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The Gray Areas of Parenting

by Amber Leventry January 13, 2016

By: Amber Leventry

Ryan, Eva, Ben-2.5 years

My kids, my babies, are still very little. But as my preschooler approaches kindergarten and my twin toddlers gain language that makes them both fun and antagonizing, they are using new words to express themselves and explore the environments around them. My daughter balances curiosity with a bit of skepticism I hope she holds onto. Not because I want her to lack the ability to trust, but because I rather her recognize honesty in those around her than be fooled by her own naiveté.

Our boys are curious too. But so far their learning has been hands-on and cause and effect based. Ben likes to take things apart, test limits, and make messes to see how the world works. He is also matter of fact. We know exactly what he likes—all sports, any type of physical activity, and anything with wheels and a motor—so providing him with toys and books to assist in his excitement to learn is easy.

Ben and Ryan playing at park

His twin brother, Ryan, is more complicated. He asks questions and tinkers too, but I think Ryan has more answers locked in his little body than questions. We will all be better served when he can tell us what he knows. He tends to be a follower, yet is also very explosive and intense. Ryan wants nothing more than to be understood, and much of his anxiety and frustration appears when he is not. He has plenty of words, but his two and a half year old tongue can’t always articulate them well enough for me or my partner, Amy, to understand what he is saying.

Amy and I do our best to answer our kids’ questions with factual, yet age appropriate answers. We’re not ones to sugarcoat life’s realities, yet there is a lot of gray area in our parental guidance. We are careful with our daughter’s sensitive, takes everything literally, soul. She wants to believe in Santa, unicorns, and fairies but she also wants scientific explanations to confirm their existence.

Our conversations with our daughter include a lot of phrases like what do you believe, how do you think that happens, and tell us what you think. We provide her with enough information to not lie to her, yet leave wiggle room for her active imagination to believe all things are possible.

Ben needs our guidance in ways that keep him physically safe. He is fearless, and as much as we want natural consequences to encourage or discourage certain activities, he just doesn’t grasp that certain things are dangerous. We worry that before he learns his own limitations he will injure himself. We also worry that we will stifle his abilities with our own fears. Ben seems to know exactly what he is doing and sometimes it’s hard to watch.

With Ryan we are trying to learn him rather than teach him. He is giving us very clear information about what he wants and perhaps even who he is. While he is happy to go with the flow of activities around him, he is not happy to go with the clothes or language of assumptions we had about raising boys. For more than a year he has preferred and will only wear “girl” clothing, starting with his insistence to wear his big sister’s clothes. I disagree with labels placed on toys, books, or even topics, but for explanation’s sake, Ryan has preferred what are typically considered to be girl versions of these things too.

Gender does not determine preferences, but sometimes preferences align with gender identity and stereotypes. Ryan has repeatedly told us he is a girl.

We have no idea what motivates Ryan to tell us he is a girl. He adores his big sister and wants to do everything she does. And when he wants something—long hair for a pony tail, the ability to go to ballet class, or My Little Pony paraphernalia—he will tell us he wants those things “like Eva.”

Is like Eva his way of mimicking what his big sister does or a way to mimic what a girl does? Is this a phase, in a way some kids will only wear red or eat chicken nuggets for every meal? Is he a boy who likes dresses, pink, and sparkles but already at a young age knows those are “girl” things?

We decided months ago to never tell him what he is not. We tell him he can be anything he wants. We will love him always. But because recently he has shown some sadness and anxiety around the subject, Amy and I decided to not pressure him for an explanation. With a professional’s advice and our own parenting instincts, we are going to follow his lead. If he is telling us something other than what we believe to be true, then we need to listen.

Ryan in ballerina dress

Sometimes our job as parents isn’t to educate our kids but to learn from them. There is no one way to be a boy or a girl; we knew this before we had kids. We have always provided a safe and encouraging environment which allows our children to explore what they like and who they are. But there are certain things about Ryan we just don’t know. Is he simply a product of what we have always wanted to create for our children, comfortably exploring what it means to be Ryan? Or is there something else at work? We just don’t know.

What do we think, what do we believe? The tables have been turned, and the gray area of parenting has been redefined; Ryan has convinced us to believe anything is possible. We wonder. We wait. We love him.

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Amber Leventry
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