by Brie Jontry
Brie Jontry is public spokesperson for 4thWaveNow and the mother of a teen who temporarily believed she was a trans boy. Brie can be found on Twitter at @bjontry.
We appear to be living in an age of heightened ideological dualism and false dichotomies. Nowhere is this more obvious than if you’re the parent of a gender-engrossed young person, and you’re desperate for objective information about how to best support your loved one. But parents who turn to the Internet to learn about the seemingly sudden distress that’s gripped their children are likely to find only one response: “affirmation.”
What does “affirmation” mean in this context? If you thought it meant affirming (as in acknowledging the reality of) a child’s distress and other assorted negative feelings surrounding their expected adherence to sex-rooted gender norms, you’d be mistaken. Increasingly, affirmation means confirming a child’s belief that there is something incongruent between their body and their mind and the belief that their body is afflicted by a kind of birth defect that only appears around puberty. To hear many trans advocates and certain clinicians tell it, the natural development of a sexed body is traumatic, dangerous, and possibly even deadly.
Like just about every other social and political issue currently being debated, the approach to helping kids uncomfortable in their born bodies could be drawn on a spectrum with a wide field of grey between the two opposing ends: blanket affirmation of born-in-the wrong-body rhetoric on one side, and wholesale invalidation of a young person’s feelings and beliefs on the other.
I want to encourage all those concerned with this issue to take a deep breath and try their hardest to assume positive intent on behalf of all parents struggling to help their children. Claims of “child abuse” from both sides against obviously caring parents need to stop. A little empathy will go a long way toward encouraging more productive and meaningful conversations. Most parents, regardless of where they stand on the affirm-or-not spectrum, want the same thing: healthy, actualized, contented children.
For my part, I want to widen the scope of what it means to offer “affirmation” and encourage those who are skeptical of medical interventions to embrace validating their children’s discomfort. At the same time, I want to encourage those researching and caring for dysphoric youth to recognize that a large percentage of parents are already doing that: affirming their children’s distress, fully in support of their gender atypicality, and also, when needed, seeking out specialized mental health care for underlying issues prior to agreeing to hormonal and surgical interventions.
When my now teen daughter was four years old, I happened upon a philosophy of parenting that at once sounded both ludicrous and wonderful. “Radical unschooling,” I read, was practiced by parenting according to principles, not rules, and by nourishing a rich relationship built on trust between parent and child. I decided to forgo punishments in favor of seeing my child’s behavior as communication, which at that age, was often grounded in an unmet need or frustration. I prioritized not only supporting her interests, no matter how odd (road kill), or silly (The Wiggles), or redundant (The Wiggles), but also tried my hardest to understand what was interesting about the things my daughter chose to pursue.
The term, “child-led learning,” does emphasize something very important – that the child is the learner! I couldn’t agree more. However, it also disregards the significant role played by the parent in helping and supporting and, yes, quite often taking the lead, in the investigation and exploration of the world that is unschooling.
So when my 11-year-old daughter revealed to me that she thought she was a boy inside, I approached the news from the framework of partnered exploration. I supported her by listening, by learning about her interest, by doing research she couldn’t do for herself, by talking to others and talking about all kinds of things with others while she was near, by finding specialists who could help, and also by asking:
Where do you think that comes from?
What does that mean to you?
How else could this be different?
What can I do?
I had always (already) accepted my kind, curious, creative, quirky, stereotype-bending child. There was never a second when I considered not walking beside her as she struggled with feeling wrong in her developing body. As she sorted through trauma and grief and went through the stages of forming her unique identity, our parental support was critical to keeping her safe.
I told her I would love her no matter what and help her however I could and that I would always have her back. I told her I didn’t care who she loved, how she dressed, or what name she chose to use.
I told her I didn’t think she was really a boy but I understood she wanted to be one. I told her I wasn’t convinced there was enough evidence that hormonal interventions would serve her well long-term.
I asked her what boys could do that she couldn’t? Why being a boy would be better? I listened. I affirmed her distress, her confusion, and her desire as valid emotions. I empathized as much as I could. I helped her find ways to feel stronger, to BE stronger, to feel safer, more secure, and better able to manage discomfort and ambiguity. Because I had spent her childhood up to this point prioritizing our relationship and not my position of authority, she trusted me to help her get what she wanted, which was to feel better about herself and her place in the world. I was lucky in one way: My child was still young enough that we both had the luxury of ample time to work on this together (unlike some rapid-onset older teens and their parents).
The vast majority of parents who read and contribute to 4thwavenow may not be radical unschoolers, but they still unconditionally love and accept their children. In fact, it is precisely because they unconditionally love and accept their children that they want more than anything to help them find ways to be at peace with themselves. No parent is perfect; all of us make mistakes, get frustrated, say or do the wrong thing at times. But despite (or even because of) our blunders, we can grow along with our children. We can model empathy, open-minded curiosity, a willingness to apologize when we get it wrong, and acceptance of ambiguity. In other words, we can and we do model a different kind of affirmation.