Monday, January 5, 2015

It's Just a Phase

Trying things on, exploring, and experimenting, are part of the process of learning who we are and how we want to live our lives. They are important steps in growing up to be a functional human being. How we go about exploring is different for each of us. Some people need first hand experiences, but others learn from observing the experiences of those around them, reading books, or exploring online. Most of us learn from some combination of these. 

When kids are figuring out who they are, and how they fit into the world, we often say, “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase.” Perhaps it’s “just a phase” but that does not negate the validity of the process. As parents, our job is to support our children through their phases. When a baby is teething we may comfort ourselves, as we comfort them, by saying “this too shall pass.” If we have a toddler that loves to climb we can provide vigilant supervision to keep them safe until their judgement and climbing skills develop, or until they move on to a different interest. 

I’ve known a few toddlers who delighted in walking backward. Walking backwards was helping them experience the world, expand their spatial awareness, and develop greater confidence in their ability to move through the world. The most beneficial  response to this is not to forbid them from walking backward, putting them in time-out, or yelling at them. The most helpful response is patience, staying close to our child so we can move obstacles from their path that might cause harm, or offering gentle direction to guide the toddler through obstacles they cannot see. Some toddlers may resist direction, they want to do it on their own. “Me do it!” is a common mantra among children ages three and under. They want to learn by experience, they want to figure it out, and supporting them takes finesse and a whole lot of patience, as well as planning extra time into every activity of the day. And when it’s not something they can do, when they reach the limit of their ability because their desire to do something is out pacing their physical or mental development, we don’t say, “I told you so,” we hold them close, comfort them, and help them the best we can. 

Sometimes something is a phase, part of the developmental process. Sometimes it’s not “just a phase.” We can’t always know ahead of time what will stick and what won’t. We may know that a baby won’t be teething forever, be can’t know if our child will start ballet at three and end up as the Sugar Plum Fairy when they are 20. We can’t be sure if our child will still love all things related to legos when they are 30, or continue painting as an artist when they are 50. Some interests come and go, some stick around. Because we don’t have a crystal ball to know the future, it is important to take all interests seriously. 

There are some things our society is less comfortable with, when it comes to exploration, phases, self-discovery, and developing an identity. One of these areas, for many people, is gender. Some parents get uncomfortable when their preschool age boy dresses up as a princess or wants to be the mom when kids are playing house. Some adults think that girls should not play contact sports, and definitely not football or hockey. Some people forget that exploring gender helps kids understand gender roles in society and provides the opportunity to figure out how they want to express their own gender, or even what their gender identity is. 

"To explore what it means to be both genders is also totally normal. 
But the problem is we have suppressed it for so many generations,
that people are still uncomfortable with it. 
You can’t become what you are until you know what you’re not."

If your little boy insists on dressing like a girl, or even that she is a girl, it may be “just a phase.”  If your teenage daughter starts exploring gender and wants to go shopping in the boys section it may be “just a fashion statement.” But I encourage you to take the “just” out of those sentences. Even if it is a phase or a fashion statement, it’s part of your child’s process in figuring out who they are. And if it isn’t just a phase or a fashion statement, the sooner you start following your child’s lead the more they will trust you and involve you in their exploration and expression of who they are. 

Aiden Key explains it well in The transgender life: What to Know, say, and understand:

Could it be a phase?

Key works with a lot of families and children, especially elementary school students who are just beginning to express a gender that is different from the one assigned to them at birth. Some parents will be inclined to ask, "Is this a phase?"

She advises parents to give themselves permission to think of it as a phase if it helps them.

"What if it is a phase? Take that question further," she said. "Don't we as parents want our children to be able to explore and learn?"

A parent should be concerned with sending an immediate message to their child that they accept them.

The phase question is tied, of course, to "What if my child changes his or her mind?"

"Well, OK, then they do!" said Key. "Give them that freedom."

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