Learning Over Teaching: Debbie's Story
Learning Over Teaching:
For my husband and I, the journey to becoming parents lasted eight years. We were in awe when our daughter was born! We named her “Cara” because it meant “beloved.” I entered parenthood with much joy, eager anticipation, and a fair amount of apprehension. My heart was full to overflowing at the wonder of a newborn, while my head spun as I tried to inventory all the responsibilities that are a part of raising a child from infancy through teenage years. I alternated between feeling incredibly fortunate to feeling incredibly unprepared. How could I possibly know all of the “right” things to do? Even though I knew it was ridiculous to think there might be a way to do everything “right,” the idea of doing something “wrong” in the process of guiding and facilitating a child’s growth was unsettling.
As Cara moved through each stage of childhood, a recurring realization met me face to face: parenthood involves more learning than teaching. This concept ran counter to my longstanding belief that the parents’ key role is to introduce their child to new words, new people, new experiences, new skills, new ideas, and new understandings. I was going to have to let go of the notion that there was some mysterious way to know all of the “right” parenting choices ahead of time. Gradually, my ideas about a parent’s role evolved. While teaching is certainly within the job description of a parent, I now believe the primary responsibility of a parent is something much different.
Our child often expressed unexpected interests and preferences. So many aspects of Cara’s development stemmed from initiative she demonstrated instead of from ideas we suggested. For instance, when “dressing up” during preschool years, Cara’s favorite costume was that of a firefighter. She loved wearing the rugged gear and acting out daring rescues. We were a little surprised that she chose this role far more than other roles that matched the toys and “dress up” clothes we had provided.
Cara tried a wide variety of activities, but would ultimately gravitate toward those that made her feel most comfortable. She took dance lessons for one year but then switched to soccer and basketball for another eight years. She took swimming lessons, but never wanted to join a summer swim team. Instead, she asked to go to a theatre camp. That experience sparked a love of theatre that continued to grow. Cara was so comfortable and happy in the theatre environment that she became increasingly involved in community theatre through her teenage years.
Cara’s interests and initiatives continued to surprise us. After two years of piano lessons that I had suggested, Cara asked to learn how to play the drums. Fortunately, a friend from the theatre recognized her interest and gave her a quality drum set that he no longer used. She seemed far more comfortable behind the drum set than the piano keyboard.
As a teenager, Cara chose to go away to Johns Hopkins’ CTY educational programs for five consecutive summers. Her classes included flight science, forensics, bio-med, astronomy, and neuroscience. This was not what I remembered looking forward to over summer break!
Over and over, Cara expressed interests and made choices that taught us a great deal about the person she was. “Listen to your child” began to hold new meaning for me. As a parent, I wanted to support Cara in growing into the person she was “wired” to be. This philosophy made sense and was easy to follow for a number of years. When Cara was 15, this approach became more challenging.
One afternoon, Cara told me that she had started dating a girl who had been a good friend for several months. I asked if this meant she considered herself to be a lesbian. Her answer was simple: “I believe you can fall in love with someone without the focus being on gender.” My concerns were not about the relationship itself, but about the responses she would encounter from friends, family, and society. I uneasily heard the advice I had given for years echoing in my mind: “If you are being true to yourself, don’t worry about the reactions and opinions of others.”
Unfortunately, there were damaging ripple effects. The girlfriend’s parents were quite upset and told their daughter that Cara had misled her to think she was a lesbian. They described Cara with cruel, hurtful words and did not want her in their home. Nevertheless, the relationship continued through the move from high school to college. In spite of external tensions, the relationship itself seemed mutually supportive at the time.
In the winter of Cara’s freshman year, she wrote a letter to me that explained her growing understanding of her own identity. In retrospect, I realize that it took enormous reflection, insight, and courage to write this letter. At the time, however, with limited knowledge about gender variance, reading the letter was like having the breath knocked out of me. Cara identified herself as transgender, explaining that she had never been able to connect to or be comfortable with the “female” label. While “feminine” was not a word that readily described Cara, I had accepted that she was simply a nontraditional female. It had not occurred to me that she actually identified as “male.”
Sadly, it took me months to absorb the content of this letter. Cara was remarkably patient. We continued with a reasonably good relationship, but it was not as close as I wanted to believe it was then. My ignorance and fear about gender variance made authentic “closeness” impossible. In hindsight, I wish I had educated myself immediately, but I felt numb and went into a period of denial.
In October of Cara’s sophomore year, she tried to talk to me face to face about her identity. I am embarrassed to say that my own thoughts and emotions continued to interfere with my ability to truly hear her. She asked that I use male pronouns when addressing her. She informed me that she had already made this request of her professors. Additionally, she had given up the name “Cara” at school and was simply being addressed by her last name. My brain and heart seemed unable to grasp this information. I had no idea how to switch from saying “she” to “he” and “her” to “him” when addressing someone I had known from birth.
Needless to say, I have learned a lot from my firstborn child. I love Brian beyond enormously. That love enabled me to start seeking information that helped me see my child fully. I have begun to understand what he needs to feel recognized for who he is. Many parents experience their children “coming into their own” when they have a recreational activity, a school experience, or a career in which they are so comfortable they truly blossom. A situation like this is such a perfect fit that it becomes clear it is a part of their identity. For my child, living as the gender that matches how he thinks and feels has enabled him to come into his own. For that reason, I am now able to say “Brian,” “he,” “him,” and that “I have a son.”
Brian taught me that parenting involves more learning than teaching. While parents will often be “teachers,” they can fulfill this role best when they are willing to learn from their children. I believe that a parent’s primary responsibility is to guide and nurture his/her child’s growth and development with as much information, respect, and love as possible. Sometimes information (in the form of educational articles, news reports, and statistics) can be frightening. It can be hard to know how to guide and nurture your child when concern and fear loom large. Hopefully, as parents, we will find the path into the future by letting love for our children lead us, and by seeking knowledge that will teach us how to guide and nurture them respectfully.
* The names used are not the actual names of the people in this essay.
* For the purpose of this essay I used the pronouns we used at the time, to show the transition I made over the years. In regular conversation, I now use my son’s current name and pronouns when I talk about any period of his life.