You might think you wouldn’t have something in common with the parents of a child who is transgender, right?
Actually, you do. Please hear me out.
Most people have never met someone who’s transgender—that is, someone whose gender identity or expression is different from the gender they were assigned at birth, based on their male or female anatomy. Ninety percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but only 8 percent know someone who is transgender.
This is exactly where Debi Jackson, a mother of two in Missouri, was a few years ago, too. In fact, Jackson had never even heard the word transgender. That is, not until about the time that Jackson’s own child, who she viewed as her son at the time, told her: “I’m a girl.”
At 3 years old, A.J. had a favorite princess dress at daycare. That in itself wasn’t a big deal; as the teachers told Jackson, it was hardly an unusual sight to see little boys rifling through the dress-up box, just as girls often played with the “boy” toys. Then, A.J. asked for a princess dress to wear at home. At first, not wanting to waste money on something Jackson assumed her son would tire of quickly, she said no.
But when A.J. continued to ask for a princess dress, Jackson and her husband relented. A.J. wore it every second at home, and as a nightgown. Then, A.J. eventually asked for more “girl” things: clothes, shoes, headbands, toys. Jackson and her husband thought this preoccupation with feminine things was probably a phase. When the phase didn’t end, maybe, they thought, A.J. was gay. However, when Jackson discovered her son pressing down on his male genitals, because A.J., explained, they were “in the way” and “I want them gone,” Jackson took her concern to an Internet search, and typed in “4-year-old boy says genitals should be gone.” A short list of results returned, with one recurring word that Jackson didn’t recognize: transgender.
At first, Jackson wasn’t sure what to think, but even before she got through the appointments she would make with her pediatrician, a child psychologist, and an endocrinologist, A.J. said to her one day, “Mom you know I’m really a girl, right? I’m a girl on the inside.”
Over about ten months, with support from a psychologist at the Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson and her husband supported A.J.’s transition to, as Jackson notes, “her true gender.” They began using female pronouns, allowed A.J. to grow out her hair, and bought her girl clothes while setting her boy clothes to the side, in case she ever wanted them back. She never did.
Jackson and her husband had a plan in place—A.J. would wear boy clothes to prekindergarten until the end of the school year. But, says Jackson: “A.J. had other plans, and one day refused to leave the house in boy clothes. She was done, tired—sick of pretending to be a boy, so that was it.” Free to be the girl that she was, with full acceptance from her loving parents, A.J. thrived.
Today, A.J. is a happy, 7-year-old second-grader. She takes trampoline classes, and hopes to make the trampoline team, like her brother did. She has an entrepreneurial spirit, A.J.’s mom notes proudly. She joined the Girl Scouts just so that she could competitively sell cookies with the troop. She loves Minecraft, Princess Sofia, and Cinderella. A.J. is a “born entertainer,” says Jackson, “always making jokes and putting on short skits.” A.J. also loves animals, and wants to have some kind of animal-rescue job when she grows up.
When Jackson permitted A.J. to go to school dressed as a girl, her little classmates were accepting. Many parents, though, were not. Jackson, herself a self-described “conservative Southern Baptist Republican from Alabama,” lost most of her friends. Relationships with some extended family members were very strained for awhile, too, though some have slowly come around, using the correct pronouns and even recently buying A.J. “girl” toys.
Jackson told me that she had almost canceled that video appearance, fearing for her daughter’s safety, given some of the hateful and even threatening comments that Jackson’s read online. But feeling other families might benefit from hearing her message, she did it. The video went viral, and Jackson’s since heard from others expressing gratitude for her speaking out on behalf of people who are transgender.
Most times, other parents don’t “get” Jackson and her family, she says. She doesn’t expect them to. After all, she was once just like them. “It’s okay for you to have questions and not understand it,” says Jackson. “That’s where we were three years ago.”
Personally, I have yet to meet someone who is transgender (at least to my knowledge). But after speaking with Debi Jackson, and several other parents in the trans community recently, and even from merely watching the powerful video above, I feel like I understand a little better. It’s hard not to feel instant admiration for parents who have had their own friends turn their backs on them and their precious children, but can still be generous in both spirit and time to inform and educate, and hopefully, help all of us to make this world a more accepting place for their children.
For all children.
Gail O’Connor is a senior editor at Parents and mom of three. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.
My daughter and I were finishing up lunch in a diner. As the waitress cleared my empty plate, recently the scene of a large pile of greens and grilled chicken, she said, “Good job on that salad!”
“Right?” she then said to my girl, who gave that polite smile kids do when they’re expected to respond to the adult speaking to them, but don’t know what they’re supposed to say.
