Carson’s last post showed how small changes in language could be powerful signals that help open conversations, and listening for the question behind the question can help you get to the answer your kid really needs. But how do we get over our fear of sputtering to a confused stop, of making a mess in a sensitive situation?
My current and recent teen interviews revealed that parental willingness to show discomfort, surprise, and a lack of knowledge actually turn out to be seeds of strength to help their kids.
“One beautiful thing about my son is that through all these questions of mine he just kept bringing me information, articles, and websites. So I would advise any parent, always be open to learning more because it is amazing what you can learn from your children.” —MS
Seeing the parents “behind the curtain,” like the struggling Wizard of Oz, is fine as long as what they see is that you are indeed trying, or even thinking about trying.
“It’s universal that kids will complain about how their parents reacted [to coming out news], but that’s OK. Don’t feel shame or guilt over your first reaction. Deal with it honestly, and then just be supportive.”—AR
“It took me 4 years between realizing that I was queer and coming out. I don’t think it will take my parents quite that long. It’s been two years and they may still not be fully there, but it’s OK.”—AA
“I wanted my parents to at least acknowledge that they might move from where they were to a different place, but they wouldn’t, at first. We had terrible fights.”—IK
“I was touched after I first came out that my parents obsessed over recommending movies with gay characters in them even if they were really bad movies. I didn’t want to watch them, or finish them if we had started, but I knew they were trying.”—EL
“It’s kind of awkward when my boyfriend comes over. [My dad] doesn’t know how to talk to him. [Not the same as when his older sister brought home her first boyfriend.] It’s weird because he doesn’t know if he should be all guy-to-guy with him, like ‘Hey, what’s up,’ or what. I can understand how he feels because even I think it’s weird that I should have a boyfriend sometimes.”—TA
With respect to our words, is it better to wait or jump in bravely?
“Parents are always growing emotionally too. With that comes better impulse control. Parents would do well to try to sit on their own feelings and rage and just listen.”—LB
“The first time we met the boyfriend, I could tell my son was really uptight. I don’t really interrogate the boyfriends of either my daughter or my son, and I could tell when I shook his hand that he was very bright and personable. But I knew they both were nervous. I empathized! I knew my job was to try to make the boyfriend more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable.”—MA
Some of my sources felt there was a practical benefit of parental stumbling around their kids’ gender or orientation.
“Sometimes parents’ less-than-full acceptance or slowness in coming to acceptance can actually help prepare kids for the outside world. It’s a kind of tough love.”—LB
“You don’t want to teach your child that the world is an evil place, but there are definitely people out there who will call him names or be mean, and you have to prepare a kid for that somehow.”—SH
We don’t sugar-coat messages to our kids about the world’s expectations regarding punctuality, dress codes, job interview etiquette, the importance of human spell-checking, etc. In a closer parallel, as our kids start moving around independently, we teach them street-wise behavior to make them less-likely crime targets. But conformity to majority expectations or safe practices in these matters rarely threaten teens’ developing sense of self (despite what they may say about the stifling oppression of dress codes).
Gender and orientation, on the other hand, are central to identity.
And even young kids see that heterosexual and cis-gendered are “normal” and anything else is outside the majority, even if they have not directly seen and understood homophobia. So this calls for more nuance in the “real world” prep lessons from parents.
“As parents, we have fears, but if we ask for help we can reduce the problems our kids face… He knew I was confused but he also knew I was there for him no matter what. I think feeling your 100% support is very important for them, and then they become your support too.”—MS
“For parents who want their kids not to have such a hard life, if they know they have their parents full support it eliminates the hardest problem they’ll ever face.”—BK
“It’s how they show the worry that matters. If you assume the world is all homophobic, you want the kid to hide it, but the message that you shouldn’t have to hide it is much better.”—KP
“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of parents have grief, even if they are progressive. You had a dream of your kid’s life, and now it won’t be like that. My mom was completely worried that I’d be lonely and sad. She went to a PFLAG meeting [see also Keshet's Parent & Family Connection], met other parents and found out that this wasn’t going to be the case. Then she became an activist.”—AR
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We intuitively know that little things like word choice and facial expressions matter, but the right actions and reactions often don’t spring readily to mind in the moment. And—no pressure!—the stakes are kinda high. This theme emerged in the very first interview I did for my website.
“Parents can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: they think [their child’s life as a queer person] is going to be hard, so they don’t stand up for them when they could, and indeed, life becomes harder than it needed to be.”—TH
Yet, parents have their own coming out process to go through, from zero to understanding to advocate, on an extremely compressed schedule. But my interviews with teens and former teens brought welcome news: “good” parents don’t have to be perfect. Attention to some little things, even if uneven or awkwardly done, make a big difference.
1. A few small signals, or invitations to open a conversation, might seem to be ignored in the moment but will register:
“My grandfather, who was 94 when he died, used to watch James Bond movies with me. One day, out of the blue he paused the movie and asked me what I thought of gay marriage, and said he agreed with it. My grandparents had a house on Fire Island for years (I’m still mad they sold it) and he said they had partied with gay people out there. Taking time to talk and voice support makes a huge difference. Recently I was driving out to Long Island with my dad and there was news on the radio about the Iowa Caucus. They mentioned the Republican pledge to reverse gay marriage. My dad was reading, only half paying attention, but his reflexive grunt of disapproval was really wonderful.”—PO
“My mom always said, ‘You can talk to me about anything. The most important thing is to respect your body.’ She would say that sometimes to try to spark a conversation, and I got annoyed and angry at the time, but it was actually really important. I think it’s appropriate for parents to bring their questions and concerns. In a way, I would be more offended by a parent not being honest with their reactions even if it is painful or shows prejudice.”—MS
Even in an era when same-sex marriage gains ground quickly, we should not underestimate the Mount Everest-like weight and carbon dioxide-like pervasiveness of the old expectations.
“A daughter of a two-mom family living in an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood came home from pre-school and asked one of her moms if she was sure she wasn’t really a man. And many of her classmates had gay or lesbian parents.”—TH
2. And yet, making some small changes in language, even if you forget and don’t do it every time, can add up.
“Parents can make an effort to not create a heteronormative environment, like by not asking ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ but ‘Are you seeing someone?’”—PO
“And don’t express relief when your kid reveals an interest in someone of the opposite sex. It undermines an opening for any discussion about sexual confusion, for your own kid or someone she knows.”—KW
“I am surprised sometimes by how many people are still using the word “choice,” and thereby implying that it’s a moral defect.”—BK
3. Taking the time to listen a little deeper can show what your kid really needs.
“The after-school program at my son’s nursery school had different leaders than the day program. I didn’t realize the difference in their attitudes. My son hated after-school because they made him go outside and play soccer with the other boys, while the girls could stay inside and play pretend games. He said he hated the whole thing, and I did not probe as to why. Not until he was 18 and out, and after I had started the Spanish-speaking parent support group [at the nursery school], did we sit down with the pre-school director who wanted to improve the school’s policies around gender expression. That was a big step in the healing process for him and for me.”—LM
“You have to pay careful attention to the question that’s really being asked, which is often, ‘Having two mommies is different, but is it OK?’ [Kids] all come with a bit of baggage, even from liberal families.”—BK
In movies and on TV the dialogue may be emotionally fraught, but proceeds smoothly.
In real life, we have to write our scripts and deliver them at the same time, and the results (at my house anyway) are rarely pretty. Even when I eventually get across the point I was just realizing was the truly important one, I often feel I haven’t done it very well.
But my research shows that matters much less than we parents think.
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“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70’s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.