Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sometimes there are no good decisions

The November Atlantic has a heart-breaking story by Hanna Rosin about parents confronting the decision of how to raise children with gender dysphoria, that is, how to raise anatomical boys who think they are girls and vice versa. The decisions are agonizing.

On the one hand, if their child is truly trans-gendered, the parents can help their child move into his or her "affirmed" (non-anatomical) status with less physical and psychological trauma, possibly going so far as to provide puberty-blocking drugs that will greatly reduce the need for subsequent surgery.

On the other hand, only a small subset of young children with gender identity issues actually turn out to be trans-gendered. For these children who are not, accommodating their early identity issues is harmful and may mask other underlying (and sometimes treatable) problems.

The trouble, of course, is that there is no way to know for certain how the child's gender identity will evolve. Parents must make a decision for their child before all of the information is in. Making things more difficult are the social stigma associated with being trans-gendered, growing advocacy from the trans-gendered community, and the general tendency of all of us to get in parents' business about how they should raise their children.

The rational decision seems to be to go with the odds--that is, to try to redirect the child back toward his or her anatomical gender and to get counseling for this and other possible issues. However, it's far from a perfect decision. Ex ante, it may be the most reasonable, but ex post, it may cause significant harm.

We face these kinds of dilemmas in many other situations with uncertain conditions and outcomes. This is especially true of parenting. Sometimes there just isn't an unequivocal "right" decision, and even making a decision that seems best with the best possible motives and advice initially can be devastating in hindsight.

There is, however, an unequivocal lesson. In a world with so much uncertainty, we (I) need to be more understanding, less critical, and more supportive of the tough calls that people must make.