“I learned how to ride a bike last year, Dad. You can stop saying ‘good job!’ now.”
When we got outside, I asked my daughter, “What did you think when our waitress told me ‘good job’ for eating my lunch?” Meanwhile, I’d already quickly made the sanity-saving decision to mentally suppress any possible subtext in our waitress’s comment (something like, oh, I don’t know: You slob).
My daughter shrugged and said, “I thought it was weird.”
Weird. That’s what I thought, too. It was my lunch. I ordered it. What was I supposed to do, if not eat it: stare at it? I’d smiled at the waitress politely, too, in lieu of I-don’t-know-what she expected me to say (“thanks?”).
Yet we say “good job” to our kids all the time, for things they’re supposed to be doing anyway, even routine, unspectacular stuff. We say “good job!” to them for getting their shoes on or for drinking their milk or for scaling the monkey bars or for using the toilet paper. Yet research shows all this praise isn’t really helping kids. Overpraise may even undermine kids’ efforts and commitment to whatever they’re doing, according to experts like Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck, a pioneer researcher on kids and motivation, and author of Mindset, and Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Rather, children should be motivated by their own enjoyment of the task at hand.
I recently had another occasion to hear I was doing a “good job!” during a group training class at the gym. No sooner had we pushed the start button on the treadmills when the buff, baby-faced trainer in charge—let’s call him Zac Efron—said, “Good job, everyone.” Excuse me, Zac? I haven’t even started walking yet. How could I possibly be doing a good job? Throughout the one-hour class, he must have said through his mic “good job!” no fewer than 30 times. No doubt Zac meant well, but I felt irritated. Irritated because I knew his praise was not sincere, which of course must be how kids feel when they’re being good-jobbed everywhere they turn. All of a sudden, my youngest child’s cranky retort after I had told her “good job!” for going down the big slide—she said , “No, I’m not!”—made sense to me.
I’m about to embark on vacation with my kids, and if I can get them through a week of new adventures, from sampling clams to paddleboarding, without overpraising them, maybe then, and only then, I can look in the mirror and say to myself, “Good job.”
It amazes me that in 2014, many schools still don’t have air conditioning. How can children concentrate, much less learn anything, sitting in a room with temperatures hovering in the mid 80s to the 90s, as many U.S. kids whose schools are still in session are doing right now?
“I have a question: Why no air conditioning?”
While technology and other projects have taken priority, physical comfort during the warmer weeks of the beginning and end of the school year, it seems, still lags on the list. “If prisons have AC, then so should schools!” says my friend Linda, a mom and former teacher who’s passionate about this topic.
Last week at my son’s spring orchestra concert, I wish I could have focused on the kids’ beautiful performance. But I was distracted by how uncomfortable they looked in the heat of the school’s un-air-conditioned auditorium. While parents fanned themselves with their programs and checked the time, children onstage blew hair out of their eyes, wiped their foreheads on their bare arms, and tugged at their shirt collars. Last night, I attended a literacy celebration at my younger child’s school, in a 100-year-old building, where we were encouraged to write notes of “warm feedback”—code for positive commentary, but could have just as easily referred to our pencil-smeared, sweat stained Post-Its.
I thought about these kids, and the school staff, who have to work in hot classrooms through the end of next week in our New Jersey district, and wondered how many other schools still don’t have air conditioning. In asking a few friends whether they had air at their schools, a theme emerged: If you were lucky enough to get some state grant money, and/or if your school had a strong enough PTA, and generous donations from parents, air conditioning is a popular project at the moment, with passionate supporters. Still, cooling a school is quite an undertaking: paying for individual wall units, updating electrical work, purchasing compressors and air handlers, and so on. Understandably, it’s been slow coming. But it’s also overdue.
In one of my favorite classic movies, The Seven Year Itch, a straight-and-narrow New York businessman’s summer gets interesting when the new girl who’s moved into the apartment above, Marilyn Monroe, comes downstairs to bask in his air conditioning. His wife and child are away in the country for the summer, as was customary in 1955, because it was too darn hot.
I think about New York City schoolchildren—the many who don’t have air conditioning—who will have sweltering days in their classrooms through June 26th. Chicago is ponying up $100 million to meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “sudden mandate to air-condition classrooms in 206 schools, even as CPS [Chicago Public Schools] faces a $1 billion shortfall and many other pressing capital needs,” as the Chicago Sun Times reported in April.
I detect judginess of Chicago’s mayor in those words. But as a mother who, like most parents, is sympathetic to sweaty, red-faced kids and teachers, I’m with Rahm.
