What if your 7-year-old son liked to wear sequined dresses, preferred to play with Barbies instead of WWE action figures, and wanted to be referred to by a girl’s name instead of a boy’s? Where would you stand? How would you feel?
Lisa Ling's new show, Our America, on the Oprah Winfrey Network, introduced the country to a first grader in "Transgender Child: A Parent's Difficult Choice." His parents named him Harry. But when Harry was 5, he decided he wanted to be called Hailey because he felt more like a girl than a boy. His mom and dad, not knowing quite what to do, indulged his request.
Now the child has completely taken on the identity of a little girl. And his parents, a conservative Christian couple who may have had some preexisting notions about what’s right and wrong from a Biblical perspective, were challenged to rethink everything they believed about gender and sexuality for the love of their baby, their second son turned their only daughter.
Seeing a child feel so strongly about his or her gender at such a young age that they ask to be called by a new name is enough to make any adult take pause. One thing we grown-ups can envy about kids is their inherent freedom to be their real, authentic selves — no pretensions, no baggage. By the end of elementary school, of course, they’re well on their way to being squeezed through the ringer of social conditioning, and their families, teachers, mentors, coaches, and other trusted adults put the finishing touches on those rigid expectations that box them in: Boys play rough and are good with numbers. Girls dress up with makeup and heels and read books. Blah blah blah.
But Hailey’s young life goes way, way beyond those crummy norms, and her parents have created a safe, nurturing environment where she can live comfortably and have friends and lead a relatively normal life, sans Lisa Ling and her camera crew stopping by to document her story. And while Hailey’s mother and father have my utmost respect for their obvious love and patience and their empathy for their child’s uniqueness, I have to wonder if they’re doing the right thing for her.
Part of a parent’s job description is to guide, shape, prepare, and love our kids, so that means we’d be crazy to play into our children’s whims and phases and let them run the show (although I know plenty of liberal, free-swingin’ moms and dads who do). It’s one thing to give the middle finger to that traditional boy/girl baggage and let your kids defy social convention. It’s quite another to let them adopt a completely different lifestyle, assume a completely different identity, and take on a completely different name when they’re not even old enough to write in cursive. I would let my daughter pick out what she wanted to wear when she was 5. It was an exercise in choice, a show of independence. I would not, however, let her tell me that she no longer wanted to be a girl and accept her moves to not be one.
I don't believe that children have the tools and information they need to make informed, reasonable decisions about their lives. It’s the reason responsible parents don’t let their kids get tattoos when they’re 10 or why they’re not allowed to ring in their 12th birthday with a shot of Patron. So certainly creating a completely new personhood based on not feeling like the gender they were born into seems like too much control for someone who, at the age Hailey made her transgender declaration, shouldn’t even be crossing a busy street by themselves.
This could very well be one of those normal phases that a child goes through, but I’m not naïve enough to say with certainty that Hailey will grow up and out from the desire to live her life as a young woman. She may not, and that’s cool. There will be more challenges piled on top of the load of crap that's already the companion messiness of adolescence. But until then, I think her mom and dad need to step their parenting game up because in the process of “letting her be herself,” she may end up not finding her real self at all.
How would you handle your child's desire to lead a transgender lifestyle?
Image via oprah.com