Raising children who sparkle: Gender, patriarchy and interrupting Shame
What if our children were allowed to be who they really are?
In Nina Benedetto’s book. About Chris, a children’s book that re-tells the true story of a pre-school transgender boy, Benedetto asks readers to consider:
“I wonder if there are times when you want to be the real you, instead of the person other people expect you to be.”
Unfortunately, our children often aren’t allowed to be who they really are. If they receive encouragement and love from their parents, caregivers, or guardians, then their playmates and school policies often tell them differently. There are colors, toys, and interests that match the genitals with which they were born. Our children are often shamed into gender.
In school, in the playground, in the toy aisles, and other places in the world, they are learning patriarchy, heterosexism, and racism. They are learning that to divide is to win, to fit in is power, and that to resist cultural norms will land you in the “outsider club.”
My partner and I have felt a responsibility to make that “outsider club” magical, to counter the dominant narratives of exclusion, isolation, and shame, and create narratives of community, connection, and love. We as parents and caregivers can resist this shaming culture.
In our family, we have found in order to resist this gendered mandate, we must provide a more nuanced, anti-oppression analysis on gender. We have accomplished this both through family conversations and by reading and discussing books like About Chris and My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis. Another way we’ve resisted this shaming culture is by supplying River with options. From before our son could talk, we have encouraged options with regard to clothing, toys, interests, and emotions that are outside of what dominant culture prescribes as “correct” for a “boy.”
However, despite offering options which challenge the dominant culture, my son River, aged five, recently declared that purple and pink are no longer colors he will wear. Dresses have also been banned.
Where before his favorite outfit was a pink sparkly dress, he now refuses to wear anything with even a hint of purple. When I asked about this, he responded,
“I don’t want people to think I’m a girl.”
There is a soft bullying that happens very early on when our children show up as they are—especially when that interrogates gender norms.
Still, when you enter River’s room, you will find the heart-shaped sparkly make-up case for when we play salon, an oversized, well-loved pink unicorn named Zora, and leopard print leggings for when he’s feeling brave.
I’ve noticed that equipping our household with choices of playthings and dress-up clothes, affirm the kids who visit, too. On any given day, kids are almost guaranteed to be found pouring out the contents of the dress up bins, exploring what it means to wear a crown, yield a light saber, or try on a doctor’s coat.
Children often ask, “Why do you have a make-up case?” or “Why are there girl dresses in here?”
We respond: “Because we like them and there really is no such thing as ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ things.”
River has started to respond this way, too, and often his playmates will tilt their head and consider this “radical” idea.
However, the Elsa shoes have been packed away for the time when his younger brother might be interested to explore the magic of play, expression, and presentation in whatever way he chooses.
Even though the world is not set up to fully see our children, we as parents and caregivers can nurture and nourish another way of being through affirmations in the books we read, conversations we share in, and choices we provide for our children to show up as they are and express themselves more fully.
We must meet our children at the place where gender expression hits up against shame in order to shift the outcome. Their tender hearts are breaking when they are denied love because of how they look. Offering an alternative culture requires effort, however if we are working to create a more just society, it is a necessity.
To sparkle in this world takes a brave heart and our children are resilient. For our young ones to sparkle, we must breathe into the radical imagination and craft new possibilities; connect to who we really are and to hold healing space for our children and ourselves. We must dismantle shame by assembling a place where radical love and acceptance is the norm.
Let’s choose more sparkle, we need it; the world needs it.
Jardana is a writer, longtime holistic healer and liberatory leadership trainer, and activist. Author and curator of the “Practice Showing Up Guidebook” an anthology for white people working for racial justice, this 2016 resource has been downloaded over nineteen thousand times.
She has worked with hundreds of changemakers and dozens of organizations globally, helping to found the U.S. based network, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), training a global field of changemakers through her role at the Highlander Research and Education Center and currently in consulting and supporting nonprofit leaders in New York, London, Mexico City, and other urban and rural centers.
Jardana lives with her partner Chris Crass (a renowned author, educator and movement builder for collective liberation) and their two children in Louisville, Kentucky. Stay connected with her here.