FIRST-PERSON: Parenting the sensitive soul
"How old is your boy?" I asked.
"He is five, and this has been going on for two years."
As the father began to share about his boy and their family it was obvious that the pain they were experiencing over their son was real and deep. They had tried a few counselors with little real success or answers to some of the deeper questions they were asking. Other counselors had even suggested the possibility that this young five year old might be experiencing gender identity confusion and might indeed be a candidate for a sex change at some point in his future.
"How do you know that your son wants to be a girl?" I asked. The dad's response was one that I had heard before and in many ways, was indicative of the confusion I feel exists with gender development in sensitive boys. The dad began to tell me a myriad of examples where the son was drawn to things the father identified as female: "He is fascinated with women's shoes. He puts his T-shirt over his head and pretends he has long hair. He loves to touch his mother's silk nightgowns. He is fascinated with Ariel in the Little Mermaid and often wants to be her."
With a quiver in his voice he stated, "And he put on his mother's skirt and was twirling around like a girl. I told him not to do that because that was like a girl!"
With each revelation I could sense the pain in his heart. This dad was worried. But his worry was, in my opinion, unfounded.
You see, little boys at three to five do not have the capacity to pick what kind of sexual expression they would like for the rest of their lives. They can hardly decide whether they want Cocoa Puffs or Cheerios for breakfast. Furthermore, even if they did make some declaration, we should not take it too seriously because it might change in a moment.
I reassured the father that his son did not want to be a girl and the only person that was really saying anything about him being a girl was the dad. But why then was this boy drawn towards things which were typically identified as more feminine than masculine? Simply, he was a very sensitive soul.
Sensitive boys are real boys. They are simply extremely gifted with particular giftings that manifest in emotionally and aesthetically expressive ways. His little boy's obsession with women's shoes was not because he wanted to be a girl, but more because he was aesthetically and visually oriented -- and women's shoes are much more visually exciting than the black, brown or burgundy of men's shoes. Women's shoes have sparkles, bobbles and bows. They come in every color imaginable and are in different shapes and textures. They are an aesthetically gifted boy's dream!
And he was not trying to identify as a girl when he grabbed his mother's skirt, put it on, and twirled around. To him, it was similar to our experience of going to the fair and doing drop art projects where we drop paint on a spinning paper and watch it splatter, but even better. As he moved, he created art and beauty as the colors whirled around him and flowed up and down in the air. Better yet, he was the center of it all!
The dad looked at me with disbelief, but with a sense of relief. "Do you mean he really isn't trying to be a girl?"
"Absolutely not," I replied. "He is simply trying to express his giftedness as best he can. You have a very artistic young man with amazing potential to make this world a more beautiful place. He has the creative and masculine heart of God. You have the privilege of finding ways to affirm those gifts and channel them in a way that he can grow as a gifted man of God!"
It was as though I just found the lost key they had been searching to find for years; suddenly despair was replaced by hope and relief. But those feelings of relief were just as quickly followed by a look of bewilderment.
"But how do I do that? How do I affirm him in those gifts when I obviously don't even understand what he is thinking or why he is doing what he is doing?"
In order to parent a sensitive soul well, you have to understand what moves his heart. In a nutshell, here is what I have learned about sensitive souls in males.
Characteristics of the Sensitive Soul:
-- They are very emotionally sensitive and are deeply moved by the emotions of others around them.
-- They are inherently drawn toward beauty, structure, order, symmetry, intimate relating, color, texture, expression of feelings, and the natural and spiritual worlds around them.
-- They have a tendency to believe they are somehow connected to everything around them and often feel they can affect or impact their world both in subtle and grand ways.
-- They sometimes are viewed as self-absorbed and even egocentric or selfish by others.
-- They are intuitive feelers and deep thinkers.
-- They often contemplate things deeply, and for days, and can be strongly moved by subtleties that others would not recognize.
-- They see detail and notice nuance more than others.
-- They are moved with strong emotions of passion, desire, pain, hurt and love.
-- They often are highly sensitive to feelings in general and can sometimes be overwhelmed by highly stimulating situations where the stimuli are coming from multiple sources at the same time.
-- They are often loners and enjoy spending large amounts of time alone.
-- They often escape to alternative realities they create or ones that have been created through video games, movies or reading books.
