Vanessa, a teacher in Washington DC, and her husband Ron are experts now in how trans kids should be treated. But they had to learn fast, when they realized their four-year-old daughter, Ellie, is transgender.
They are a family rooted in strong values. Vanessa’s parents lived the ultimate love story – meeting young, falling in love and spending their whole lives together. Ron’s parents were also in love, but the family had to deal with tragedy. When Ron was 10, his dad died of brain cancer.
‘The emotional scars were still deep, knowing my dad was no longer living. So, when I met Vanessa and thought about raising a family, I really wanted to ensure she and our kids were what I focused on – my role as a husband and dad. They came first,’ he told me.
Their son, Ronnie, was born first. Ellie was due 18 months later.
‘We had an amniocentesis and found out the “sex,” but at the time we really didn’t think about sex and gender being different. We pretty immediately formed a family identity as “Vanessa and Ron with two small boys.”’
The amnio did not tell the truth about Ellie, however. The packaging was misleading. As soon as she was able to speak, Ellie set about clarifying who she was to her parents. ‘I’m not a boy. I am a girl. I’m a girl in my heart and my brain. My penis is my only boy part. The whole rest of me is girl,’ she would explain to them out of the blue, without prompting.
Vanessa was disturbed when she witnessed Ellie trying to fight her own inner truth. Ellie would lie in bed at night, unable to sleep, poking her chest and attempting to convince herself of something she was told but did not believe: ‘Boy, boy, boy! I have to be a boy! I have to like Power Rangers!’
Witnessing this struggle, Vanessa and Ron knew it was time for them to transition. Their daughter had spoken, and they had to listen.
Ellie had already rejected the name she had been given at birth. She had been okay with it until she realized people would see her as a boy if she used it. So she informed her parents that she was ‘Ellie.’
The results of Vanessa and Ron’s full acceptance of Ellie was dramatic. ‘She blossomed, became happier and just seemed more herself,’ Vanessa says. ‘We have a happy, silly, strong-willed, outgoing daughter. Before her transition, she was mostly quiet, shy, sometimes angry and certainly not outgoing.
‘At the forefront of parenting is ensuring the happiness and safety of your children. It was clear that by not listening to her, we’d be putting her at risk, and that is not something we were willing to do.’
Ron and Vanessa then did the incredible; not only did they not hide what was going on in their family, they built a new community consciousness around their child.
It’s not uncommon to see a child stop when they see another child crying and ask “why is he crying” and even go as far as to offer a toy or hug to help. Or for my own kids to offer to feed me if I say I’m hungry or for them to say “mommy are you okay?” if I stumble, get hurt or have an accident.
Children are inherently full of love and enjoy helping those around them, but if we also want our kids to become caring, compassionate and charitable adults, then we have to teach it to them. We have to teach them that caring about others is good and that it’s good to help those in need.
From hunger, to homelessness, to cancer research, the world is in desperate need of charitable people. But teaching your child to give to others is not only good for the world, it’s also good for your child. In research recently published by Harvard Business School, giving to others promotes happiness, enhances your sense of purpose and increases your satisfaction with life.
So teaching your child to be charitable is good all the way around – for the world and for your child.
Five simple ways to teach your child about charity today:
1. Start a “giving bank.” A “giving” bank is a piggy bank that the whole family contributes to and when the bank is full, the money is donated to a specific charity. Doing this makes giving a family activity and makes it more fun for your child. It’s also a great way for parents to model giving to their children and for you to practice what you preach.
2. Choose a different charity every year and encourage your child to learn about it. From the flood victims of Kashmir, to families in our own communities who need clothes and furniture for their kids, there are many different people in this world who need help. By focusing your giving on a different group every year, you’re providing your child with a wonderful educational opportunity to learn about the many different causes and struggles worldwide. Choosing different people annually will also show your child that everyone with a need is equally deserving of our compassion.
3. Make giving a holiday tradition. Have your child pick out a toy and donate it to child in need this Christmas holiday. There’s no better way to make the act of giving more emotionally satisfying than to put a smile on a child’s face. It might help you to start a new holiday tradition.
4. Give through your child’s school. From food drives to clothing drives, take advantage of any charity events run by your child’s school. Getting involved through your child’s school will enhance your child’s sense of community at his or her school while teaching them about the value of helping others. If your child’s school doesn’t do charity programs, take the initiative and have your child start one.
5. Make birthdays a time for receiving and giving. Encourage your child to give away old toys that are in good condition every birthday when your child receives new toys. It will help families in need, teach your child about giving and help you to de-clutter. So it’s a win-win for everyone. To help you get started. There are many organizations that will accept your toy donations. Some of them include Room to Grow for New York residents, Goodwill, Toys for Tots and Second Chance Toys. You can also contact local family shelters in your area and ask them if they need donations. So get to it. Happy teaching and happy giving.
