We are sitting on the floor of a family room with a pile of character playing card decks in front of us. My almost 4 year old friend has spread these options out across the carpet and is still trying to decide. We are going to play a memory game- but the debate is which deck to use. This choice is clearly weighing heavily on his small shoulders. Not being a fan of Handy Manny, Dora, Mickey or Minnie Mouse myself, I don’t really care and am leaving this to him.
The boxes are being shuffled, stacked and rearranged. His hands are busy and he is chewing on his bottom lip. I am interested and now paying more attention to his movements. His hands linger longer on the pink Dora box than the others. Finally, he exhales with what sounds like resignation, and moves the boxes of Dora and Minnie cards away. “We can play these when my sister gets home,” he says.
Surprised, I ask, “Why do we need to wait for her?”
He looks up and replies slowly, “Well, because they are for girls.”
“What? I don’t think so. I’d like to play with whatever cards you choose!” I answer stubbornly.
He peeks up at me and I see his blue eyes brighten a little more. Cocking his head to the right he squints them at me and asks, “Are you a girl? You are, right?”
Okay, I don’t wear make up. I always wear pants. My long hair is tied back and tucked away. I know more about sports than most of the dads I babysit for. His question doesn’t offend me. I understand that in his growing mind I am a challenge. He is starting to see where the lines are and cannot tell where I belong. Or where he belongs. These are the very things he is grappling with in this choice of playing cards.
“Yes, I am. But...” I trail off a bit. I want to offer him a piece of wisdom that might loosen his definition of gender from the blue vs. pink of it all. I ask my coffee deprived afternoon brain to give me the words. Lost in my thoughts, I hear his voice again.
“But you’re really a girl AND a boy,” he says nodding with certainty. He reaches back, picks up the Dora playing cards and opens the box with a smile. His little hands arrange the cards in the shape of a sunshine for our game.
We played our sun shaped game of Dora the Explorer memory yesterday. These moments always make me think back to a debate during a junior year English class when my peers were arguing about whether a particular character was good or bad. The class quickly chose their sides and the argument flowed passionately. The teacher watched and listened to our discussion. Then, from her seat at the side of the room, she quietly asked, “Why must he be one or the other? Can’t he be both?” Silence fell over us for a moment. That was the day I learned that when we polarize things we limit them and our understanding of them.
I may fall outside of societal “norms” and expectations. I'm glad I do, I'm not a person who enjoys labels. When I grow up, I want to be a renaissance woman. For now, during my daily life, I delight in showing the many sides of myself to children. I get to see their faces glow with surprise. I hope that when others surprise them in the future they will offer these same glowing smiles.
These children feel pressure to conform at such an early age. My young friend who yesterday would not allow himself to pick his favorite playing cards without a justification is just one example. I once had a student who was ecstatic when she managed to wear her brother’s underwear to school beneath her cargo pants. She tried to share this excitement with her friends. She liked these so much better than princess panties and thought they might too. I found her later that day behind a large pine tree, on the playground, crying. Four years old and already being told that what brought her joy was wrong and made her bad.
I am different! I think differently. I dress differently. I care about very different things than many of the people I spend my time with. For these children that I love and the others that I may never meet, I live my differences loudly. I want my young friends to see adults celebrating their own uniqueness. I want them to have a chance at living without hiding pieces of themselves.
While you are here, may I suggest that you read this post?