By Tammy Plunkett
While the Staples commercials like to tote this as “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” and I know many parents who look forward to the return of routines for their forever bored and hungry summer kids, there are some caregivers and kids for whom back-to-school means back to anxiety of being judged or being outed or being bullied.
My two sons attended Camp Dragonfly for gender creative kids in Edmonton this past weekend. At the end of the last day, we parents and caregivers gathered for a support meeting. We filled a church anteroom, all sitting in a circle, and shared where we were in our child’s gender expression journey. A theme soon bubbled to the surface which was that most of us were nervous about the new school year.
Some children will be going to school for the first time and their parents were nervous because the kids didn’t identify with a specific gender and worried about how they will deal with the teacher lining them up by girls and boys. Some children will be returning to school as a different gender than how they presented the year before. And a few parents were grappling with the decision of switching schools because of incessant bullying the years before.
I certainly don’t have a blanket statement that can make any of this easier for the people in that room or parents in Airdrie dealing with back-to-school anxiety. What I do know is that I lived through most of it with my son over the last two years and here are some of the solutions that worked for us.
Be an Advocate
It took a while for this lesson to sink in for me because I never wanted to be “that” mom who was forever in the office demanding things for my child. Alas, if this journey of gender identity has taught me anything it’s that things are not always black and white, boy and girl. You can be an advocate for your child without being demanding, mean, and disrespectful. You can be clear and affirmative. You can also be diplomatic and patient all while holding your child’s safety and mental wellness as your goal.
This was also a very difficult decision for our family. We did not want to teach our children to run away from their problems, and we had already moved across the country which caused a change in schools. But environmental factors have a huge impact on humans thriving, and I just did not want to risk my child’s mental health with the time it was going to take to change a school’s culture and tolerance. While most schools say they have a zero tolerance for bullying, I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of children being told to ignore it or to toughen up. If that is the school’s response, I don’t feel that my child’s welfare is taken seriously. I understand this is not an easy decision when there are siblings and transportation to consider as well. But I have to say that changing schools was the best thing we could have done for my son, and he would be the first one to tell you so.
Come Out on Your Terms
Your child may be perfectly comfortable telling strangers, teachers, and classmates, “I was a boy but now I’m a girl” and some children desperately want to hide any evidence of their previous gender. Obviously, some school staff will need to know for emergency health reasons and for administrative purposes if you haven’t changed the name and gender marker on the birth certificate yet. But from there, you get to choose how much the other students need to know and the other parents. My son chose to be known only as a boy at his new school for a few months, and then when he was ready to come out the school arranged for some training for everyone to understand what being transgender meant so that a 12-year-old boy didn’t have to answer a bunch of questions. It all went extremely smoothly.
This is a long journey with many bumps in the road and I would not have survived these stressful decisions without the support of other caregivers who have walked this path and the support of the counselors who have worked extensively in this field. I was pleased to hear that Edmonton Pride has a group called Seahorse Support Circle for gender creative families. There is also Gender Creative Families Night offered by Calgary Sexual Health, and of course, here in Airdrie, we have Parenting with Pride which is not exclusively for gender identity but also for parents of children from the whole LGBTQ2A+ spectrum. Note, we are moving our meetings to the first Tuesday evening of the month to accommodate more families. I hope to see you at our next meeting on Tuesday, September 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm.
Wishing you the best back-to-school season possible and may you be empowered and supported in your decisions for your child and may they feel safe and supported as well.