It’s the Little Things Part 2: In Pursuit of Imperfection

The last post showed how small changes in language could be powerful signals that help open conversations, and listening for the question behind the question can help you get to the answer your kid really needs. But how do we get over our fear of sputtering to a confused stop, of making a mess in a sensitive situation? My current and recent teen interviews revealed that parental willingness to show discomfort, surprise, and a lack of knowledge actually turn out to be seeds of strength to help their kids.

 “One beautiful thing about my son is that through all these questions of mine he just kept bringing me information, articles and websites. So I would advise any parent, always be open to learning more because it is amazing what you can learn from your children.” -MS

Seeing the parents “behind the curtain,” like the struggling Wizard of Oz, is fine as long as what they see is that you are indeed trying, or even thinking about trying.

“It’s universal that kids will complain about how their parents reacted [to coming out news], but that’s ok. Don’t feel shame or guilt over your first reaction. Deal with it honestly, and then just be supportive.” – AR

“It took me 4 years between realizing that I was queer and coming out. I don’t think it will take my parents quite that long. It’s been 2 years and they may still not be fully there, but it’s ok.” -AA

“I wanted my parents to at least acknowledge that they might move from where they were to a different place, but they wouldn’t, at first. We had terrible fights. -IK

Awkward efforts may be especially valued.

“I was touched after I first came out that my parents obsessed over recommending movies with gay characters in them even if they were really bad movies. I didn’t want to watch them, or finish them if we had started, but I knew they were trying.” -EL

 “It’s kind of awkward when my boyfriend comes over. [My dad] doesn’t know how to talk to him. [Not the same as when his older sister brought home her first boyfriend.] It’s weird because he doesn’t know if he should be all guy-to-guy with him, like ‘Hey, what’s up,’ or what. I can understand how he feels because even I think it’s weird that I should have a boyfriend sometimes.” – TA

With respect to our words, is it better to wait or jump in bravely?

“Parents are always growing emotionally too. With that comes better impulse control. Parents would do well to try to sit on their own feelings and rage and just listen.” – LB

“The first time we met the boyfriend, I could tell my son was really uptight. I don’t really interrogate the boyfriends of either my daughter or my son, and I could tell when I shook his hand that he was very bright and personable. But I knew they both were nervous. I empathized! I knew my job was to try to make the boyfriend more comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable.” – MA

In too many situations, the perfect zinger to defend our kids or call someone out on bad behavior will always occur to us too late. But my sources provide a couple of possible aces for your sleeve:

“In answer to, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ my mom jumped in and said proudly, ‘He has the most wonderful boyfriend.’ “ -PO

[In response to “She’s a dyke” or similar in an insulting tone] “”You can say, ‘So maybe she’s a lesbian but you don’t have to point that out now, or use that word.’ -SB

Some of my sources felt there was a practical benefit of parental stumbling around their kids’ gender or orientation.

“Sometimes parents’ less-than-full acceptance or slowness in coming to acceptance can actually help prepare kids for the outside world. It’s a kind of tough love.” – LB

“You don’t want to teach your child that the world is an evil place, but there are definitely people out there who will call him names or be mean, and you have to prepare a kid for that somehow.” – SH

 We don’t sugar-coat messages to our kids about the world’s expectations regarding punctuality, dress codes, job interview etiquette, the importance of human spell-checking, etc. In a closer parallel, as our kids start moving around independently, we teach them street-wise behavior to make them less-likely crime targets. But conformity to majority expectations or safe practices in these matters rarely threaten teens’ developing sense of self (despite what they may say about the stifling oppression of dress codes).

Gender and orientation, on the other hand, are central to identity. And even young kids see that heterosexual and cis-gendered are “normal” and anything else is outside the majority, even if they have not directly seen and understood homophobia. So this calls for more nuance in the “real world” prep lessons from parents.

“As parents, we have fears, but if we ask for help we can reduce the problems our kids face…. He knew I was confused but he also knew I was there for him no matter what. I think feeling your 100% support is very important for them, and then they become your support too.” -MS

“For parents who want their kids not to have such a hard life, if they know they have their parents full support it eliminates the hardest problem they’ll ever face.” -BK

 “It’s how they show the worry that matters. If you assume the world is all homophobic, you want the kid to hide it, but the message that you shouldn’t have to hide it is much better.” -KP

“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of parents have grief, even if they are progressive. You had a dream of your kid’s life, and now it won’t be like that. My mom was completely worried that I’d be lonely and sad. She went to a PFLAG meeting [see also Keshet Parent and Family Connection], met other parents and found out that this wasn’t going to be the case. Then she became an activist.” -AR

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