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Helping Your Child Feel He Belongs

She came out singing, smiling, holding her head high. Like everyone else around her she was dressed in black, rocking and clapping as she walked. I tentatively reached out to hold my twelve-year-old son, Elijah’s, hand. But I didn’t look at him. The hand holding thing was risky. But I knew it would be way too much to see me cry and I could feel the tears starting. Elijah’s religious experience thus far was one year of Jewish religious school and a few Episcopalian and Catholic services with family. Now we were sitting in Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco listening to my best friend Trina sing in the church choir. Everyone is welcome. Everyone belongs here, the pastor said. Elijah’s eyes scanned the crowd and I could see what he was taking in as Trina and the rest of the choir backed up the pastor. Twenty-five-year-old gay men stood next to eighty-year-old black women . . . next to transgender men with long flowing hair . . . next to a white couple who looked like they belonged in my new and very white community of Boulder, Colorado. I couldn’t stop my tears. My friend, Trina, is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed at 37, six years ago. Like so many people who have stood next to a loved one who is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, in an instant I was transformed by fear. I did the things you do with someone you love battling cancer. I prayed she’d make it out healthy. We shopped for hats and looked at wigs. We even laughed together after her surgery when she had to lecture her doctor. (He made the mistake of telling her what kind of breasts were best for her after she’d explicitly told him she didn’t need larger boobs than she had already.) But I will never forget the feeling of free falling when the news was bad . . . before it got better. The choir continued to sing and I was overwhelmed. I glanced at Elijah, who at 5’11’’ looks like he’s 16. My Elijah, who even at such a young age, has struggled. By the time he was in 5th grade, he hated school and generally believed that teachers and administrators were clueless. After going to a charter school where the teachers ignored him because he wasn’t academically struggling but was being bullied by other kids much smaller than him, we transferred him to a “progressive” private school. There the teachers treated “traditional” boys (loud boys who liked gross things, fart jokes and wrestling with each other) as if there was something pathologically wrong with them. By 5th grade my son had cultivated a troublemaker reputation so he could sit in the principal’s office and explain why her policies and punishments made no sense. Not only had he developed a hatred for school, but he thought most adults were hypocrites. Last year we moved to Boulder. Elijah is happier now. Happier then he’s ever been. It’s ironic, because Boulder has such a hippy reputation. His middle school doesn’t tolerate disrespectful behavior but it doesn’t demonize boys either. His teachers allow him to write gory stories of zombies in creative writing and share, when appropriate, his extensive knowledge of battles. He is thriving. I have a happy child who respects his elders for the right reasons. After the service, I asked him what was most surprising about it. Without a moment’s hesitation he answered, They said everyone was welcome here. But at first I didn’t believe it because that’s what people always say. But then I looked around and I could see it was true. That was good. What I realized in that moment is that Elijah has had so many experiences of not being accepted for who he is by the people who are supposed to. Like so many of the people in that church, he understood how essentially important it is to be accepted and he knew that my friend had brought us all to that place. There are moments in life of pure gratitude. That morning at Glide was one of them. My friend and my son, there together. In the place they should be. Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the best-selling Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to Do you have a parenting question? E-mail