January 2010

I’ve had the opportunity to read a draft of a recent study by Hill, D.B., Menvielle, E., Sica, K.M., &  Johnson, A. (2010), of children in different therapeutic environments published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy shows that supportive / accepting parenting is associated with lower rates of mental illness. From the abstract:

When [CNMC group participant’s children were] compared to children at other gender identity clinics in Canada and The Netherlands, parents rated their children’s gender variance as no less extreme, but their children were overall less pathological.

This is what I take from the study; I’m not a scientist and I can’t speak to the statistical analysis, I’m just looking at the text of the study itself:

  1. Supportive parenting which acknowledges and accepts a child’s gender non-conformity is good for kids; even when this non-conformity leads to awkward social situations and various degrees of peer disapproval. Taking the good with the bad, supportive parenting is associated with better outcomes than suppressing these behaviors completely ‘for the child’s own good.’
  2. Accepting and affirming a child’s impulses and deeply held feelings, while setting some boundaries on a child’s gender expression to lessen peer / community issues works well for many of the children in this sample.

This is a cross-sectional study (it doesn’t follow kids over time) and so it cannot speak to causation; but it is important to note that each group sees a full range of kids in terms of degree of gender variance (IE, exclusively mildly GV kids haven’t gravitated to the CNMC, explaining away these results.)

I think the chief value of this study is reassure parents who instinctively lean towards a supportive approach, that they aren’t hurting thier children. If it feels wrong to you, to disappoint your child at every birthday or holiday, to make your child suffer by forcing him or her into clothing she hates, you don’t have to do it.

Barbie won’t hurt your boy.

My family have stepped outside the CNMC  recommendations to a degree, allowing our child to essentially pass as female in public for the last five or six years. This isn’t recommended by some supportive therapists. He seemed able to take the heat, and he has been psychologically stable and generally happy. The fact that he never demanded universal use of female pronouns, and that he isn’t gender dysphoric led us to believe that he isn’t one those kids who needed a full social transition.

Which means perhaps we could have set some more boundaries and not have hurt him in any significant way.

I have no regrets. If Oscar blazed a trail for a few kids in our system who do need to socially transition, more the better.

Raising your kids is a game played for keeps. There are no do-overs. (As I remind myself every time I lose my cool in front of my kids. A child will forget ten thousand happy hours, and remember the ten times you lost it in front of them.) In a way, this is a game we can’t win. Some of our best intentions will be judged by future generations as absurd.

In the end, we can only hope that they forgive us for being human, and for doing the best we can, even when perhaps, that wasn’t enough. Or too much! Every generation tries to get it right. Every generation fails. But I sense that we get closer to the mark every time around.

The arc of history is long, but it bends towards  justice.

My family has done its tiny part, tugging at the present end of that arc.

And it may be naive, culturebound, Western, to think that there is such a thing as progress. But I can’t help but feel we have been a part of something special.

And that all progress is made one family at a time.