Thursday, April 12, 2012

Parent Trap

Sometimes, I get a published study to back me up, just in the nick of time.

I have a young friend (an adult, but this happens to adolescents, too, and my advice to their parents would be the same) who is in her first relationship with a woman.

Her straight mom, who is not much older than I am, is having a hard time with this. I know she's not alone, and I am not unsympathetic, and I have watched many straight parents go through this same thing.

Should you be a parent in this situation, here's what you need to navigate the situation with aplomb:

  • Plan ahead. Way, way before this comes up, make sure there are trustworthy openly LGBTQ adults in your kids' lives — these could be friends of yours, godparents, aunts or uncles, camp counselors, teachers, clergy if that's your thing. You know, the kind of adults you'd want them going to if they ever felt they couldn't go to you. I understand it may be too late for this step for some of you.
  • It's not about you. When and how they share this, whether by accident or on purpose, does not reflect on you or your relationship with your children. How you respond does.
  • Your children are not ruining their lives. If anyone does ruin your children's life over a same-sex relationship, it will be the people who are mean to them about who they are. Don't be one of them.
  • It's not about you. However much you are accustomed to having your children's identities tied up in yours, it is healthy and appropriate for them to distinguish themselves from you.
  • Be open, but respectful. Coming out is different for everyone — some people have a hard time with it, and some people have a less hard time with it; for some people, it's about one relationship, and for some folks, it's a major identity awareness. Either way, you'll do better if you're available without pushing too hard.
  • It's not about you. If this is behavior you don't approve of, your child already knows it — and it is likely killing him or her.
  • Think of your future. Whatever you do or say now, your children will carry with them as they progress further into adulthood. Be cool for the sake of your future relationships with your children, their future partners, their future children... 
  • It's not about you. If you find yourself rationalizing your reaction as actually about something else — secrecy, or a specific person, or even missing curfew, or something, take a deep breath and step way, way back. You will be glad you did.
  • Show your kids how proud you are. My young friend is the type you'd be proud to have as your daughter; she's smart and kind and funny and confident and open-minded and athletic and beautiful. Your kids are incredible in their own ways. Make sure they know (and by this I mean, tell them, and also show them) all of how wonderful you think they are, always, both before and after any big revelations come to light.
  • Oh, hey. It's not about you.
Straight parents, what would worry/bother you about a queer kid? Other queers, what would you add?


Genny said...

As long as my daughters are with partners who love them, respect them, and treat them well, that's all that matters to me. My only worry would be about how others would treat them. As a parent, you want to protect your child from anything bad ... and there are a lot of mean people out there who are just plain evil to LGBTQs.

Joe said...

I love my kids (ages 4 and almost 2) unconditionally and that would not change, whether they were queer or straight.
What would bother me? The fact that there's still a lot of hatred and discrimination in this world, and my child would be subjected to it because of his/her sexuality. As a parent, it's my natural instinct to protect my kids from harm. I know I can't keep them in a bubble forever and they're going to have to face hardships as they get older, but the thought of close-minded, ignorant people making my kids' lives hell just because they're different gets me royally pissed.
This is why, on the cusp of 40 years of age, I'm staying in shape and planning to kick the crap out of anyone who tries this stuff with my offspring, whether my little ones are queer or straight, skinny or heavy, near-sighted or far-sighted, smart or not-so-smart, etc. (subtle sarcasm intended. But not really).

bzzzzgrrrl said...

To be clear, I think that protectiveness is a natural reaction.

I think the key is, if, when actually interacting with your child, you can not focus on how awful the world will be to them, and instead focus on providing a haven for them, whenever the world is mean, you'll be setting them up BOTH to be able to handle the world AND to be able to come to you.

The world will be mean to your kids because of a million things, and for most of them, we all know to just be supportive. For LGBTQ kids (and fat kids, but that's another post), some parents can think that the way to protect their kids from the evils of the world is to dissuade them from BEING LGBTQ (or fat) — and, in fact, this is common enough in the oral histories of our culture that many kids, on catching a whiff of "the world will be so cruel" from their parents will hear (often, but not always, correctly), "I wish you weren't that way."

Also, and maybe this is obvious, teach your kids to be nice to other people, like their siblings. The first person I came out to in my family (and I think this is common) was my (straight) younger sister, and her handling of the situation gave me hope and strength that would serve me as I came out to the rest of the family in years to come.

