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He, She, They, Them & Us

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

For Parents

My first child blossomed into adulthood a couple of years ago. Hers had been an eventful transition with many highs and lows and much joy and heartache for us both. Parenting of the pre-adult phase, I discovered, brings with it many lessons in real life, far beyond the fairytale.

My personal experience of this phase of parenting was of a systematic breakdown and recalibration of my beliefs and expectations, as well as an initiation into the other side of what it feels like to be a parent. In this first run through I gained enough wisdom to know that I did not know as much as I thought I did and to be prepared, at all times, to be taken off guard, again and again. I did, however, think that I had gained a good understanding of all the edges and crevices we would have to navigate when my second child entered the pre-adult gauntlet. The smoking experimentation, the alcohol and drug opportunities, the sex and sexuality explorations, the school-or-no-school stress, anxieties and depressions, all of which form part of many a transition to adulthood, sometimes overlaid with additional mental and physical illness challenges. It seems, however, each age has its own lessons to add, as does each person. Today’s parenting lesson is a challenge of our core understanding of how the world works, our beliefs and what we may think we know to be true about the world, gender and choice. Given a traditional upbringing, along with the social constructs entrenched into the specific way I have learnt to make sense of the world, this lesson has been a real test. I mean, surely, if you have the genitals of a boy you are a boy and if you have the genitals of a girl you are a girl and the number of people who switch between is minuscule? What is all this non-binary-sense? But then again, you could ask, who decided on the label ‘boy’ and the label ‘girl’ in the first place and what does it actually mean? The open challenge to the gender concept deeply unsettled what I thought was the firm foundation of my belief system. I had not understood that gender could be up for debate. It was a given, seemingly a biological fact, a blessed certainty in amongst all the uncertainty in the 21st century, something you just were: a male or a female. It is, however, not the case, and the generation currently in the adolescent gauntlet is - courageously or obstinately, depending on your perspective of it - challenging our unconscious beliefs about what is and is not up for questioning. They are asking or telling us to respect their right to choose a gender with which to identify, a pronoun with which they are comfortable and even, in some cases, their own choice of name, and none of it is static. It all makes perfect sense to them and they do not necessarily understand what a foreign concept it is for us. For parents it can all be extremely difficult to get our heads around. We may look for the reason, “where have we gone wrong in their upbringing?” or “is this a consequence of social media?” or “could it be the influence of the systemic events across the world, for example, the #metoo movement?" or "perhaps the doings of the fashion industry?” Whatever the contributing reasons, this generation is challenging our concrete ideas. They appear to be more comfortable with gender fluidity, more inclusive and accepting of each others choices and challenges and they are inviting us, sometimes quite forcefully, to let go of our prejudices and stereotypes, some of which we have carefully nourished over a lifetime, or even through generations. This can be a very hard invitation to accept. I have been pondering this shift for the past year or so and I believe that there are several options as to how we respond to our adolescent informing us of a name change, requesting to be addressed using a preferred pronoun and to the colourful experimentation with their appearance. Some of the more frequent responses include:

  • We try to ignore it or forbid any discussion on it with the determination to make it go away.

  • We rail against the ridiculousness of it all, insisting that what we believe and our values are the way the truth and the light.

  • We can mock it or dismiss it as ‘just a trend’ or

  • We can be curious and use it to explore - with them and their peers - what it all means and how we can respect each other’s individuality and choices.

The first three options will naturally shut down any conversation with a young and explorative mind. Far from making it all go away, it is more likely to make it go underground or ramp up the shock factor until we are ready to pay attention. While they may appear to be confident - even belligerent - parental respect and encouragement may not be overtly sought but is covertly craved. The first three options may/will make them feel less heard and less understood or valued but it can also bring out our own fears. Where is this all going to go? The fourth option may be difficult initially but therein lies the opportunity. I had to listen carefully to myself before I could listen to my ‘they’. How do their choices unsettle me? What are my fears? Why do I hope it is only a trend? I suppose I needed to separate my fears for myself from my fears for them. My biggest fear for me was 'people are going to judge me as a parent' which blocked me from truly listening to what was going on. Then, there are the fears for them, for the consequences of their choices. There is the point at which we are able to have that discussion with them, about choices and consequences, listen to their views and express ours, have faith in them but be there as back up. Being curious and open can help us identify that point. The conversations become richer and while I am still learning, there is appreciation from my ‘they’ that I am taking the time to understand their perspective. Our perspectives have shifted and I have to remind myself that they are their own reflection, not mine. I have reluctantly relented on reversible adjustments to appearance, even if I don’t like them, but the ‘no’ to irreversible changes remains, while they are under my jurisdiction. In our discussions we talk about how our views can change continuously and sometimes radically as we grow, so best to leave some of those decisions for later, when we have had time to be sure. Theirs is a totally different world to the one I grew up in, so the lessons go both ways.

We can dismiss the non-binary uprising as ‘just a trend’ but I am sure many people dismissed feminism and the drive for equality as a trend back in the day. It may well be a trend, but it may also be a new way of looking at the world that is not as clear-cut and certain as we may have been led to believe. Young people are resisting being boxed or choosing to choose which box they want to belong in. While it can be scary and uncomfortable, I am becoming more comfortable with discomfort and watch with appreciation, curiosity and compassion for us all. I hope that they retain their ability to cherish differences in each other and take us along with them as we struggle and strive, as parents, to adapt.

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