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When author and activist Jodie Patterson’s three-year-old child Penel revealed, “‘Everybody thinks I’m a girl, but I’m not. I’m a boy,'” she wasn’t sure what to do. “In that moment, I didn’t have all the answers, but my child had the answers,” Patterson tells SheKnows. “And it was going to be important for me to listen to him.” From there, Patterson embarked on an exploratory mission to understand her child, which led to a deeper understanding of herself as a mother.
Patterson chronicled her family’s journey in the 2019 book The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation but when she learned that fans were reading it to their kids, she knew she wasn’t finished telling her story. “I thought, ‘Let me give you something that is more for your child,'” she says. “So, I sat with my children and we put together a story that was in their voice. Their voice is much more optimistic, their voice has no regret, their voice is triumphant, their story around gender and identity is more of a superhero story, and there’s no tragedy to it, so I really wanted that to come across.”
Her first children’s book titled Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope was published in April 2021. Ahead, the mother-of-five and chair of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board, shares with SheKnows how her child inspired her to develop a radical new philosophy on parenting.
A New Discovery
“Right before he turned three, [Penel] was really disruptive and angry and felt self-deprecating in a sense, and also self-harming, like biting his nails until [they were] bloody and throwing temper tantrums. He was a bully to his friends and siblings, and I was trying to fix it with more love, more naps, more food, or better food … but the fixing wasn’t working. So, one day I finally asked him, which was a different approach, because I had been making assumptions about what I thought was wrong. He said. ‘Everybody thinks I’m a girl, but I’m not. I’m a boy.’”
“I didn’t know gender to be flexible in that way. Our children are defining themselves in different ways more so than ever before, so that is something new for parents. There’s so many parents that don’t understand their kids or [that] their kids’ identity is very different from theirs. That could be because the kid is queer or trans or has a learning challenge, a physical challenge, is of a different race or culture [or is from a] blended or adoptive family.”
“When I think about what parenting should look like going forward, instead of domination it’s more collaboration.”
The Path to ‘Radical Parenting’
“I just deep-dived into this world I was trying to understand, this world of gender identity and trans gender identity, specifically. I read books, I went online, and I sat in on conferences, [driving] to as many as I could every month, trying to take in as much information as possible. Once I felt like I had done the data part, it was important for me to connect with other people who are trans because to think that your child is the only trans person in the world, is detrimental. Then you just have to love everyone, love your kid, and get real close with your kid.”
“When I think about what parenting should look like going forward, instead of domination it’s more collaboration; instead of top-down authority it’s more working from within. Radical parenting is building from the bottom up, it’s building up children, it’s building up families through activism, and community.”
On Seeing Her Son Through New Eyes
“I didn’t see my own son. In retrospect, I did not know he was trans, I did not know he was a boy, I did not see his identity and that was carving a pain so deep that he did not want to wake up in the morning and he did not want tomorrow to come, as he said. When we don’t see our children … that [can] come out in cutting or dropping out of school, suicide attempts, drug addiction, fighting and bullying…However, in the data alone, we’ve seen that family acceptance [of gender identity and sexual orientation] raises the life and the quality of life for trans people.”
“Once I was able to understand that my daughter was actually my son, I had so many other questions — what else don’t I know?”
“From my own experience, when I said ‘Yes’ to my son, his whole face lit up. He said ‘Thank you, mama.’ I didn’t even know what ‘yes’ meant in fullness … but the fact that I said that brought his whole spirit to another level. He literally stood up. So I’ve seen the difference between when I was blind to him and his response was anger and sadness, and when I was aware of him, his response was gratitude and happiness. And now, my son is an A student, he graduated valedictorian, he is a great basketball player, and it was a turnaround for him to be seen by his family.”
“Once I was able to understand that my daughter was actually my son, I had so many other questions — what else don’t I know? In understanding my son, I ended up spending more time with myself. Some of the things I was asking of my child, like, Tell people who you are and don’t be scared to be authentic, I wasn’t myself being bold and authentic. So over the years I’ve [put] the focus on myself in that I am actually not at all trying to fix my kids or specifically trying to fix my trans son.”
“I’m really trying to fix this woman. I write and speak regularly on gender and identity, race and family dynamics. And I have been showing up in the world in a way I probably would not have been comfortable doing years ago without this experience that I’ve had with Penel.”
Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope
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