-- They are highly creative and desire an outlet to express their creativity.
I hope you are getting the sense of things from this list. I could go on and on about these amazing men and women, but the list above is generally representative.
The difficulty for the sensitive soul is they are generally misunderstood because they make up a very small percentage of the general population. I find that for males, they are as few as 3-5 percent of the population. As a result most people do not know what to do with a sensitive boy. Often it is not until they are adults that they truly find a way to fit in with the rest of the world. Even then they are generally either highly successful or terribly marginalized because of their gifting, but in both cases, very "other than" the rest of the males. These males are the psalmists, the composers, the actors, the orators, the writers, the artisans, the dancers, the creative geniuses who make our world more beautiful, more functional, and more understandable.
In order to connect with a male sensitive soul, parents, but particularly dads, need to:
-- Enter into the child's world and engage him in his passions. If your son loves ballet, it is essential that dad and mom understand what ballet is all about. Learn the language, the moves, and ballet positions so you are able to speak intelligently about his passion. If he loves art, participate with him in art lessons even if you have no talent at all. Allow him to be the hero and applaud and affirm his gifting. Go to the museum and see what makes good art. If you develop the relationship with him, he will be more than willing to enter your world and engage with you. As a father of a sensitive boy you are responsible to learn his language, which might be inherently different than your own. He is your mission field!
-- Affirm the child's gifting as inherently masculine. Ballet dancers are men just as much as construction workers, policemen or actors. Find ways to see the strength, the initiative, and the drive in what he does and affirm it. Don't fall prey to the stereotype that only certain gifts should be possessed by men and others are feminine. Let the child know he is a man when he does what he has been gifted to do.
-- Learn to see the world through his eyes. You will need to practice changing your vision to do this. Your son sees a world of color and texture, beauty and tragedy, drama and resolution. All of life is indeed a stage for him. When you go on a camping trip he may not be as interested in shooting the gun as in pointing binoculars at the myriad of birds and small creatures he sees around him and trying to identify what they are. He can become mesmerized by the structure, color and texture of shells on the sea shore or sit for hours observing the ebb and flow of the tide and marvel at how the water changes from emerald to azure over the sandbars. Realize that everything in his world is important to him and somehow connected to him. He notices nuance and subtlety. He sees beauty. You celebrate this and seek to see it, too.
-- Spend quality, one on one time with him and look at him eye to eye. Sensitive boys naturally connect with their eyes. They want you to look deeply into their souls and know them. Regardless of how uncomfortable it might be for you, it is very important that you develop the habit of communicating with them face to face. Barked commands and yells from across the room will not communicate connection with them. I encourage dads of young boys to set a specific day of the week to have one-on-one, eye-to-eye, face-to-face time together. It is important that the boy knows his father is listening to him, understanding him, and affirming his world.
-- Be an emotionally and relationally healthy person yourself. If you are prone to anger, rage, depression, anxiety or episodes of manic behaviors, get them under control. The sensitive boy will pick up on these disturbances and feel personally responsible for their resolution. Be sure your relationship with his mother is good and strong. If it is not, he will often feel somehow responsible for fixing it or choose to avoid you altogether for fear that further interaction with you will only cause you to leave sooner or stay gone longer. He will pick up on your feelings and emotions and feel responsible for them even when he is not.
These are just a few suggestions for raising healthy, sensitive boys. Girls are certainly sensitive as well, but dads generally connect to them more naturally as they seek to be their protector and provider.
If you have a sensitive son, know that you have been given a great gift. Though they can have difficulty fitting in at school, they are generally great students, good boys and often will excel in college or university. They can develop into amazing men of God who can radically change the world and affect the Kingdom! They are the Billy Grahams, the Martin Luther King, Jrs., the Mozarts and the Handels of their generation. It is no wonder they are so targeted by the evil one and tormented by peers. They are world-changes and life-givers. They are the preachers, musicians, artists, dancers, creators and visionaries of our day. Raise them well and bless the Kingdom and the world!
Ricky Chelette is a member of First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, and executive director of Living Hope Ministries in Dallas. LHM offers hope and help to those seeking sexual and relational wholeness through a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. For more information about the SBC's outreach to homosexuals, visit www.sbcthewayout.com.