions.
To learn more about our Sunday Symposiums series, visit our page for A KID LIKE JAKE.
Turning Challenges into Opportunities: Raising gender non-conforming children
by Dr. Scott Leibowitz
Head Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Gender and Sex Development Program
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
How is it that a simple thing like a child’s gender can be so polarizing? Well, the answer is that perhaps it’s less simple than we think.
Most people take for granted that our world is organized to serve two genders. For the large majority of people, their internally felt gender matches the gender that is typically associated with the anatomy that their body consists of, and experiences that segregate by two genders are rarely given a second thought. The most obvious example of this gender binary is the presence of men and women restrooms, which most of society takes for granted. In children, brains are developmentally and cognitively wired to think dichotomously, and so when it comes to gender, the binary seems to make sense. From a very young age, the world around them reinforces this, conveying messages of what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. These messages pervade the environments in which children’s brains are forming new connections: through advertising and marketing (when is the last time you saw a boy in a Barbie commercial?), language patterns, role models, mannerisms, and clothing. Children cannot help but believe that: “boys are supposed to be like this and girls are supposed to be like that.”
So when a child whose felt gender identity is something different from what their environments convey their gender should be based on anatomy alone, it forces the child to navigate between two juxtaposing forces. Either they somehow convey a sense of who they feel they are through various expressive means, or they feel the need to conform to the pressures of feeling different and perhaps suppress their feelings and behaviors. Often, they do both at various points in time and to varying degrees. This conflict is not always easy to navigate, and depending on how much angst it brings on the child, it can often lead to emotional problems like anxiety, sadness, or acting out. This isn’t always the case, as many children find a balance that is just right for them and have emotional and social development trajectories just on par (if not better) with their peers. However, to expect children to do this alone is unrealistic and that is why parents can play a crucial role in their gender nonconforming children’s lives.
The hypothetical “parent handbook” that parents read during pregnancy and shortly after their child’s birth does not prepare them for the real possibility that their child might not fit into societal gender norms. Parental investment in “gender reveal parties” and color choices for their baby’s room create gender expectations long before that child can walk or talk. As their child explores their unique path of trials and tribulations, parents have their own reactions and emotions to deal with. For the parents who experience their child’s gender path as a challenge- instead of an opportunity- it can add undue pressures to their family system as a whole. A KID LIKE JAKE depicts this very point so eloquently.
“If there is one message that comes through in A KID LIKE JAKE, it is that the parent struggle is often so tightly woven into their child’s journey. Helping parents realize that turning a perceived challenge into an opportunity is their key task when it comes to raising a healthy child whose gender differs from prior expectations.”
Alex and Greg, the parent figures in A KID LIKE JAKE, provide the audience with unique insights into the potential fears, anxieties, and frustrations that parents often face when raising a child whose gender expression falls outside societal norms. After the 100 minutes of impeccably realistic acting, audience members are left experiencing the uneasy angst that many parents go through when they perceive the path their child might need to take as challenging. If there is one message that comes through in this story, it is that the parent struggle is often so tightly woven into their child’s journey. Helping parents realize that turning a perceived challenge into an opportunity is their key task when it comes to raising a healthy child whose gender differs from prior expectations.
Scientific understanding of gender development in children is still in its infancy. Clinicians and providers have no definitive way to predict the future identity of an individual child. Some may ultimately identify as transgender, while some may not. Some may ultimately identify as gay or lesbian, while others may not. Some may transition to another gender in some capacity, while others may not. Healthy, supportive, open-ended communication about gender involves leaving one’s preconceived notions about the future at the door, while conveying a sense of love, appreciation, and support for the characteristics that make that specific child feel special, affirmed, and emotionally nurtured in that very moment. For most parents, tolerating the ambiguity of their child’s future is difficult in a world that forces their children to choose “boy” or “girl” before their bodies begin to mature into “men” and “women” in puberty. Just like all the other aspects of a child’s future adolescent/adult identity lack definitive predictable conclusions, so too is the dynamic process by which a child navigates their gender path, whether it consists mostly of challenges or opportunities.
Regardless of the competing demands that the world often presents along gender lines, what is known is this: a child is just a child. He needs love. She needs support. They need protection. Maybe it is pretty simple after all.Read more