When I was a teenager, my parents had this couple friend, Mike and Katie. They were super nice people and they had a really sweet dog named Sparky. I can remember that Katie was older than Mike by two years and at the time, I thought that was different, against the norm, weird. Somewhere along the way I had picked up the social programming that the husband was to be older than the wife. I don’t think it was explicit or from any one source. Maybe just through observation I knew that in my family the husband was older than the wife. Years later, I am the one two years older than my husband so clearly this bit of social programming did not sink in very deeply. Really, you love who you love.
But I got to thinking about social programming recently, and examining where we collect our views and biases from. Everyone knows that the kid who is a bully at school is probably bullied at home. Racism, elitism, and so many other -isms are all learned behaviors, and most often the teacher is a parent. This is one of those “everyone knows it” bits of knowledge, but I had a first hand experience with this at – of all places – the birthday party for a five year old.
There were a lot of kids and the family had gotten a…what would you call this…makeup artist? The lady painted on tattoo-like pictures in glitter paint. So, I guess she is a temporary tattoo artist. Anyway, they had gotten this lady to come and put glittery flowers, crowns, butterflies, skulls, snakes and dragons on the kids’ arms. Lots of parents got them too, she was pretty good. One little boy, maybe 1 1/2 was at the display with his dad and they were looking at the various stencils. The little boy wanted a cute little puppy. His dad pointed at a snake. The little boy pointed at the puppy. His dad pointed at a dragon. The little boy pointed at the puppy. I laughed and said to the dad – in that conspiratorial voice of parents everywhere – “well, I guess he wants the puppy” ha ha ha, expecting the dad to give in and let his little guy get the puppy.
The dad said rather crossly, “he’s not getting a dumb puppy. You’ll get the skull.” Then proceeded to get a red and silver flaming skull for the little guy.
His son was in tears.
To say I was shocked would be overstating the matter. I was disgusted. Why force a little kid still in diapers to have a flaming skull painted on his arm? What was accomplished other than teaching the boy that his father will not listen to what he wants, will force him to accept things he doesn’t want, and is probably severely homophobic. Is there some inadequecy that the father was unconciously trying to overcome by making his tot more “manly”?
Before Melody’s birthday party I polled a large group of moms I know, asking “if their boy was invited to a party where feathers were offered, would they be upset, offended, not care, etc.” Overwhelmingly, the moms said that if their boy wanted a feather they would let them get it but some were more cautious, saying their husbands might not like it. I think in particular with kids who aren’t in grade school yet, this is a time to let kids just explore. I tell people that Melody is an equal opportunity “player” meaning that she loves Cars as much as she loves My Little Pony. Buzz Lightyear has married every one of the Disney princesses several times and Evel Knevel pops up in the Barbie world from time to time.
Little boys like many of the same things little girls like. It is parents who teach them that rainbows and puppies are gay, that flaming skulls and dragons are acceptable, and that sports are the only way to express themselves. Certainly I am generalizing here, but work with me. Similar things happen with girls, only having to do with self confidence, body image and “knowing their place” in society. We parents are the ones who teach our children how to approach situations in an appropriate manner and if “appropriate” to us means to put down others who happen to like rainbows and puppies, well we reap what we sow.
I’m not advocating that children should be raised genderless like the two families recently in the news. Personally I think that is pretty stupid. But, when you look at the gear that is available for children, the stereotypes are there before the little peanut even has a gender – boys in blue and girls in pink. I’m lucky my daughter likes pink. I always tell people that prior to the 20th century, boys were more often dressed in pink because pink is a derivitive of red and is a stronger color; girls were in blue because it was the weaker color.
All this social programming can be confusing for children as they get into preschool and gradeschool. They learn one set of acceptable behaviors from their family and all of a sudden they are thrown into the melting pot with all sorts of kids with all sorts of behaviors. I feel bad for the teachers, honestly. That little boy who wanted the puppy opened my eyes to what an enormous impact everything I say and do can have on my child.
So please, if you find yourself at some function where little kids are getting temporary tattoos or whatever, let the boys get puppies and let the girls get skulls. It won’t harm their psyche if they get something less manly or less girly, but it will boost their self confidence and trust in you, their parent because you love them just the way they are.