Behold, children are a gift of the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.
I grew up Baptist Christian. These words from Psalm 127 are emblematic of a shadow my upbringing has cast across my life, my familial relations and, ultimately, my body. This and similar scriptures are the foundation of a Christian idea that a person is not their own, that they owe their body and their life to those who brought them into the world—in short, that children are owned, by their parents and by God.
This sense of ownership has a lot to do with ideas of patriarchal legacy: children must carry on the traditions and vocation of their lineage, so that parents may achieve a certain kind of immortality through them. In some Christian circles, such as the Quiverfull movement, the idea that children are God’s blessing is taken to a logical extreme by assuming a mandate to have as many children as possible. But the Biblical idea that children are a gift or a blessing takes on a sinister tone when one realizes the logical conclusion this principle is taken to: that a gift is a thing to be used for the enjoyment or utility of the recipient.
Whether or not a given family is religious, this theme infects the cultural backdrop against which we raise our children. Children are so often denied personal and bodily autonomy that it becomes routine and therefore invisible. The commonly cited reasons are health and safety; kids need to be kept from eating poison or running into traffic. And this is true as far as it goes. Kids don’t have the survival ability necessary for complete, informed freedom of choice. We intervene and control in order to keep them alive and well.
But the border between necessary intervention and arbitrary control is thin, hazy, and frequently crossed. Adulthood, and parenthood in particular, becomes a mandate for directing the choices and actions of children simply because we can. It’s almost axiomatic with some that children who “talk back” or “don’t mind” are in the wrong. As a child, I was frequently chastised by authority figures when I knew I was in the right, and when the authority knew I was in the right, simply because I had dared to argue with an adult.
But I didn’t fully appreciate the child-ownership culture’s impact until I became a parent myself. My partner and I looked forward to raising our child through nonviolent, non-coercive attachment-style nurturance. But we found that other adults around us did not share or understand that value and pressured our daughter constantly to comply with adult wishes—and for the most petty reasons. From relatives insisting on hugging and kissing her over her objections, to friends prodding her to smile when she was in a sullen mood, to strangers insisting that she say hello and tell them her name despite her obvious reticence, the demands were so pervasive as to be invisible.
This is more than an inconvenience for the child. This is the beginning of shaming, of teaching children that their feelings and needs are invalid or even wrong or “sinful.” J. Zornado, in his scathing book Inventing the Child, explains how this process begins early in child socialization:
“In detachment-style parenting the infant learns early and often that the adult—a force outside the infant’s body—determines the rightness or wrongness of the child’s physical or emotional condition. When the child’s needs or feelings are deemed inappropriate by the adult, the process of repression and cultural reproduction has begun.”
This repression is more than intellectual; it is deeply felt. It is bodily. A child learns that their body is disgusting and threatening and that their physical experience of desire is abhorrent. We tell ourselves that we are doing this in order to help children grow into functional, emotionally healthy people, but Zornado claims this is a convenient and toxic fiction:
“Along with the adult’s domination of the child’s experience of herself, the child is frequently required to repress her emotional energy… The child’s expression of anger, for example, is often disallowed, though for no conscious reason other than that the child’s anger seems to represent a serious threat to adult authority and control and, ultimately, to the adult’s idea of himself as a parent who is in control. Anger, then, must be disallowed, by either forbidding it or meeting it with a greater force. For the child to survive and be deemed acceptable and appropriate by the adult world, she learns to hold in or hold off certain feelings that threaten the adult.”
In short: adults train children to be “well-behaved” and compliant for the sake of adult needs, not for the sake of children’s needs. Now, adults do have legitimate emotional needs, and guiding children in coming to recognize those needs as legitimate is a healthy part of emotional growth and developing empathy. But adult “needs” in our culture are often constructed around the desire for control, and for ensuring that our children, our property, deliver us a parent-child experience in accordance with our own expectations.
Parents grieve for their children in many ways, for many reasons. When death takes a child before their elders, the heartache of survivors is palpable and understandable. But I’ve noticed that parental reactions to the adults their children become often resemble mourning the dead. Again, parents own their children in patriarchal culture, which means their lives are not their own—are in fact a reflection on, and extension of, their progenitors. A child who doesn’t turn out how you hoped is a stock market crash of emotional investment.
It is, of course, legitimate for a parent to feel dismayed when their children end up in a bad place through unhealthy life choices. But parental grief for the living doesn’t stop there: anyone who expresses a non-normative identity (queer, trans, polyamorous, non-Christian, radical politics, to name a few) is at risk for parental disapproval, up to and including ostracization and abuse. Offspring exercising agency is threatening to the controlling parent. Any arrow fired at the “wrong” target is simply wasted ammunition.
As a transgender woman I know this all too well. When I came out as trans, my mother was the only immediate family member who didn’t cut off all contact with me, but every (infrequent) interaction we have had over the last two years has been centered on her disapproval and concern for my “destructive lifestyle.” Two Christmases have gone by with her refusing to acknowledge my name and pronouns. This season past, my desperate pleas for her to call me by my right name ended with me fleeing her presence in tears.
Telling my mother how much this hurts me avails nothing: she claims that “we’re even” because it hurts her that I’ve chosen this life for myself. When I last asked her to stop calling me by my deadname (my birth name, which I have set aside), she refused, because “that’s who you are.” As a Baptist preacher’s widow, her concern comes from spiritual and doctrinal roots, but she has also made it personal. Her parental ownership over my very identity means that she counts my deciding for myself who and what I am as an actual grievance against her and against God.
Parents and other loved ones often express their process of coping with a trans person’s coming out as “mourning” the “loss” of someone who has “died.” This is incredibly alienating and hurtful to the very much living trans person who, more than ever, needs the support and acceptance of family at this time. A trans person who has chosen to live openly as themselves is still the same person. But in terms of elders’ perceived need to live on through the next generation, the property they “invested” in really is dead.
My partner, who is also trans, recently had an awkward interaction with someone she considers chosen family, in which said person abruptly withheld affection, giving a cryptic reason. When my partner inquired via email, they explained to her that they were mourning the “death” of the “young man” they used to know. They described this supposedly deceased person’s qualities, such as sweet, quirky, cares deeply for family, and dreams of helping children—all qualities that my sweetheart still possesses. Rather than embrace the living person right in front of them, they asked for patience while they coped with their “loss.”
Hopefully, given enough time and patience, they will indeed come around and love their living sister again. But in that moment, they prioritized their idea of a person and their expectations of her over the person herself. Despite having supported her from the beginning of her transition, they abruptly asserted a bizarre ownership over who she is, based on who they believed her to be.
I am striving my hardest to break this pattern with my own daughter. Whenever I catch myself making demands of her for my own convenience, or feeling tempted to push my own perspectives on her, I stop and rethink my approach. I allow her agency where I am able, and I am as frank with her as I can about the validity of my feelings and needs—and about the validity of hers. But I do not raise her in a vacuum. My mother, her grandmother, is particularly concerned that her granddaughter follow the “right path” for the sake of her soul. I can only hope that, in living my own truth openly and nurturing my daughter’s truth, we can both find freedom amidst the demands of a controlling culture. We are not arrows in anyone’s quiver. Our lives and our bodies are our own, and whatever we make of them will be beautiful.[Headline image: The photograph shows a young child with light brown hair picking a flower in tall grass. The child is wearing a pink and white dress with pink and green designs.]