New Study Confirms Supportive Parenting Does Not Hurt Gender Non-Conforming Children

by Bedford Hope on January 12, 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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

OM January 12, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I wish I could read the whole article but only the abstract is available on-line. Based on the research I have done, I was under the impression that while the Netherlands does support earlier (than Canada and the US) use of hormone blockers to avoid puberty changes, they do not support very early “social” transition. So, while a 12 year old boy in the Netherlands would have access to hormone blockers a few years earlier than a boy in the US, therapists there do not recommend that parents allow their 4 year old sons to socially transition and present as girls.

My take on the outcome of the study, based on the abstract, is that kids who have supportive parents, who are allowed to present as ‘they’ choose from very young age (like my son and your son) are emotionally healthier and do not demostrate more extreme gender variance than the kids who are pushed to conform. My read of the abstract is that the approach we are taking (allowing our young sons to present as girls) is beneficial to emotional health and doesn’t make the gender variance “worse” (for lack of a better expression).

As an aside, I hate that Canada is linked with Ken Zucker, and has a reputation as being a hostile place for gender variant kids. There are many many therapist in Canada who support the rights of gender variant kids to be themselves, and we have policies/legislation in place in school boards, social welfare agencies, etc. that support the rights of kids like mine to present as whatever gender makes them most happy. sadly, Zucker is just more vocal and gets more press.

Bedford Hope January 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Sorry that Zucker has given Canada a bad rap; I saw him as sort of a singular, polar thing, not indicative necessarily of a country-wide climate. I’m glad you have confirmed this.

The core of our debate now, in the supportive community, is the necessity and timing of social transition. I think all of us with children who have thrived without formal transition tread lightly here, simply not knowing what the experience of another child, another family, is like.

I think our deepest fear is that in places where gender stereotypes and homophobia is most intense, social transition could represent a successful short term accommodation with negative longer term consequences. We know in of kids in some communities where homophobia is very intense who have embraced a female identity as a kind of defense—I’m not gay, I’m really a girl.

So I share the anecdote of Oscar, who was allowed to go ‘too far,’ in the eyes of some, and who still seems to be on a trajectory which doesn’t include drugs and surgeries, at this time. I think the stories of kids finding themselves, of moving back and forth across that line, will help everyone understand that this isn’t easy stuff, that there’s no magic bullet, and, that they needn’t jump to conclusions.

We all are on a journey to find ourselves; for the gender non-conforming the journey is just more visible. And often more difficult, I suspect.

Jackson January 17, 2010 at 6:07 am

There have been many studies showing that parental support of childrens’ unique qualities is proportionate most of the time to lower mental illness. I do wish the rest of the article was online though. It would be extremely beneficial to my school studies and later life goals.

I will confirm your suspicion of the gender non-conforming persons’ life being more difficult, at least for me and a few others I know very well. I can’t speak for the general populace of GV people. It’s especially more difficult in a Western society, namely the United States, because even if we decide to transition it’s either/or. Nothing important or life changing should ever be either/or. Many other countries allow the “third gender” if you will and in some of those places it is a revered status and considered a blessing.

As a transgender adult I struggle everyday with whether I should just try and bottle all my non-conformity up and stuff it under a rug so I can have an easier life or to embrace this difference and try to make my way through a largely unaccepting world. Luckily for me, I’ve always been stubborn and I’d rather isolate myself from everyone so I can be happy with me. But it is an extremely difficult tug-of-war every waking moment.

I just want to say that I love that I’ve found your website and Labels are for Jars as well as Sarah Hoffman’s website because they a) give me hope for our future, b) provide me with invaluable resources and material with which to explain my stance on why I want to be a child therapist focusing on gender issues, and c) just the simple support you give your children. That’s something that sadly lacks in my biological family. So thank you.

Bedford Hope January 17, 2010 at 8:48 pm

There’s very little research on gender stuff in kids; kids in general are so thoroughly studied that this seems strange, until you realize that science is culturally embedded activity, and no one wants to fund this research, because no one wants to know the answers to these questions, or they haven’t, until now. People just wanted to know that their children were normal, or if they weren’t, how to slice and dice that information to help make them normal.

This study is essentially a group of questionnaires / self-reports filled out by the parents of kids in these different programs at a single point in time. The authors hope that more research funding will make more ambitious, longitudinal research possible at some point, but the reality is that the culture is moving so fast now that a longitudinal study may obsolete soon after it’s completed!

But any research is better than no research—especially given that popular wisdom is that these kids can, and should, be ‘fixed.’ This study says attempts at fixing aren’t correlated with, well, being fixed. Of course, it depends on what you mean by fixed; Zucker makes claim that he as averted many transexual and homosexual outcomes, but his subjects don’t report being, ah, happy. So, you can force people into closets and you can make people live a lie, if you’re willing to spend the time and money, you may end up with a more normative seeming miserable child. For people with fixed and inflexible (religiously inspired) ideas, this may be enough of a reason to continue with these therapies. We look forward to a time when the professional associations start acting against this type of therapy, as they now act against reparative therapies for adult GLBT people.

I wish you the best of luck in your career; I have no doubt you will save lives, and lead many families to a better understanding of their kids. This is a noble calling. I also hope your biological family will one day see the light, as unlikely as that may be.

Thanks for reading. We write this stuff for you. Let me apologize for all straight-het-normals who don’t get it. I was one once, so the apology is real. I’m so sorry. But I have hopes for the future.

Take care.

XN February 25, 2010 at 10:29 am

Thank you for extremely insightful and inspirational writing :)

ejayo February 25, 2010 at 10:42 am

You are entirely welcome. I get about 50-100 readers a day now, more when I’m actually producing content, and the amazing thing is that the comments I get are 100 percent positive. Women I know creating the same content seem to catch more flak than I am. My goal is to be part of a community that blankets the keywords ‘gender variance,’ and ‘gender-nonconforming’ (and even Gender Identity Disorder) so supportive parenting can be the first thing a scared normative parent sees when they start typing search terms into Google. I want supportive parents to drown out the “Fixers” with content and community.

administrative assistant December 22, 2010 at 1:34 am

Thanks for some quality points there. I am kind of new to online , so I printed this off to put in my file, any better way to go about keeping track of it then printing?

ejayo December 27, 2010 at 2:57 pm

not sure what you are asking here, sorry. Thanks for reading! Feel free to clarify the point above and I’ll try to help; you can subscribe via RSS if you know what that is; very few do though. January 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm

You seem to know a lot about this. This is good blog. A great read. I’ll certainly be back.

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