Monday, November 8, 2010

Kids, Gender Identity, and Bullying: Moms Fight Back

Last week on Facebook, no less than ten friends posted a link to the Nerdy Apple Bottom website post "My son is gay". The post was written by the mother of a 5-year old boy who dressed as Daphne (from Scooby Doo) for Halloween. She talks about his arrival at school in his costume and the harsh reaction received...mostly from other parents. She documents her internal reaction to this reception, which prompted much discussion and cheering among my Facebook friends:

"If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to 'make' him gay, then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off".

As of tonight, this post had 41,311 comments.

Coincidentally, the November 15th edition of People Magazine runs a story called "A Tale of Acceptance". The story profiles a Seattle mother named Cheryl Kilodavis who also has a 5-year old son that likes to dress up as a girl character. When the behavior began three years ago, she and her husband discussed it and decided to let him dress how he liked. In order to help other kids accept him, Cheryl decided to write a children's story. She calls her self-published book, "My Princess Boy".

Cheryl first shared the book at her son's school. The vice principal loved it and put copies in all the classes. Cheryl soon had orders from nine other schools and now that there has been so much press coverage, the family is searching for a publisher and trying to keep up with the book requests.

Of course, not all of the press has been positive. A New York Times article late last week discussed some therapists' concerns about these young boys being "outed" by their parents by having their pictures posted on YouTube, blogs, and talk shows. Some commenters wonder why these mothers do not protect their children from ridicule by making them dress in costumes that are more gender appropriate.

The discussion of bullying and suicide over the past few months has seemed to provide a real "teachable moment" for this country. People want to talk about it (as evidenced by the 41,000+ comments on the Nerdy Apple Bottom site). People want to teach kids how to respect themselves and each other. Therefore, they seem fascinated by "My Princess Boy", which uses words and illustrations that can allow even the youngest children to participate in the discussion around personal expression and acceptance. These blogs and books and support from children's schools can really help to change the social norms around what is "normal" behavior and dress. We must be creative in designing a way to evaluate these normative changes. Hopefully we will see a reduction in negative outcomes for students (e.g., reports of bullying, rates of depression, and suicide). But hopefully we will also see a reduction in risk factors further up stream, like attitudes around acceptance and gender roles.

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