Letting Children Be Who They Are
I am writing this post today not as a librarian, but as a parent. You see, I have 2 little girls. The youngest is five. That will be important in a moment.
I was woefully unprepared for parenting, as most of us are. So after 9 months of torturous pregnancy, I was not prepared for the emotional slam that came when my baby was taken out of my womb and set upon her life task: to become her own person, to find her own place in this world, to become completely separate and independent from me, this woman who had been physically joined with her for 9 months. And yes, it happens from the moment they are born. We dress our babies up in clothes we choose for them like little dolls, until they put down their foot and say no, I will not wear that . . . and it happens sooner than you think. Our job as parents is to help them become the best them they can, to reach their full potential. In order to do that, we must honor their spirit.
There before me stood a dress, a glorious dress that I found beautiful and stunning and wanted to see my daughter wear because I liked it. She, however, did not. So I took another dress, one that I knew she would hate even more, and gave her a choice. See, I told myself, I am giving her choices, letting her make decisions for herself. But of course, the truth is that I was not. I was not honoring who she was and her personal tastes and styles, I was trying to manipulate her. I was trying to make her be who I wanted her to be. And even as we walked out of the store that day with her having chosen the dress I liked, my heart knew that I had lost because I was being a type of bully and not honoring who my daughter was in this world. It was a hard learned life lesson about what it means to be a parent and to honor your children. And for the record, she of course never actually wore the dress, because she had never wanted it. And a few days later, I was okay with that, because together we were figuring out this parenting thing.
I thought of this last night as I finished reading The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. It is a gloriously creepy good book (I liked it a lot), but it also has a fascinating storyline about a young man named Jeremiah West – who is gay. So one day, his parents discover his secret and can not handle this truth. And much like me standing there before my child with two dresses, his parents give him a choice: He can continue to be a West and deny who he is, or he can leave, banished from the family for choosing to honor his soul. Like my dress choice, it is a false choice. It is a bullying choice.
For a while, he tries. He tries hard to be the perfect heterosexual son that his parents so strongly desire him to be. But then he falls in love, a love he must hide. Fast forward and the town he lives in, Oleander, is falling apart and everyone is basically killing everyone. Not an exaggeration. The town is quarantined, violence is escalating, and Jeremiah is seen kissing another boy. Word gets back to his parents quickly and when he returns home, his suitcases are packed on the doorstep. So even though being cast out of the house will almost certainly result in his death, his parents set him out on his own because they can not accept him for who he is. He is sent out into a maddening fray which will surely result in his death because his parents would rather exile and reject him then choose love.
Then, today, a friend of mine posted about her child. You should go read it now, then come back and we’ll talk. Like my youngest, her youngest is 5. Five years old and feeling lost and alone in this world. They couldn’t figure out what was happening until their child made an amazing and brave declaration: “When people call me a girl,” she said, “I want to die.” At 5 years old, this child felt she had born into the world wrong, and it was killing her soul. So Phoebe chose to become Phoenix. Phoenix’s parents had a much different reaction than the West family did, they chose to let their child take a path that would bring him peace and contentment in this life. They chose to honor who their child said he was. They chose love and acceptance.
I read this today as both someone who works with teens and as a mother. I read this today as someone who had just read the heartbreaking story of Jeremiah West; a fictional character, but one who reflects the lives of far too many of our teens. In fact, I have heard repeatedly this past year that coming out to parents is one of the leading causes of teenage homelessness in our age. And bullying and suicide rates are staggeringly high for our GLBTQ youth. As parents, we must find ways to choose to love and honor our children for who they are, instead of trying to make them into who we want them to be. I am so glad that my friend has been able to do that for Phoenix. I know far too many parents who would not have been able to do the beautiful thing she did for her child. It is a lesson I am still learning: letting your child be who they truly are in this world, honoring their soul.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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