(And Joe and Genny, specifically, I know you're already doing it right with your own kids; I just thought it was a line worth following for anyone else who might be reading.)

S said...

From a young queer person, taken in part from mistakes my parents made:

- Don't use the term "maybe it's a phase"

Even if this turns out to be a temporary flux in your kid's identity, it does not make it any less valid or your acceptance any less important. Ambivalence might make them less open to talking about questioning other aspects of their identity.

- Even if the rest of the family is liberal, does not live in your part of the country, and LGBTQIA friendly DON'T out them.

Even LGBTQIA friendly people can pull a 'not one of my relatives' freak out.

- Do a bit of 101 reading.
If you really are confused, and worried in that protective parent way. Or if you just want to get more used to the concept.

- Check that your child if of legal age or sexually active knows that there are safe sex resources out there. Remember schools do not include LGBTQIA issues in their safe sex curriculum.

This will embarrass them, but it is a good idea regardless.

- If your child comes out as something that deeply surprises you and you lack knowledge of said identity, again do the 101 reading.

bzzzzgrrrl said...

Perfect, S. Thank you so much for joining the conversation.

I meant to include the "phase" business, and am sorry to have neglected it. Your other points are also excellent — especially regarding safe sex resources.

Mike said...

Bzz, this post is beautifully stated and should be more widely published. One possible family reaction that nobody here has commented on: "Oh, yeah, we figured that." Would that (from a loving and nonjudgmental family) be a mistake?

bzzzzgrrrl said...

I'd be interested to hear from others on this, but I'm inclined to say, "yes," mostly.

If you're dealing with a scared adolescent or young adult, remember that this is likely, for them:
1) a very big deal, and
2) until now, a secret.

My family did not say that, but I had a (loving, supportive) friend who did, and it felt a little like taking the wind out of my sails. For someone in a scarier situation, I can imagine an, "OMG, who else knows?!?!" reaction.

I tried to think whether it'd be different for someone who was, say, in her 30s or older and had been dating the same person exclusively for a long time, in which case, the family would certainly probably pretty much know, but even then, I'm not sure what would be to be gained from a reaction like that. I'm not sure the family has to act like it's the shock of the century, but an, "I'm so pleased you've found someone who makes you happy," seems somehow kinder than a, "Well, duh. Why do you think we invite her for Christmas?".

bzzzzgrrrl said...

On the other hand, if you do already know, for sure, and you are supportive, I think it's OK to act like it, especially if you're more distant family (not parents or close siblings). It can be exhausting to have to come out all the time, to everyone you know, and if a person is being open but has not had A Big Talk with you, it's OK to just go along with it, or to ask if you have (respectful) questions — like, "Do you have a pronoun preference I should know about?"

Kay said...

I have nothing to add to what Joe said about the parental desire to protect children from meanness.

Except a little anecdote from my own childhood, which I think is a nice example of how to set an open and accepting tone from early on. At age 7 or 8 I had a girl best friend (and I am a girl) and wondered aloud to my mother whether girls had to marry boys. Couldn't they marry girls too? Mom said from the front seat, and I remember this as she drove me down Sam Houston Avenue to school or the grocery store or somewhere, that she thought that when I grew up I would probably want to marry a boy, but if I wanted to marry a girl, that would be just fine too.

Thanks to Obama for catching up with that basic idea some 32 years later.

bzzzzgrrrl said...

I am glad your mother was open to the possibility of you marrying a girl, but I would add this bit to that story for modern-day parents: There is no need to add the bit about how when you grow up you will probably want to marry someone of the opposite sex.

Yes, it's statistically true.

But I think bringing it up can be, for the kid who needs to hear it most, a subtle signal that there is something "different" about wanting to marry someone of the same sex — and we spend so much of our young lives frantically wanting NOT to be different that that's just an unnecessary message to send.

I had some very basically gay-friendly people reveal some subtle biases to me as a child — and as a queer child, I heard every one of them, much more strongly than the authors of said biases did.

Anonymous said...

The part that would eat away at me is trying to handle the rest of the family... grandparents, aunts & uncles... Even if they are a little progressive, I know how they can express subtle disappointment that digs in deep.

mike said...

I had to dig up this post long after the fact to add a new anecdote: when a young family friend recently became, at 14, the youngest person I know to have come out as bi, her mom's reply was: "Me too!"

(The mom - who is happily married to the dad - had always been out to her peers, but, like most parents, hadn't felt any particular need to discuss her own sexuality with her kids. So they got to come out to each other.)