March 19, 2012

Really, Really Tough Questions from an 8 Year Old

I'm just going to warn you from the outset that this post is on a controversial topic (a few actually) and that it is not my intention to push an agenda or imply that there is a best way to discuss these things with kids.  This is just an account of one mom's discussion with her kids about sensitive things asked by a sensitive aged kid.   And it's probably going to be long and winding, as the conversation was.

Today we were in the car driving from the grocery store to Haven's school to pick him up from speech when Hannah Jane asked the most random question ever.  "Mom, how come there are just boys and girls and no crosses?"  Hmmm...I wasn't sure I understood the question, so I said just that and asked her to restate.  "Well, in cats there are spotted and striped, and then there are crosses.  There's broccoli and cauliflower, and then there's a cross, broccoflower.  There's not much where there are just two choices and no crosses, so why just boys and girls but no crosses there?"

The scientist in me popped up first.  "Wow!  That's such a fascinating question and I'm not sure I've ever heard a kid ask that question before.  I'm not sure I ever thought of asking that question before the answer was presented to me.  Way to go!  Way to question everything!"  I could see in the rear view mirror that she looked proud.

My inner scientist wanted to keep going, to tell her about all the fascinating deviations from the standard.  But my inner religion lover teamed up with my inner people pleaser and threw the brakes on the discussion right there.  Those two aspects of my personality wanted to tell her that there are just boys and girls.  No crosses.  No confusion.  Nothing to worry about or stress over and that this is one of those beautifully simple ways that we can see just how clear cut the world was meant to be.

Yes, that's the answer that would please the other moms, should Hannah Jane ever venture to share this new insight with a friend.  She does that a lot.  Just a few weekends ago at a sledding trip with Joe's co-workers and their families, a mom reported that Hannah Jane was back at the end of the line telling the other kids how similar these snow drifts were to the ones that trapped the Donner Party.  I apologized, but the mom smiled and said that it was entertaining and that Hannah Jane had been careful not to tell anything gruesome.  Anyway, knowing her potential to share, I'm careful.

All of that swirled in my head as I decided how to proceed.  I'm not sure I should have proceeded like I did, but I went on anyway.  "Well, the truth is that on rare occasions there are crosses.  When this happens, it's kind of sad because we live in a world that understands just boyness and girlness and so you can imagine how complicated it would be to not be just one or the other."

Of course, she can never just leave it.  "So what do crosses look like?  How can you tell?"

"Well, when a baby is born, how can you tell if it's a boy or a girl?  Only by looking at its private areas, right?  And so in the beginning, a mom and dad and doctor would know that a baby was a cross because it's privates would look a little like boy privates and a little like girl privates.  The technical word for this is 'ambiguous genitalia' but it's not something you'll hear often because not only is it rare, but it's considered an improper topic for regular conversation.  I'm only telling you this because you asked, and I want you to know that a lot of parents would find something to tell their kids other than the complete scientific truth.  So don't make this a topic of conversation okay?  You wouldn't want other kids' moms to feel like you know too much and might tell their kids things they aren't ready to discuss.  Got it?"

She nodded.  But there were more questions about what makes this happen.  We talked about hormones and how all babies start development as girls and then at some point a biological switch flips and they begin developing all the stuff that will make them boys.  We talked about women who use steroids and how they develop man-like features and about how even soy estrogens have, on occasion, been known to produce some feminine features in men.  There was a little talk about endocrine disruptors and frogs.  Finally there was a short explanation about how any number of exposures to toxins could cause the switch to flip either late in development or only partially (remember, I am still talking to an 8 year old here, so forgive the over simplification) resulting in that ambiguous genitalia that we talked about.

"I don't understand why that is so controversial, mom."  Of course, having no concept of sex and that genitals have a function outside of just peeing, she doesn't see the controversy yet.  I went with, "Well, that's good.  You're compassionate and see things for what they are.  Best not to find controversy in every little thing.  Well done."

I go in an get Haven from class and when I get back in the car, she's back at it.  "So why do other people think it's so controversial?  Is there something you're not telling me?  And what kind of clothes to those people wear?  If you can't see their privates, and so you can't tell what they are, how do you know?  What do they act like?"

Here we go!  I grabbed from a report I had seen not too long ago that would demonstrate the controversy in as vague as possible manner.  "You see, a family will often choose which to raise their child as, a boy or a girl, and then surgeons will help make their privates match the chosen gender as best they can over a series of surgeries so that they don't have to deal as much with the complexity of not identifying themselves as one of the two socially understood options.  Everything about private areas can be hard to talk about for some people."

"Well, does that work?  Why more than one surgery and what if they choose wrong?"

"Well, sometimes it's a big change that they need to make and privates don't just need to look a certain way, but they have to work, right?  You still need to be able to pee and so there are a lot of factors at play so it takes a lot of work to get things in order.  I think that often they try to get it all done before a kid is old enough to remember their more ambiguous genitals so that they can just grow up confidently knowing what gender to identify with.  And sometimes they do chose wrong.  You've put your finger on why it's controversial all on your own."

"I still don't get why anyone cares about that.  If you get it wrong, you just say so and change what you do, right?"

Gah!  I have avoided talking about homosexuality like the plague (all things super politically charged, actually) and here I am stuck in a conversation with a curious 8 year old that is rapidly heading towards that talk.  Joe always tells me that I can't claim to be open minded so long as I can't talk to my kids about something.  But I guess I avoid it because I don't want to complicate their reality.  I don't want to present more options for consideration when just the one options is already so untidy sometimes.  But this was the moment.  Here we were, trapped in the van with no Joe to help out or even consent to the direction that this discussion was going.

