Why Joking About Your Child's Crush or Romantic Interests Can Be Harmful
Even the most progressive parent can hear problematic stuff come out their own mouth sometimes. But, really, how harmful is a joke about your and your bestie's kids marrying each other someday? "He's my future son-in-law" or "Those two are future husband and wife" are tongue-in-cheek predictions many of us have made without thinking too hard about what they mean. But the damage from pushing heterosexual norms on our kids is real, experts say, especially if they're LGBTQ+.
"Kids get a sense of what they're told, what's acceptable for them," says Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the United States. It's subtle comments that create an internal conflict for kids, she says, often from well-intentioned parents who are unwittingly "planting those seeds early on."
It doesn't just have to be households with ragingly homophobic beliefs that create that internal conflict, Kahn notes. Children as young as 5 have a clear gender identity, a study from the TransYouth Project found. Because of that, little comments that carry any heteronormative expectation can threaten a kid's well-being and erode their sense of belonging over time.
That goes for gender-normative ideas, too. Haven't so many of us been at the playground when a parent gushed, "Look, she has a little boyfriend!" where, in essence, it was just two kids playing house and having fun with each other? It's easy to get lost in the joke as an adult, to smile and nod along; after all, that might be the only positive context in which we've allowed boys and girls to interact, or boys to show their more feminine, nurturing side. But the effects of this type of teasing can be detrimental and long-lasting.
Caregivers joking about a kid's sexual or gender identity, for example, "tells them that this is not a safe space," says Renata Sanders, M.D., M.P.H., Sc.M., professor of adolescent and young-adult medicine and gender identity at Johns Hopkins University. "It potentially isolates them further." That's on top of already feeling vulnerable. "As an LGBTQ kid, you already feel different, like the sore thumb. You feel separate," she adds.
When a child doesn't feel safe or accepted, even tacitly, their mental health suffers, explains Dr. Sanders. LGBTQ youth experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts and ideation. Last year, a survey from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ people under 25, found that 40 percent of respondents seriously considered attempting suicide, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered it. LGBTQ youth are also 120 percent more likely than non-LGBTQ youth to experience homelessness, according to a 2017 study from the University of Chicago, which also puts them at greater risk for developing mental illness and substance abuse issues.
The statistics are devastating, but research also shows that when adults care, they can do a lot to reverse these trends. A study from the Family Acceptance Project found that young adults who report high levels of family acceptance have higher self-esteem, stronger social support, and better general health. They're also way less likely than young adults with no parental support to abuse substances and inflict self-harm. And it doesn't have to be a parent. Having any accepting adult, family member or not, makes a huge difference: LGBTQ youth are 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide when they have at least one supportive adult in their lives, and are generally much healthier overall.
How to Be a More Inclusive Parent
We can be those kinds of parents who are gender-affirming, not gender-conforming, and we can start now. Here are three things to say (or not say) to our kids instead of those old-fashioned matchmaking jokes.
Use gender-neutral language
When your kids are old enough to date, use they/them pronouns instead of he/him or she/her when asking about potential partners. "Who are you dating?" Dr. Sanders says is also an easy way to avoid language that's exclusive and hetero- or gendernormative. It takes practice, she says, but it's important to create a safe space for your kids to share openly and honestly, especially as they enter adolescence and spend more time away from home.
Focus on friendship and platonic love
When it comes to marriage or romance, leave your kids out of it. These cultural tendencies to portray our children as little couples are "built into our DNA," Kahn says, adding that even queer parents can catch themselves doing it. Instead, affirm the kids' friendship without putting it in a romantic context: "I hope you two are friends forever" and "You two have a special connection" are statements that don't limit, but actually encourage the friendship to grow over time, whatever pronouns the kids may use.
Don't say anything
This one is pretty simple: Just avoid making any comments altogether, Dr. Sanders and Kahn both offer. It might be more helpful for some parents to go with the tip above; after all, it's a fun, social way to acknowledge their child's friendship without sliding into inappropriate fantasies about marriage or romance. That having been said, silence also allows your kid the space to form their own opinion and end the friendship without the pressure of disappointing you. But, either way, any of these options are better than all that romantic teasing no kid wants to hear.