Responding to Gender Atypical Behavior in Childhood

There is another story making the rounds on the internet. Baptist minister Sean Harris offered a “special dispensation” to parents of gender nonconforming children. Here is a portion of the transcript from Good As You:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, “Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,” you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed. Can I make it any clearer? Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.

He has since that time offered a clarification that he misspoke and overstated what he was trying to convey. Thankfully, many Christians have rejected these suggestions and challenged his statements.

Harris raises a controversial topic that is actually difficult for many parents: How should Christian parents respond when their child demonstrates gender nonconforming (or what is sometimes referred to as gender “atypical”) behaviors?

This is an area that I was asked to cover when I wrote Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors and Friends. I won’t be able to do the topic justice here, but you can take a look at Chapter 5 of that resource. As I mention there, gender nonconformity in childhood is often reported by adults who identify as transgender and by adults who identify as gay or lesbian. It is not uncommon for Christian parents to express concern about homosexuality (parents are not typically aware of Gender Identity Disorder) if their child is demonstrating gender atypical behaviors.

As you can imagine, this is very controversial in the field of psychology. I am not aware of any research suggesting that a parent can intervene to prevent homosexuality. It might be argued that since we do not know the causes of homosexuality (we tend to discuss Nature vs. Nurture but it is likely some combination that is weighted differently for different people), the environment could be addressed in some way, but it is unclear the extent to which that would be preventative as such.

There is some data that supports the view that parents can intervene to help reduce symptoms of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in childhood (see the work of Dr. Ken Zucker on this). At the same time, the field has been trending toward a different strategy altogether when there has been a diagnosis of GID (i.e., use of hormone blockers to delay puberty until the child – then a teen – around 16 or so can make a decision about gender identity).  This approach is also controversial.   There are still those who intervene through therapy and coaching parents in how to redirect their child away from gender atypical behaviors (again, Dr. Ken Zucker being perhaps the most well-known example). But that approach looks nothing like what Harris was suggesting in his sermon.

If any good can come out of the statements by Harris, perhaps it is that parents will reject his suggestion (as they should) and look for helpful resources on whether or how they might respond to gender typical behaviors in childhood. There is still much that we do not know about gender atypical behavior, sexual identity, and gender identity, so there is a need for humility as we consider what is best for a child in these circumstances.

5 Comments

  1. “If any good can come out of the statements by Harris, perhaps it is that parents will reject his suggestion (as they should) and look for helpful resources on whether or how they might respond to gender typical behaviors in childhood”

    It is another one of those situations where you have a psychological issue, gender behavior, that the Church feels qualified to jump in, and based on the Bible, dictate the desired outcome. No Girly Boys! Girly Boys are against God. They do the same thing with homosexuality again part of our psychological make up. I see it as religion trumping (or trying to) science.

    And sadly no Mark parents do not reject “Pastor” Harris’s advice, they embrace it. Please see the comments here-
    http://www.baptiststoday.org/cartledge-blog/2012/5/1/read-it-and-weep-or-worse.html

  2. Effeminacy: We believe males dressing and/or behaving in an effeminate manner is an act of rebellion against the God who created the gender distinctions of male and female. We believe men should dress and act like men, and Christian parents should raise boys to become godly men and girls to become godly women.

    We believe the gospel is powerful enough to deliver a man from effeminacy

    and that those whose lives are characterized by effeminate dress and behavior shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Deut. 22:5, 1 Cor. 6:9-10). (We believe a woman dressing and/or behaving like a man is also a sin before God).

    Homosexuality: We believe homosexuality is a rejection of God and the natural order He established for procreation and the multiplication of families throughout the earth (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18-24, Eph 5:31). We reject any teaching that males or females are born with a natural homosexual orientation from God (Rom 1:26-27). We strongly reject as heretical any teaching or church that suggests one can be a Christian and an active or passive homosexual.

    We believe that the gospel is powerful enough to deliver a homosexual from this destructive lifestyle

    and that a person cannot remain an unrepentant homosexual and inherit eternal life (1 Cor 6:9, Gal 5:19-21). We strongly reject any suggestion that two homosexuals living together constitute a family. We believe homosexuality is the kind of sin that could result in divine judgment on those involved with or sympathetic to this behavior while on earth (Gen 19:24, Jude 7).

    Mark are these your peeps?
    http://www.bbcfnc.org/contemporary-issues.php

      • It was an honest question, I was trying to be cool by asking if these are your “peeps.”

        Maybe I should have asked if you are in alignment with this statement of faith and the the statements that through Faith alone men or boys can change from effeminate behavior to masculine. The same thing on homosexuality.

        You are right in that narrow lane of the intersection of Faith and Psychology and I wanted to know if you agree with this Pastor Punch’s churches statements on psychological issues. I thought I was being cool, I guess it would be better to simply be straightforward.

  3. I understand the reference to “peeps”; what I don’t understand is what in my post caused you to think I agreed with the claims about faith changing effeminate behavior (let alone physical contact). The post was about rejecting the advice from the pastor and directing Christian parents toward a more helpful way to approach gender atypicality, albeit both ways of intervening are controversial (but at least have some empirical support).

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