With our first child, my husband and I had pretty strict rules. No TV until age 2. Bedtime at 8 pm, firm. Then our next kid came along, and all that flew out the window. Our second watched her big brother’s favorite cartoons from her bouncy seat, and bedtime became more like 8-ish.
All parents of two know the second child gets perks sooner than the first does. So while my oldest, 12, got his first phone and began texting friends at the start of this school year (he’s a sixth-grader), his sister’s asking for the same privilege—specifically, to use iMessage on her iPod Touch—even though she’s a whole three years younger than he is. Then again all kids, whether they have an older sib or not, are tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages. How else to explain how well my 2-year-old can deftly swipe her way around an iPad?
But back to my dilemma at hand: How young is too young to allow your child to start texting friends? My son was ambivalent about messaging pals, but our second, who’s nearly 9, is eager for her dad’s and my permission. “All my friends do!” she said. I checked around, and indeed, her girl buddies are texting and FaceTiming.
I talked to a friend who’s been there, and this was her take: “It starts out innocently enough. You check her messages, and in the beginning it’s a lot of, ‘Hey. ‘Sup.’ And you think, OK, this is all pretty boring.
“But you can’t get lax,” my friend continued, “because then they start sending pictures. And at first it’s just animals, but then the next thing you know, their friends are writing or sending inappropriate things.” I was thinking of another mom pal whose fifth-grade daughter and her friends initiated a contest on Instagram to determine the prettiest girl in their circle. Their moms moaned a collective, “Ugh!” and promptly shut it down. Another mother I know has a blanket “no selfie” rule for her kids—no selfies of any kind, ever. Their house, their rule.
Right now, my third-grader just doesn’t want to be left out of deep discussions about Littlest Pet Shop and the like, and I sympathize. Texting is a way to socialize, after all, and I know it’s inevitable. (So far, her only texts have been occasional ones to me at work, from the babysitter’s phone.) Today’s children are “digital natives”—as Hanna Rosin wrote in this eye-opening story last year in The Atlantic, the “touch-screen generation” has never known a world without electronics, so no wonder my kids’ gen and mine will likely never see exactly eye to eye on what’s too much. I’m hardly anti-tech myself (I sleep with my iPhone beside my bed), but it feels all too personally familiar when I read that studies show kids ages 8 to 18 are spending more time on their electronic devices than any other activity. As Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, writes eloquently in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Families in the Digital Age: Parents and children may be enjoying “swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet,” but they are losing “a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.”
We’re a happily pro-tech family, but my kids are on their devices plenty already. (Ditto.) Allowing my daughter to text a moment sooner than she needs to feels like one more pull down the deep digital rabbit hole. (Related: She also wants a YouTube channel.) Selfishly speaking, it will be one more thing for her dad and me to monitor. And if kids continue to adapt these practices at younger ages, at what age do you absolutely draw the line? In a few years will our toddler be messaging friends about what they’re wearing to kindergarten graduation?
I’m curious: How old were your kids—or how old do you think they’ll be—when you allow them to text, Instagram, and use other social media to keep connected with friends? Do you, or will you, check up on their activity?
I’d <3 to hear ur thoughts on this.
Controlling Your Child's Digital Interactions
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Our columnist Nicole Zeman, a mom of two in Portland, Oregon, answers your pressing questions in her new Parents magazine advice column, ”If You Ask Me…”. Send Nicole your questions at email@example.com.
Q: I’m 5 months pregnant and my husband won’t have sex with me. He says it’s weird for him and he feels uncomfortable because of the baby, but once in a while would be nice and would help me feel better about myself. Is this normal? —Abandoned on My Side of the Bed
Dear Abandoned, Sexually confused husbands are one of the unfortunate but common side effects of pregnancy, like acid reflux or peeing every time you sneeze. Your husband is having trouble separating your body from the baby growing inside it, which makes viewing you as a sex object feel… wrong.
But forget him for a second. Whether you’re getting action doesn’t have to dictate how you feel about yourself. As a dad friend of mine says, growing a baby is a superpower. Reveling in that will up your confidence and sexy aura, as will wearing slinky fabrics that glide over your skin, splurging on bath products that smell delectable, and indulging in shamelessly romantic books and movies. Your husband may remain an admiring bystander as you explore and enjoy your pregnant sexuality, or he may quickly get over all that reverential crap and realize what he’s missing out on.
P.S. Don’t settle for a flesh-tone, elastic sack of a maternity bra! Step it up with flattering cuts, sexy lace, and lovely colors.