I picked my 8-year-old son up from summer camp the other day, and in his usual articulate way he said “Mommy, I have something important to discuss with you about something that is making me upset.”
I told him to go ahead.
He sighed and continued. “My best friend at camp is Michelle. But some of the other kids are saying she’s my girlfriend.”
I asked him if the other kids were saying this in a teasing way, already knowing the answer. Yes. At that age, those words are meant to be an insult.
I said “You know, I wish kids wouldn’t say those things to you, but I know it happens. You can say back to them ‘She’s my friend that’s a girl, but she’s not my girlfriend.’ Are you ok with that?”
He said that he was, but I know that forming a response in the moment, when being teased, is easier said than done. “I really like Michelle,” he said, almost sadly, “We have the same interests.”
I told him that my best friend in kindergarten was a boy named Jesse. He was painfully shy and many of the other kids didn’t want to play with him. I was shy too, and our friendship formed over the fact that our last names both started with the letter “B” so we sat next to each other in Circle Time. The friendship probably would have continued except that I switched schools the following year.
I asked my son “Is it ok to be friends with someone who has blonde hair?” My son has black hair.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Is it ok to be friends with kids that have a different color skin?” We are a multi-racial family in a very diverse community, but always point out to our children that historically and currently, there are people in the world who feel differently.
“Of course!” he replied emphatically.
“Is it ok to be friends with someone who is a girl?”
“Yes,” he immediately responded, making the connection between the points that I had drawn for him.
“Exactly,” I said, “We don’t say ‘I won’t be friends with someone because he has blonde hair’ and we don’t say ‘I won’t be friends with someone who has a different skin color.’ It is the same with gender. You can be friends with anyone.”
That was the end of the conversation.
I know the division that can occur between genders in grade school. It still boggles my mind that such division is not only accepted, but encouraged. How many times did my grade school teachers formulate games, such as spelling bees or kickball, saying “Boys against girls!” The competition was encouraged, and banter permitted.
It is widely accepted that gender is an acceptable demographic by which to divide people. Would a reality TV show say “Black people against white people!” Never. But “Men against women?” No problem.
I have been fighting the labels placed on my sons since they were born. Phrases such as “Oh, he’s such a boy” I would respond with something like “Well no, because my other son has an opposite behavior” or “I actually did the same thing when I was his age” — trying to re-frame the situation, pointing out that it was unrelated to gender.
I remember the time one of my son’s preschool teachers told me that he had “screamed like a girl” in gym class and I sent an email to the school administrator saying “What does that mean, exactly? Was that an insult to my son? Or an insult to girls in general?”
I will continue to push back, one stereotype and gender bias at a time, knowing it is an uphill battle. I can try to arm my kids with responses to situations where gender shouldn’t matter, knowing at the same time that the instinct for children will be to remove themselves from something that makes them uncomfortable. My son may gravitate away from his friend Michelle, just to avoid being teased.
I hope that isn’t the case.
But it starts so early and runs so deep.