Saturday, February 10, 2024

Let's Talk About Protecting Children

The ostensible reason for the UCP government's recently announced bundle of policies around transgender youth (actually, all trans people - but we'll come back to that) is to "protect children".  I'm going to speak to this from a professional and therapeutic perspective, because I have relevant training and experience in that regard. 

First, let's consider what it means to "protect" someone else's interests - to safeguard them.  The approach being taken by the UCP seems to be more about preventing the individual from making decisions for themselves, apparently on the basis that you "can't possibly understand the consequences unless you're an adult".  This clearly misrepresents the idea of safeguarding, and ultimately robs the individual of autonomy.  

The UCP's approach basically is based on the old nuclear family concept that the parents, siblings, and relatives magically "know what's best" for the child.  This is reflected in Smith's statements, as well as in the bizarre "mandatory notification" model being imposed on schools.  However, again, this model ignores the person most affected by these decisions - the child.  It's no longer given to them the opportunity to say "no, I'm not comfortable with notifying my parents right now".

And this is where the entire policy construct shows us its wrong-headedness.

What does it mean to "centre the child" (or, in broader terms "to centre the individual"?  What it does not mean is that we put the person in a box and build walls around it so that "nothing bad" can happen.  

It really means that we put the person at the centre of our interactions with them, and we respect what they tell us as being their truth.  We do not make assumptions on their behalf, and we do not presuppose what their situation looks like. 

This comes from a psychologist named Carl Rogers, author of "Client Centred Therapy" (It's readily available on Amazon if you're really interested).  At its core, Client Centred Therapy starts from the premise that the client knows themselves far better than anyone else, and needs the opportunity to be heard more than anything else.  In other words, the individual is better situated than any third party to identify what they are experiencing and what it means.  

So, when we apply this to children, it's still a valid model.  Children know what they are experiencing too.  They aren't simply little dolls that are unaware of themselves or their situations until they magically are declared adults at age 18 (or 21 in some jurisdictions).  We do expect different levels of understanding and articulation as the child develops, of course.  But that's one of the key aspects of this discourse around transgender children and youth - the argument is being made that on this one aspect, that nobody under the age of 18 can make decisions about themselves and their identity.  This is a problem.  

I want to address this notion that schools have to notify parents if their child wants to use new name or pronouns in classes.  This is the opposite of centring the child, in fact it removes autonomy from the child in a way that is beyond cruel. This makes schools a much more fraught place for children who are transgender.  The consequences of making schools unsafe will be visible in the impact on academic performance, as well as whether the child thrives in their development. 

The big issue with mandatory notification is that it makes a fundamental assumption:  that parents are always going to be "loving and supportive".  This isn't necessarily the case, especially when we are talking about subjects like sexual and gender identity.  The unfortunate reality is that in many corners those topics are still largely taboo, and a school isn't going to have any real idea which students come from families where those taboos are still in force.  

To be clear, children are clever and they are perceptive.  They pick up on the themes, messaging, and body language in the home in ways that outside observers simply won't be able to. They will pick up on everything from explicit statements to subtle body language cues.  When topics that are sensitive come up, do both parents kind of close up, or get angry about it, that could cue to the child that those subjects are "taboo".  Does Dad have "a temper" at home?  Have the parents been making off-colour jokes? All of those will be fodder for the child's model of their home environment. 

If you are a teacher, and a student tells you that "they're really scared of what might happen if their parents find out", there's an opportunity to help the student get to a place where they can tell their parents.  But, that same teacher has to recognize that in terms of the child's family, the child is the expert. If the child says they are afraid, then the teacher has to pay attention to it.  Simply blindly engaging in disclosure because the law says so opens a real ethical can of worms.  The child might not be in “immediate danger”, but we also know from hard experience that the “nicest” of parents can react very badly when introduced to the idea that their child is queer.  Queer identities are not the same thing socially as an interest in chess.  This policy fails to acknowledge that reality.

For those who wish to argue that parents "have a right to know", I have to point out that it's on parents to develop a relationship with their child that embodies the trust needed for those conversations.  Even then, we have to recognize that families are often not the first people to learn that a person is transgender.  Transgender people who transition often spend a great deal of time and effort developing themselves before telling their parents anything.  The reality here is that it takes time, effort, and perceived safety, to arrive at a place where we feel we can safely tell our families what we are going through.  Your “right to know” cannot be used as a weapon against your child.  

If Danielle Smith, and the UCP, were truly interested in protecting children, they would be paying attention to the emerging autonomy of children as they grow and their individual autonomy as they develop from childhood into adolescence and beyond.  A nuanced policy would also involve a recognition of the enormous harm done historically to 2SLGBTQ youth when they were involuntarily “outed” to families not ready for that information.  Evidence-based policy would look to decades of research into the treatment of transgender people in general, and transgender youth in particular.  

Instead, we got a simplistic policy that is clearly designed to deny transgender youth the validity of their lives and identities.  Make no mistake, if this policy is implemented as it was announced on January 30, 2024, it will result in great harm. The harm will be to children first, youth second, and families third. Make no mistake, this policy will break families because it demands that transgender youth be denied their realities.  Some will turn to self-harm and suicide, others will turn to the street and drugs for escape from the pain of dysphoria, and their families will experience the loss of their transgender children most profoundly. 

Children are not possessions to be controlled, they are ultimately human beings in the process of becoming.  It is vital that we recognize the emerging autonomy of youth, and respect it.  That does not mean you do not challenge them when they say they are transgender, but it is also just as important not to confound their quest for self and congruency. 


lungta said...

"Transgender people who transition often spend a great deal of time and effort developing themselves before telling their parents anything." Funny statement for those claiming to be born that way.
Do what you want, there is no reasonable way to make others "believe" what you want them to believe any more than you want to believe what they believe. It remains that freedom gives choice and choices have consequences.
In parenting no is as good as yes as children explore the world.

MgS said...

Transgender people - even as children - frequently have a much greater awareness of themselves, as well as the environment that they exist in - especially the social environment. They know that there are social biases weighted against them, they are often all too aware of the explicit and implicit biases that exist within their families.

Very few people actively want to alienate themselves from their families, and that's typical of transgender people too. Usually that alienation happens not because the trans person wants it, but because the family is utterly unwilling to accept the person for who they are.

Put yourself in the shoes of a youth who is increasingly clear that they are trans, and they've grown up in a family that is deeply religious, and attends a church every week where the minister is all "hellfire and brimstone". They're naturally going to be worried about how their family might react, and they have a right to take the steps they deem necessary to ensure their personal safety. Chances are that person is going to be equally nervous about coming out at all because their social circles are going to be infused with those same biases. A policy that puts adults in a position of "you have to tell the parents" makes ALL adults very risky for trans youth, not just some.

This is but one place where the Alberta Government's proposed policies make life more dangerous for trans youth, not safer.

"In parenting no is as good as yes as children explore the world"

Incorrect. Context always matters, and when we are talking about saying "no" to a person's developing identity, we have to ask ourselves exactly _WHAT_ we are saying no to, and whether we are saying "no" because it makes US uncomfortable, or it is actually actively harmful to individual somehow.

I will also point out that in general, trans identities don't "just go away" on their own, or even as a result of societal pressure. That isn't how this works, and never will be.

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