Last week I sat in a nail salon next to a mom and son duo. The mom was there to practice some self-care, perhaps after a long week, and her son, aged six or seven, was on his iPad, zoned out and simultaneously zoned in. As he sat, I could hear the panic in his voice. "Mom," he said, "I’m a boy. I shouldn’t be sitting here. I’m a boy.” It was evident that the act of sitting amongst the women at the salon created a panic in him. He didn’t want to be mistaken for a girl; he needed, at such a young age, to assert that his gender could not be questioned. It would simply be the worst thing our nail technicians and fellow patrons could think, and that got me thinking. Where did he learn this? Who taught him that the worst thing he could be mistaken for was a girl? That in all situations his gender must not only be confirmed but affirmed by those around him? I longed to know—what could his experience have looked like if he was less worried about what others thought about his presence and more about what he was watching on his iPad?
He learned that somewhere. Maybe at home. Maybe at school. Maybe from family and friends. At six or seven he’s learned societal expectations and gender roles. He’s been taught a lot of what ifs, but not that little boys, or little humans of any gender, can be a complexity of things and that each of those things are beloved, are okay, are enough. I get it; I was taught that too—that I had to be a certain something or act a certain way to be seen as valid. Worst of all, I learned that at church.
When we create boundaries around who our youth can be at church, whether deliberately with our words or covertly with our actions, we subtly reinforce to them who they cannot be. While ministry workers can do great good in the lives our youth and young adults, they can also do damage.
However, with scripture in mind, you also have the innate ability to broaden minds and bring awareness. Our youth are more than little girls who color pretty pictures and boys who scoff at the idea of doing something “girly.” Our youth are complex human beings who are learning and growing in faith. If their questions are welcomed, encouraged even, we can put an end to asking what others think. And instead reframe what we know God thinks. In Galatians chapter 3, Paul tells us that