Most children get teased at one point or another in school. Sadly, teasing has become part of the social culture at schools and often goes on away from adult supervision. A gender variant child is even more susceptible to teasing given that they tend to behave or dress in a way that can be unexpected by other children or deemed by other children to be “different”. As most of us know, those that are “different” or in the minority are more likely to be teased, get teased more often, and often more severely than other children.
You know that one tone of voice children use when tattling? “MOO-ooomm, Johnny HIT Meeee!”. It’s universal. I’m convinced kids are born knowing how to use this voice, without ever having it modeled for them. Parents have a similar standard tone/cadence when warning their child about natural and logical consequences to choices. “Okaaayy, you can go on that water ride, but you’ll probably get soaked and feel cold the rest of the day!”. It just comes with the parenting territory. Letting your child choose behaviors while warning possible ramifications is a parenting basic.
Warning about being teased for being gender nonconforming gets tricky, however. Being gender nonconforming is not a behavior; it is a way a person is. Warning about teasing that may come from displaying a core characteristic/something the child cannot change is dangerous territory. Yes, the child can choose to act on or express their way of being, or choose to inhibit it. But they cannot change being gender nonconforming or transgender. While I can appreciate and recognize a parent’s urge to warn and possibly prevent teasing that may come from a way of dress, behavior, or interest, this can quickly be translated to shame and self doubt. The problem is, in these scenarios we’re not talking about nose-picking or some other minor social infractions that a child can learn how to avoid. We’re talking about children being who they are, and who are doing absolutely nothing wrong. “Warning” the child by saying something like “If you choose to play with ‘boy things’, you might get teased at school”, “Girls don’t usually have really short hair, so you might get teased, but you can cut it if you want”, “Boys don’t usually walk or talk like that, but if you want to go ahead. Just know you might get teased” may not have the protective nature parents are going for. In fact, it may teach the child to prescribe to what others say is the best way for them to be. Remember my Oxygen blog? Much like you wouldn’t “warn” a child about being teased for wearing an oxygen tank to combat oxygen deprivation, try not to warn your gender nonconforming child to avoid their natural gender expression.
I want to again acknowledge that most parents are coming from a very loving place when they explain what may lay ahead. My worry is that this can instill fear and dread in the place of blissful innocence. It may make the child LESS equipped to deal with the teasing that may come with being gender nonconforming. If my parents had sat me down as a child and said, “Just so you know, little girls with hazel eyes sometimes get teased. Some people think hazel eyes are wrong and some people just don’t like kids with hazel eyes. You can go ahead and wear those hazel eyes to school, but just know you might get teased”, I would have experienced childhood differently. I may have been fearful to let my true eye color show, even though I couldn’t change it. I may have looked at (or looked away from) everyone I met with just a little bit of suspicion or mistrust. I may have thought, “Is this one of the people who hate kids with hazel eyes?”. I may have chosen to grow up wearing sunglasses, even indoors. Many parents warn their children about being gender nonconforming much in the same way, even though it’s not something the child can change. Yes, the child could change his or her behavior to HIDE who he or she really is, but that’s not what we want for our children, is it? Children become inhibited based on the response of others soon enough.
So, what’s a parent to do? Parents can help their child by unconditionally supporting who they are on the inside so they know without a doubt I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM. This won’t prevent the pain associated with teasing, but it will help build the ego strength in the child so that he or she understands their basic worth doesn’t change based on what others say.
If your child asks you if you think he or she may be teased for wearing something, doing something, etc., be honest. Say “maybe”, and then discuss how the child might best handle it. Communicate (even if you have to “fake it”) that you know your child will be ok even if he or she is teased. This energy is something they will absorb from you.
If your child comes home and reports being teased, ASK QUESTIONS; you don’t have to be the one with all the answers. This will help you get a feel for how much understanding your child has about the reasons behind the teasing. “Why do you think they teased you about wearing a skirt?” “Why do you think they said that?” (Not what they are used to, they don’t understand, they feel differently, etc.)
At dinnertime, bedtime, etc. ask your child about the best and worst parts of their day. If they report teasing, process it with them. Talk with them about how it made them feel, and how they can take care of themselves when they have that feeling. Discuss and practice possible responses based on the teasing so they feel more equipped should it happen again.
Last but not least, take care of yourself and your own feelings! Listening about your child being teased can be a very hard thing for a parent to take. Talk to your friends, talk to other parents, talk to a therapist. Remind yourself this is not something you can “fix” or prevent, but you are doing right by your child by nurturing his or her true self.