I hate finding out later about that thing that happened at school. That thing that had a tenor and tone that suggests it was one of those moments when one of those itty-bitty, inside, innocent and vulnerable parts of your child got smooshed. Maybe just a little, but smooshed nonetheless.
And deep down, or maybe less deep than you want to admit, you know it's just the beginning of so much more to come.
I'm not so good at letting go of the smooshing stuff and accepting the reality that my kids move more and more in worlds where I am less and less the center who mediates for them.
I'm even worse at letting go of stuff that seems to me like it would be so easy to fix if adults would just pay a little more attention. (There's plenty of huger, heavier, and harder stuff out there that simply giving more attention won't easily fix, so it makes me even crazier that we don't fix the easier stuff.)
This is about Spider-Man. My girls love Spider-Man.
One of them also loves pink and dresses and French braids in her hair (like Elsa, of course). And she wears her Spider-Man shoes with her pink and dresses and French braided hair. The other barks back at adults who tell her how beautiful she is: "I'm not beautiful, I don't want to be beautiful!" She also can be frequently found running around, waving her turkey baster sword to guard her princess sister from the dragon. I'm not sure I've ever seen her play the princess (though she will happily play Anna to big sister's Elsa).
They both are and do many other things too.
So my heart hurt a bit the other day when I overheard a boy asking the older one over and over as he tried to get her attention, "Harper, why do you wear boy shoes?" Meanwhile she was just happily galloping off the soccer field with him.
It didn't seem like he ever really got her attention. Still, I thought, "Bummer. There it is."
Turned out it wasn't "there." It was actually a full year ago.
Because I gently broached this later (gently because I wasn't sure she'd even heard him): "Hey H, I don't really think there are boy shoes and girl shoes. If you love Spider-Man shoes and you're a girl, then they're girl shoes." And that's when she told me about that thing that happened at school.
She never did say if she agreed or disagreed with my boy/girl claim. She just said, pretty slowly and more quietly than usual, "Well remember those Spider-Man high tops I used to wear?"
"Yeah," I said.
"The girls at school always told me they were boy shoes."
A year ago?
As I lamented the fact we hadn't known about this at the time, I was happy to have my partner point out that our daughter had kept wearing those spidey shoes anyway. That's pretty great.
But, I also know that kind of resiliency tends to wear off. Not for all kids and not in equal measure, but wear off nonetheless.
I know some of this is part of the human condition: we all struggle to live into our own sense of self despite what other people think. It's hard to push past caring about other people's perceptions. But there's something different about wanting to put a streak of color in your hair badly, but deciding that you won't do it unless Sophia (not her real name) does it (another recent conversation in our household), because you don't want to be the only one with a streak of color in your hair than about being challenged about whether what you like "fits" with your sex/gender. The kind of resiliency that challenge calls up is a different ball game.
It's a totally different kind of hard to push past and through categories and labels that have group power: gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability.
Having our legitimacy, our way of moving through the world, questioned relative to those things?
I want my daughter to grow into someone able to put color in her hair if she wants to whether Sophia does or not. But I don't want her to have to learn how stand up for herself against these crazy categories of what boy and girl mean. Or, much more likely, to start to closing down or cutting off those parts of herself that get questioned because they don't fit girl. So much gets smooshed in that learning process.
Which brings me back to the reality that it would actually be pretty easy to majorly reduce such nonsense; nonsense that is, of course, not nonsense because our kids lose something so very precious and innocent in the process.
We could just all agree to quit:
- Quit letting comments kids make about some things being boy things and some things being girl things slide by.
- Quit saying these things ourselves.
- Quit telling little girls how beautiful they are within three sentences of greeting them.
- Quit beginning our "get to know you's" with them by commenting on their cute clothes. (I know they look cute They do! But think about what they hear from us about what matters about their personhood when that's the first thing out of our mouths, time and time again. Then, contrast that with how often boys hear first thing about their looks or clothes.)
- But especially, if we have to pick just one today, quit letting our kids insist that some things are for boys and other things for girls without asking them about it, pushing them a bit, buying into it.
Blogs suffer, of course, from the preaching-to-the choir problem. So the truth is, if you read this blog, you probably already do all of this already.
But in case you don't, or if you sometimes forget or let it slide (like I do), could I ask you to try?
Because this is actually really important.
Because I kind of love that my daughter wears Spider-Man high tops with a dress. I hope she's still doing it at age 65 if she wants to. (I'll admit my hope that she gives up the "light up" kind by then.)
Because somehow I feel like there's a connection between her ability to wear spider man high tops with a dress and her ability to see, embrace and accept without a second thought all kinds of interesting, unique diversity in all kinds of amazing and different people.
Because somehow I feel like there's a connection between our ability and our willingness to do this manageable, easy stuff and our capacity and will to take on the harder and huger stuff.
Spider-Man shoes today? Who knows what that could make possible for tomorrow. So, let's be clear to, with and for all of our kids: those shoes are for everybody.