Editor’s Note: Aaron Gouveia is the author of “Raising Boys to Be Good Men: A Parent’s Guide to Bringing up Happy Sons in a World Filled with Toxic Masculinity” and “Men and Miscarriage: A Dad’s Guide to Grief, Relationships, and Healing After Loss.”
Imparting life lessons to your own kids is part and parcel of parenting, but what about doing that for other people’s kids? When (if ever) is it appropriate to step in to issue a value judgment and draw a hard line in the sand when it involves not just your child but other children as well?
That’s the question I wrestled with as I consoled my 7-year-old son who was crying because an older kid in the neighborhood kept calling him gay.
We live in an old-school, blue-collar Massachusetts neighborhood with children who descend like locusts to play football, hockey and baseball and have Nerf gun wars that leave our driveways littered with orange-tipped foam projectiles.
Some of the parents meet on the street for a beverage or two as the streetlights come on, occasionally ducking errant shots but otherwise letting the natural order work itself out.
At best, the scene is downright Rockwellian and a throwback to the old days. But, as this incident proves, the old days were not always the best in a lot of ways.
The ages of this group of boys range from 7 to 14, and disagreements about rules, whether so-and-so actually scored a touchdown, and run-of-the-mill personality disputes are completely common. So, when my 7-year-old son came in with red eyes looking perturbed, I didn’t initially give it much thought and was ready to tell him to work things out for himself.
Then he suddenly broke down in tears. “Dad, why is being gay stupid or bad?” he asked me.
My three boys are being raised to benefit from the mistakes I made in my youth related to toxic male stereotypes. That means using “gay” as an insult, telling someone they “throw like a girl” and calling someone a “retard” is banned in our family. They know our gay friends, they have gay relatives they love, and we discuss on a routine basis why comments such as those are so hurtful.
All those conversations can’t control what other kids say, and I know a friend’s comments can influence my young children. So, when my son heard older kids he looks up to using gay as an insult, a part of him wondered if his idol was right.
My son was in tears, and I knew he needed to calm down before we spoke. Yet I also knew I needed to talk to someone else besides my son. That’s why, despite my desire to let kids work it out themselves and not be “that dad,” I headed outside to talk with the older boys.
These are good kids, and so I led with that fact when talking to this older boy. I told him I know he’s not a hateful person. But while he is free to say whatever he wants at home, I’m not going to allow slurs within my earshot. I also reminded him that many people around him might be gay or questioning their sexuality and asked him how he thinks they’d feel if everyone used gay as a pejorative.
I ended with a high five and told him unequivocally I know he’s better than that slur, and he promised to try harder. And in the couple of weeks since then, he really has made the effort.
Were my actions called for? Would other parents think I overstepped? I couldn’t let that slur go unaddressed, not just because of what it did to my son. I also care about how vulnerable LGBTQ young people are to stigma and how high their rates of self-harm are compared with their peers.
The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, estimates more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide every year in the US, with at least one attempt every 45 seconds.
Amit Paley, Trevor Project CEO and executive director, told me that increased risk comes from LGBTQ youth being more likely to experience stigma, rejection, bullying and violence compared with their straight counterparts.
“Gay is an identity term, not an insult. Using it as such can be very hurtful — especially to LGBTQ young people who are coming to terms with their own identities,” Paley said. “We must all do our part to condemn anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and harassment when we see it, and work together to create safer, more affirming communities for all young people.”
If we’re going to start these tough conversations and create supportive communities and safe spaces, it must start with parents on the front line. And that includes dads, whose outspokenness on these topics is historically scarce but whose opinions can have an outsize influence.
The responsibility can’t be solely on children to stand up to bullies, said Genevieve Weber, an associate professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and licensed mental health counselor who has worked with the LGBTQ community for 20 years.
Kids, whether they’re LGBTQ or allies, don’t always know where their parents stand on the issues. That’s because many parents never actually sit down and have the conversation. That’s why Weber and four other moms started a pRYEde group in Rye, New York, made up of experts in mental health, literacy and education. It provides innovative and inclusive programming to Rye and its surrounding communities.
“Many parents I work with are intimidated because they don’t know what terms like pansexual or transgender means, but that’s OK. Jump on Google and read a little bit. It’s OK not to know everything,” Weber said. “What’s not OK is missing the opportunity to talk to kids because once they know you care it creates momentum, the conversations can continue. And if they do see or experience something in the future, they’ll come to you instead of hiding it.”
If all else fails, Weber advises boiling the issue down to its essentials.
“I ask people if they would do something small like using preferred pronouns, wearing a Pride pin or hanging a rainbow flag if it meant saving someone’s life, and they almost universally say yes,” she said. “People need to know that the language we use and these little expressions of symbolism are important because they absolutely save lives.”