It goes without saying that parents are afraid of at least one thing: the possibility that one of their children may one day identify as gay or lesbian. It is easy to understand the fear. Will my child be bullied at school? Will he be fired from a job for being gay? Will she be denied academic opportunities because she is lesbian? Will he fall victim to hate crimes like Mathew Shepard?
Some of the fears might be based on the possibility of unrealized expectations: Will I have grandchildren? Will I have a daughter- or son-in-law? For LDS (Mormon) parents these last questions have eternal importance: Will I be in heaven with my gay child in the next life? Will he or she be sealed to a companion (of opposite gender) for eternity? Or will my child go to the Telestial Kingdom? In short, what would you do if your child is that one — the one who is gay?
Perhaps these questions fueled the publication of the book Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation. This book, as you might guess from the title, is about an “approach which…demonstrates how faith, tradition and science are complementary in the search for what is best for children” (DeseretBook.com). Deseret Book also notes that “Their message is… parents can prefer and encourage heterosexuality in their children and can do so without disrespect of criticism for those who believe or differently [sic]”.
I don’t disagree with Deseret Book: parents really can do all those things. Many probably have and many more will with support and permission from Deseret Book and the authors. My question is about the ethics behind encouraging a child to become heterosexual, especially when those methods assume that “most of those who later identify as homosexual report gender nonconformity in their histories”.
In my opinion, the mechanism behind encouraging heterosexuality in children is negative reinforcement. I’m not referring to the mechanism that controls the behavior of the child but the mechanism that controls the behavior of the parent. That is, “If I engage in behavior X (e.g., removal of feminine toys) then my child will stop engaging in behavior Y (e.g., playing with feminine toys).” Negative reinforcement, by definition, increases the likelihood (so long as the child’s behavior is stops) that the parent will continue to engage in behavior X.
The ethical component comes in when the child’s behavior ceases for a time: what effect will this have on the parent’s behavior? He or she is more likely to increase the intensity of their behavior (extinction burst). And should that behavior come in contact with reinforcement as a result of the extinction burst, the behavior will continue to be shaped up and become more intense until the parent resorts to punishment.
Punishment procedures have even been used. Read for yourself in the actual study from the publication on page 180 using the search term “spanking” or “physical punishment”. And what happened at in-home therapy sessions? Siblings report their brother was beaten rather than spanked for engaging in feminine behavior at home. Not surprisingly, this child committed suicide later in life.
So should we encourage heterosexuality in children? I don’t know. But I do know we need to be careful about how we treat children. The consequences speak for themselves.
Hopefully we follow the example of Linda from the video above:
“God, please help me find the right words! Don’t let me screw this up! I wanted to tear into him! Instead, she reports “I felt loving arms embrace us both… That moment lasted for hours with the only words spoken…
It’s okay. I love you.“