"Well, you know that it takes a mommy and a daddy to make a baby because babies need a little bit of each to develop.  And so when we fall in love, we usually fall in love with people we can make a family with.  Well, if the parents choose wrong, let's say they choose boy but their child has the heart of a girl, meaning that they grow up and find that they've fallen in love with another boy.  You can imagine how tricky that would be because most monotheistic religions teach that only boys and girls can be together.  I assume that rule is to help people grow families, although I don't know for sure, but we know that most religions teach that.  So wouldn't it be very hard to be someone who thought they were a boy who also really fell in love with a boy?"

"I'll bet the elephants don't like that."  What in the world?  The elephants?  I must have looked confused because she continued, "You know how the democrats have donkeys and the republicans have elephants - I can't remember which is left or right, mom.  Which is it?  Well I know the republican elephants want our government's laws to match the Bible's laws exactly, so they probably don't want those kids whose parents made the wrong choice to get to be with the people they fall in love with.  That's really sad.  What do you think?  What do Baha'is believe?"

I could just cry.  She's being so innocently thoughtful and I wonder, for a moment, what the world would be like if everyone held on to that.  "Well, you're right.  It is sad.  Baha'i girls and boys are supposed to match up in a way that they can make babies too, just like Christians and Muslims.  But you can imagine how hard that is for someone who falls in love with someone that doesn't match that religious ideal.  Religion, and sometimes government asks that those people live forever according to laws instead of according to their inclination, feelings, and desires, which is fair, but still very hard and uncomfortable to talk about.  There are lots of things religions and laws ask us to do whether it matches what we feel like we need to do or not.  Remember in Les Mis, how Valjean went to prison for stealing bread?  Stealing is against both government and religious law, but because he was in a dire situation when he stole the bread, we felt compassion and mercy for his character.  It was hard to feel like the punishment fit the crime.  I guess this is the same way.  We can understand and accept what our religion and our government say is correct, but still have a deep desire for everyone to be treated fairly and with compassion for the very difficult position that they find themselves in.  I  guess we all decide for ourselves how to feel and speak about these delicate issues.  But this is precisely why it is controversial.  A lot of people feel like because their religion teaches not to be a certain way, they should be openly outspoken about it, should prevent people who do what their religion teaches is wrong from having the same rights as everyone else, and even be mean to those people.  But understanding how complex the situation can be, how complex human life is, you do have the right to love everyone.  Not just love in theory, but really care deeply about them and spend your time with them, and enjoy their company even if they don't make the same choices that you make.  And you have a moral obligation to defend the rights of every human being.  We're Baha'i, and sometimes Baha'is have to depend on non-Baha'is who are in the majority to stand up for their rights to be Baha'is without being harmed in any way just for being different.  Luckily, we don't have to deal with that here in America, but you know what I'm talking about.  And in the same way, being in the majority of girls who love boys and boys who love girls, you do have a responsibility to stand up for the minority who find it difficult to align their hearts with the laws but still have the right to be happy, safe, and loved, to have all of the legal protection and rights that the majority has.  Does that make sense?  We would never be unkind to someone of a different religion just because they don't do what we do, and we certainly wouldn't have a ton of friends to love and enjoy if we only spent time with people who believed exactly what we believe.  So don't feel inclined to be mean or afraid of people who fall in love with someone they can't make a family with in the traditional way, because they are people too.  And who knows what religious law will dictate in the future?  Not me.  God wants kindness and love above all else.  And someone who is a cross, as you call it, needs your love just like mommy does and like your brothers do, and like your best friends do.  Go it?"

By this time we were home and in the kitchen unloading groceries.  She rolled her eyes as if to say, You talked too long, mom and I got it a long time ago.  "Yeah, I got it.  And I won't talk about it until I'm like, 20.  And if I ever meet a cross, I'll hold their hand and be nice.  Got it all.  Can we work on Titanic now?"

And that's how I spent my afternoon.  I was half on high alert, half on a soap box, and all in mom mode.  I guess I'll find out how Joe feels about her knowing that much when he gets home.  Last week I confided that I told her what the word sexy means when she asked why she couldn't get the shirt that was too tight even though it was her size.  He took that pretty well and agreed that she's going to have to understand what sexy is and why not to be it until later eventually, so I'm holding out hope that I'm not in the dog house for going full honesty with her on this one.  Wish me luck!  And wish her luck!


  1. I think an easy answer is that there are hermaphrodites--literal crosses between boys and girls. Heard of them?

  2. Sorry for commenting twice, but I want to say good job :)

  3. Holy Smokes! Why didn't the word hermaphrodite pop into my head? If it had, I could have parleyed this into a discussion about earthworms instead of people. That would have been so much easier to navigate! See? I need another adult with me at all times for when they ask the tough questions that take me off guard. In those moments I just respond from the gut and fret about it later.

  4. Oh Skyla! This is beautiful! You are so articulate and open and loving. I don't have any kids yet but I want to memorize this for one day when I do. I think you did a wonderful job and what beautiful proof that God gives us our specific children for a reason. You are her first teacher but you are also her student. I could go on and on because I am so impressed! Way to go!

  5. Oh Nikki, thank you so much for your kind words. I was nervous to write about it, but figured that if nothing else, it might cause parents to consider what they might say when the time came. Again, thanks!


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