“No wonder he’s wearing so much pink.” said an 8-year-old (ish) boy about my three-year-old son today on the playground.
Today I took my 3 and 1-year-old boys to the play and spray ground after running errands. While we were getting out of the car (after changing in to swim shirts, bathing suits and doing the whole 20 minutes sunscreen routine), I realized I had forgotten his crocs/water shoes at home. Crap! Then I remembered that my daughter’s crocs were still in the car (she was at camp). Phew! They wear the same size shoe. Perfect. They are pink but he didn’t hesitate to borrow them. At the time I thought about the fact that he might not always be so flexible about borrowing his sister's stuff. After playing in the fountains we moved to the playground.
I hovered over the 1 year old, while H, the three year old swooped in between the big and little kid play areas. At one point he came over to me and said, “someone’s being mean to me.” I replied, “That’s too bad. You can tell them you don’t like it or find something else to do.” I generally try not to feed too much into playground drama because my kids constantly confuse preference (I don’t want to play that) with being mean. So I usually chalk hurt feelings up to a misunderstanding like that. A few minutes later H yelled across the playground to me. “Someone is calling me a baby.” “That’s not nice,” I replied, at a very loud volume since I was quite far away. “You know you’re not a baby!” He scampered up the ladder again.
When it was time to go I headed over to give him the 5-minute warning. He was again headed up a metal ladder to the big twisty slide. Two older than him boys were below and behind him. “Go, baby!” they shouted as I approached. Ah, the mean kids, I thought to myself. H turned around and said something in reply. They kept prompting him to "Go!". I intervened. “Maybe he’s not going because you’re talking to him so much. Take your time, H.” What assholes, I thought as H went up the ladder. Then bigger kid A turned to bigger kid B and said, very loudly, “No, he can’t do it because he’s a baby.” And then he said…”No wonder he’s wearing so much pink.”
“EXCUSE ME?!,” popped out of my mouth, forcefully, before I even had a chance to think. The boys immediately flinched and straightened. I had no idea what to say. Now what? Should I emphasize that it’s not nice? Tell him 1 of the very many reasons that it’s not nice and not OK? Ask him to apologize? We kind of blinked at each other for a while. I felt like whatever I said would be totally inconsequential. How do you eloquently tie together the pink shoes and the pervasive sexism and homophobia that so narrowly prescribes acceptable male behavior and not only requires, but encourages, efficient and ruthless policing of behavior, preferences, and speech in order to maintain such a rigid status quo? and that obviously this is true because this kid was alarmed by a few inches of pink plastic on a 3 year old he didn't know. So, I kicked the can.
I took a deep breath and asked, “Do you have an adult here with you?”
“Where are they?”
“Over there in the pink shirt.” (pink, great)
“Let’s go talk to her,” I said, and he sheepishly followed.
As we approached the adult I said (to the kid), “I’m not angry at you. What you said is really hurtful and I think it’s a good idea if you can talk with you parents about why.”
The adult woman he was with (no idea if it was mom or not) jumped up as we walked off the playground and defensively, perhaps rightly so, said to me “What are you doing? Is there a problem?”
“Well, he’s been being really mean to my son about the fact that he’s wearing pink shoes, and saying things that are inappropriate.”
“You don’t need to take him off the playground. I can deal with him. It’s not your job.” (She thought I was putting her son in time out.)
“Actually, we were just coming over here to talk to you together. I realized that my reaction may have been confusing and that he might not understand why I was upset. I told him that I wasn’t angry but that he’s saying things that are really hurtful. I thought it might be more appropriate if you talked to him about why it’s not nice to tease people.”
“Oh, ok, thanks.”
As we packed up to leave I overheard the woman talk about teasing in general and who cares about shoes. Why was it his business anyway? Shoes can be any color. She also asked him how he would feel if someone teased him about not bringing his bathing suit and having wet clothes instead.
I was glad she was talking to him.
I was disappointed that I didn’t have something better to say.
I was proud that I didn’t escape to the excuse that they were his sister’s shoes.
I was defeated thinking how pervasive issues like sexism are and that, someday, H probably will burn his feet on the cement rather than wear his sister's pink crocs.
I was panicked thinking about how influential stupid anonymous kids on the playground can be. Do I even stand a chance?
I was kicking myself that I didn’t make a larger point about difference. Picking on people because they are (or are wearing, or represent something) different is bullying.
I was annoyed that I couldn't at least muster something about everyone being allowed to make their own choices about what they wear or how they represent themselves.
I was mulling over my friend Jaimie’s (follow her work on IG at @yaimiebell) recent project on identity with her students in Philadelphia, which includes statements in the following form:
“Just because I wear pink
Doesn’t mean I am a baby
Doesn’t mean I am not a boy
Doesn’t mean I am gay, even if I am
It just means I am H. And today it just means that my mom forgot my fucking crocs at home and I wanted to play and needed something on my feet and I was cutting her a break.”
I feel equal parts motivated (to do better) and astounded (about why this is so hard). Why do we think that it’s not important to talk with our kids about things like sexism and racism? Why are waiting until it’s too late? Why do we segment these really important things out of education? Why is this not a primary focus on parenting? My generation of parents tend to overanalyze every calorie that goes in their kids’ mouths but dismiss the messages about humanity and difference that go in their ears and in front of their eyes every day.
Now I’m going to scour the Raising My Rainbow blog for better ways to address this situation in the future.