Parents can help smooth interactions – and build friendships – between typical children and those with special needs
By Lori Lakin Hutcherson
Look at me! Why don’t you talk to me? What’s the matter with you? Do you have cancer?!
“A young girl stopped my son and started screaming at him,” says Monika Jones, describing an incident at the park with her 7-year-old son Henry, who was born with Hemimegalencephaly, a non-genetic condition where one side of the brain is abnormally larger than the other. Henry is non-verbal, and his behavior can be similar to that of someone with autism, including repetitive actions such as humming, flapping and walking in circles.
“The mom was on the phone and didn’t stop her daughter, just seemed to be totally oblivious,” continues Jones, co-founder of the Brain Recovery Project in Pasadena. “My husband was not oblivious and proceeded to let the mom have it. It was a sad moment for him to see another child do that to our older son.”
This type of interaction between typical children and kids with special needs is, unfortunately, all too common. My son Xavier, a first grader who gets around in a wheelchair because of challenges due to cerebral palsy, epilepsy and dystonia, hasn’t been screamed at but is often stared at in stores, at the park or at birthday parties.
Sometimes, he even receives fearful glances or full-on eye aversions. Like other children with disabilities, he is often ignored or spoken over as if he can’t respond or understand, or as if he isn’t even there. While most kids’ curiosity is harmless and vastly more welcome than avoidance, it saddens me when people bluntly ask, “Why is he in a wheelchair?” or “Why is he drooling?” without even introducing themselves or saying hello first.
A Good Start
As parents, it’s up to us to facilitate kind, respectful, and friendship-building interactions between typical and special-needs children. We can begin by assuming that people with disabilities can, and want to, interact with us. “Never underestimate their capabilities. Look at them as a whole individual,” advises Keely Arevalo, a special-education teacher at CHIME Charter School in Woodland Hills. Speak to the person – with their parent or caretaker – not about the person, Arevalo adds.
Modeling good conversation, Arevalo offers, is another major way parents can help. “Maybe say ‘Hey, how are you? How’s your day? It looks like you have a Harry Potter book. Did you read it?’ And even if the individual didn’t respond, that’s OK. Let your child see a good way to interact in those situations.”
Amanda Hsu, a case supervisor at Working With Autism in Encino, suggests finding similarities to create positive exchanges. “Let your child know that, just like they have things they like or don’t like, kids with disabilities have those same things,” Hsu says. “Finding common ground is a good starting point to focus on instead of focusing on the differences.”
Teaching respectful curiosity is another important thing parents can do, according to Fred Johnson, whose 15-year-old son Ulysses has Down syndrome. He advises parents to let their children know that it is OK to ask questions – within limits. “Role play with your kids,” he says, suggesting that you ask a question your child finds embarrassing, then ask how that makes them feel. “You don’t ask anything of someone you wouldn’t be ready to answer yourself,” is his rule.
This kind of preparation helped Arevalo’s 5-year-old niece have a successful visit to CHIME. “I told her, ‘Every person is different, every person has different needs, different abilities, different strengths and weaknesses. Despite those things, we’re all human beings, we all deserve to be treated fairly,’” Arevalo says.
Arevalo also taught her niece how to ask questions in an appropriate way.
“She did have questions and she did pull me to the side at an appropriate time,” Arevalo says. “The rest of the afternoon, she actually was gravitating towards the individuals with disabilities and wanted to sit with them and play with them. My niece looked past the disability and saw an individual.”
If you notice that your child is uncomfortable around people with disabilities, reassure them and encourage them to talk with you about it so that you can help. “Let them know it’s OK to have fears,” advises Arevalo. “Guide that conversation and say, ‘I noticed you looked a little bit uncomfortable’ to find out exactly what they were afraid of. A lot of times those fears will go away once there isn’t that unknown.”
Make your explanations age-appropriate. “For a 5-year-old, you want to explain it as simply as you can,” Hsu offers. “For example, ‘Maybe the little boy is in the wheelchair because he’s not able to walk, so the wheelchair is a thing that helps him move around just like you and I move around with our legs.’”
Taking the Lead
If your child becomes frustrated in trying to make friends with, or be a friend to, a child with special needs, remind them that friendship isn’t always easy. “Interacting or playing with your friends, sometimes that’s a difficult thing for some kids,” says Hsu. “Have your child come up with some ideas as how to engage that child.” You can help lead the way with questions such as, “What is your friend like?” and, “What do you think you could do to make her more comfortable?”
