11/12/2013 09:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In the Sandbox

2013-11-10-sandbox.jpgI still remember the first time it happened. I was with my son at his preschool playground, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to hang out with the other parents and kids at the end of the day. My son wandered over to the sandbox, where another boy his age was playing. They introduced themselves in the soft, hesitant tones of children still practicing social niceties.

The other boy then asked, "What's your cousin's name?"

My son looked puzzled, as did I. "I don't have a cousin," he said. (He does, but not in the vicinity.)

"What's your cousin's name?" the boy asked again, with the persistence of a preschooler. The best I can figure is that he meant the other redhead on the playground, who is no relation except insofar as we carrot-tops may all have some common genetic link back down the evolutionary tree. My son again responded in the negative.

The boy tried a different question: "What's your dad's name?"

No one else heard the alarm going off in my head. I kept silent, wanting to see how my son handled it. He paused for just a second to think.

"Well, that's Mommy," he explained, gesturing to me. "And the other one's Momma, but she's at work now."

"This truck can go faster than the boat," said the boy, picking up two of the somewhat battered toys sitting in the sand and doing a demonstration.

Bravo, young man, I thought, proud that my son had found his own answer. I was heartened by the other boy's simple acceptance of the response too. Maybe they will indeed grow up in a better world, where differences of whom we love and how we form our families are a welcomed part of the great variety of human experience. We needn't fear "exposing" our children to such differences, because we know that they have been from the start -- and nothing ill has come of it. In fact, it is our individual variation, like the variation revealed among closely viewed grains of sand, that gives the whole its texture and vibrancy.

It struck me then that the two of them, going to the same school and playing together with nary a raised eyebrow from parents or teachers, also represented another sort of progress. My son is white, and his new friend is black. They were likely aware of their difference -- learning to identify colors ranks high on the preschool curriculum -- but did not see it as a hindrance to their play.

No, the world isn't perfect yet, for either of them. Their differences may mean pain as well as pride as they move through life. Still, things are a whole lot better than they were, as people of each generation seek to bend the arc -- the moral arc, the rainbow arc -- toward justice. Watching the two of them made me optimistic that we will continue in that direction. I watched them drive trucks around, rapt in the present, unaware of either the past that they defied or the future that they embodied. Two boys, covered in sand and hope.