The sensitivity landscape in 2017 is fraught with challenges for everyone, not just Mommies trying to answer their toddler’s incessant questions. As a parent, I’m trying to raise children who are aware of others’ feelings, with little minds open to all lifestyles and personalities. The attitude I’m trying to impress upon my sons is “different is awesome. Everyone is different, and that is what makes our world so exciting.”
Now, I have written before about always meaning well even if I don’t say the right thing, and this is definitely one of those instances. Some would say to ignore differences because everyone is equal and we should be color/gender/lifestyle-blind, but to me, that’s a bit like teaching abstinence to horny teens who are definitely going to have sex in the back seat of the station wagon they borrowed from Mom. People are different, but different is wonderful. If you think your kids won’t notice different skin colors, tattoos, physical abilities, religious clothing or jewelry, you are wildly mistaken. My method is one of positivity, inclusivity, and curiosity.
As a suburban-dwelling white lady raising white boys, I feel extra pressure to get this right. There are a lot of white men making racist and sexist overtures on television and claiming to be a persecuted class because college campuses don’t want to encourage hate-mongering by granting a platform for spewing vile ideology. I won’t have that under my roof. But, it seems there are so many opportunities for me to get it wrong.
The one time Jackson pointed out a person of color in Austin, it was an oddity for him because it’s such a white city. With his limited vocabulary at the time, I think all he said was “oh wook at dat guy!” and the man heard him, of course. I’m not a spokesperson for white SAHMs, but I felt immense responsibility in that moment to handle things well. So I froze with my mouth open. And then I said the only thing that came to mind. “Yes, isn’t that wonderful! We are all different and that’s great!” Luckily, we have an old Sesame Street DVD where Whoopi Goldberg and Elmo are comparing her smooth black skin to his red fur, and while they both admire each other’s appearance, they decide they wouldn’t trade because they love themselves, and I found that to be helpful. And so my parenting philosophy was born: we are all different and that makes for a rich, wonderful world. Admire everyone you meet, and love yourself for who you are. I have no idea what the man thought of my attempt at race relations in the grocery store, but I smiled and gave him a look that I hope said “I’m sorry if this is the wrong thing to say, but if you would like to jump in and make friends with my son that would be cool, too. Teach me how you’d like me to handle this, as if you are also a spokesperson for people who look like you.”
Now that we are living in a more racially diverse city, seeing people who look different is becoming more commonplace. Technically, El Paso isn’t very diverse because it is overwhelmingly Hispanic, but Jack goes to school with a diverse crowd of current and former military kids from all over the country, including a couple of German boys that speak very little English. When we first arrived and I tried to teach him the four Spanish words I knew, he was adamantly opposed and I worried I’d have a little wall-builder on my hands. It turned out that because of our relocation to a new city and awkward temporary living situation while we bought a house, Jackson was opposed to everything. Yesterday in the car he was trying to get his brother to say “hola”, so I think things are improving.
It seems that in the last several years we’ve added a long list of options for gender and sexuality, so this is a new minefield for me. My philosophy is the same, but I am even more out of my depth. We’ve briefly touched on some kids having two mommies or two daddies, and he seemed to accept my Lin-Manuel Miranda impression as a decent explanation. My hope is that his generation won’t give a second thought to same-sex relationships, marriage, or parenting, but we need to lay the groundwork from the start. Once, when I was picking Jackson up from school, his class was on the playground. I watched him for a minute before he saw me, and a male classmate hugged and kissed him while dragging him down the slide. Jackson shook him off once he was on his feet and looked annoyed. My son isn’t terribly affectionate or snuggly, so when he came over to me I suggested the boy wanted to be his friend, and maybe they could play tag or color together tomorrow. My number one concern was obviously whether or not the kid had Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, but I wanted to make it clear that he could say he didn’t like touching, but still be a good friend.
I’m trying not to influence his decisions, from choosing a kitchen toy over a truck at Target, to wearing purple socks. I let him make choices as often as I can, because the time before kids learn that certain colors aren’t OK to wear, or playing with a toy spatula is girly, is a precious window that I want to savor. My kid shouldn’t have to worry that what he wears is wrong, or spend time thinking about how others will perceive him. I can’t tell if my efforts have made a difference, because aside from the kitchen stuff he plays with a variety of vehicles and a tool box. And here I was, all ready to get him ruby slippers if that was what he wanted. All my liberal parenting ideals are wasted on this kid who doesn’t even like Dr. Seuss because there aren’t real cars in it. How will people know how cool and open-minded I am?
Perhaps my philosophy was born out of laziness. I don’t know how to explain to a three year old that some people feel attracted to members of the same sex, and it has only recently become legal for them to get married, and people can be cruel and hateful to those who lead different lifestyles, etc. So instead, I said “sometimes two girls love each other and have a baby. Sometimes kids have two daddies.” Maybe by presenting big differences in a mundane and matter-of-fact way, I’ll make them commonplace and unremarkable, and he will see all families in the same light.
As new classifications arise, I’m having more trouble. When Jack comes home from middle school and asks me what non-binary gender-fluid means, I might have to consult the internet to make sure I get it right. But my message will be the same. We are all so different, isn’t it wonderful?