Parents can help by reaching out, too. “Sometimes it starts with the moms becoming friends,” says Jones. “That’s how you open up the friendship with the kids.”
For typical children, extending themselves to peers with disabilities is well worth the effort. “There’s a sense of, ‘I did something good,’” says Hsu. “It’s a two-way thing that’s a good lesson for both [the typical and the special-needs child].”
“Bring special-needs children to your parties. Ask for play dates after school, even if they’re wheelchair-bound and tube-fed and can’t talk,” urges Jones. “I wish every parent reading this article who has only typically developing kids would assess if their child has a friend with special needs. If they don’t, tell them to make one, and incorporate that child into your lives. If every typically developing child had one friend with significant special needs, then what a beautiful world we’d live in.”
Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson) is a film and television writer/producer, editor of the award-winning website, goodblacknews.org, and mother to Xavier (@XavysWay), one of the coolest kids in the world, who also happens to have special needs.
Building Bridges Between Typical and Special-Needs Kids
Model appropriate behavior. Greet people and ask respectful questions, so your children see how to do it.
Find common ground. Focus on similarities instead of differences.
Be inclusive. Invite special-needs children to a party, to play or join a group.
Assume ability. Always assume the child with disabilities understands you. Speak directly to that child and include them in conversations with parents or caregivers.
Open communication. Let your child know it’s OK to have fears and ask questions.
Don’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” or any question in a way that might hurt feelings.
Don’t exclude. Don’t assume a child with disabilities can’t handle a situation or activity. Let the child and the child’s family decide.
Don’t look away or avoid individuals with disabilities. Smile!
Don’t patronize. Most kids with disabilities like the same things their peers do.
Don’t touch without permission. Ask first!
Don’t pull your child away if they say something embarrassing. Use the incident as a teachable moment.
U Brands and Nia Enterprises are collaborating to create a brand-new, multi-platform destination created exclusively for fathers of color called Notorious POP. The site will be a go to social destination dedicated to educating, entertaining and inspiring African American fathers and their families. U Brands, which owns and licenses underdeveloped brands that target underserved audiences, is the parent company to print and digital platforms such as Uptown and Hype Hair Magazines. Entertainment and marketing company Nia Enterprises is an authority in the parenting space.
Leonard Burnett, Jr., Co-CEO of U Brands and father of two remarks, “I am excited about our new content destination that will defy stereotypes about our fathers and promote positive portrayals of African American Dads which are often missing in the media.” Notorious POP notes that generally the phrases “Black Fatherhood” and “Black Dad” are accompanied by the phrases absentee and crisis. The statistic that is often reported by the media is that Black fathers are more likely to live separately from their children, but the fact remains that Black Dads are actually more involved with their kids on a daily basis than Dads from other racial groups.”
The mission of Notorious POP is to create a worldwide community for expecting, new and veteran fathers. Notorious POP will debut on Monday, June 2, 2014 and will be an immediate resource for parenting advice and will feature editorial franchises and video content.
Defying enduring stereotypes about black fatherhood, a federal survey of American parents shows that by most measures, black fathers who live with their children are just as involved as other dads who live with their kids — or more so. For instance, among fathers who lived with young children, 70% of black dads said they bathed, diapered or dressed those kids every day, compared with 60% of white fathers and 45% of Latino fathers, according to a report released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Nearly 35% of black fathers who lived with their young children said they read to them daily, compared with 30% of white dads and 22% of Latino dads. The report was based on a federal survey that included more than 3,900 fathers between 2006 and 2010 — a trove of data seen as the gold standard for studying fatherhood in the United States. In many cases, the differences between black fathers and those of other races were not statistically significant, researchers said.
The findings echo earlier studies that counter simple stereotypes characterizing black fathers as missing in action. When it comes to fathers who live with their kids, “blacks look a lot like everyone else,” said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who has previously studied the topic. And in light of the negative stereotypes about black fathers, “that is a story in itself.”
In Watts, Bryan August-Jones battles the stereotype daily. Every weekday, he wakes his three sons before sunrise, gets them dressed, then ferries them to the baby sitter and to school. On weekends, he takes them bicycling or to Red Lobster, which his youngest son — “a little fancy guy” — prefers over McDonalds. His Latina mother-in-law and her family think black men cannot be good fathers, but “I prove them wrong all the time,” August-Jones said.
“If you are a parent, recognize that it is the most important calling and rewarding challenge you have. What you do every day, what you say and how you act, will do more to shape the future of America than any other factor.”
–Marian Wright Edelman, author, activist and Founder of The Children’s Defense Fund