A couple of weeks ago, I took Swee'pea to the mall to buy him his first hard-soled shoes. I wanted to get him a pair of runners and a pair of sandals.
When we got to the children's shoe store, a tiny brown bird was fluttering under some stools. Somehow it had gotten into the mall, and couldn't find its way out again, couldn't make sense of all the bright, treacherous windows of sky that were inexplicably, relentlessly hard.
Some men tried to capture it under the stools, to bring it safely past the sheet glass walls and doors to outside, but the bird suddenly flew up and just over my head. We watched it nearly bang into several windows before it flew deeper into the mall. Eventually, we saw the three men had caught it in a hat, and were taking it outside.
The store clerk measured Swee'pea's feet and pointed out the boys' shoes, immediately writing off the girls' shoes. There was one red pair of girls' sandals that I was really tempted by, but I decided to toe the gender performance line. The day before, I had just read this post about the blogger's 4-year-old son wanting pink sandals and how she didn't get them for him and how she felt bad about that.
My first gut feeling was that I would just buy Swee'pea pink sandals if we were in the same position. But kids' shoes are A LOT more expensive than I expected... almost as expensive as adult shoes. And now that I've been at this mothering gig for more than a year, I know better than to develop a firm opinion about how I would handle a situation down the road. Nevertheless, the question of kids getting teased by other kids, and whether and how and if parents can protect them continues to circle my mind.
When I was 8, my family moved from the suburbs of a small to medium city to a farm outside a tiny village. When I lived in the suburbs, I was a pretty precocious I think. I had a lot of friends, both in my own neighbourhood and at school. I was pretty extroverted and confident. There were people who teased me about my red hair, and I think I accepted that I wasn't pretty, but I was still an interesting person and felt worthy of friendship. I remember being surprised that Jack Tripper on Three's Company had such a thing for redheads, because in my world red hair was ugly. That teasing didn't bother me too much.
When I went to the new school, I got teased and totally ostracized. For months I went home crying every single day. My mom thinks it was because I had been labelled as gifted at my old school that had a program for streaming gifted kids. This new school had no similar program and no real idea what to do with me; but they thought they had to do something with me so they singled me out, took me out of classes and told the kids it was because I was so smart. I suspect my mom is probably right. But maybe my initial confidence in my ability to make friends was also to blame, maybe I came off like some city kid ready to conquer the world. Whatever, the ostracism made me miserable and took me nearly a decade to recover from, nearly a decade before I returned to self-confidence and happiness.
I watched kids get teased for many reasons (and, I am ashamed to say, I teased other kids myself in the hopes that I would be more accepted). One girl was teased for being fat, given a nickname with the word hippo in it, even though she wasn't actually that big, and when she came to high school all skin and bones, she still got teased and ostracized. And I knew other fat kids who were cool, utterly respected.
I am beginning to suspect that some kids are targets no matter what, and the things that get picked on are arbitrary. Kids will find anything to pick on: hair colour, freckles, glasses, braces, weight, nose-picking, whatever.
Every parent wants to protect their kids from harm, psychological or physical. Some months ago, I was at a playgroup and asked how old one boy was. He seemed quite a bit bigger than the others so I figured he must be near three. I think he was just over two though (I can't remember the specific numbers) and the father started telling me about how big his son is, how he's worried that he'll still be big when he starts school and how he'll have to put his son on a diet beforehand if it comes to that. He said, "I don't want my son to be the big kid at school. Kids are cruel and I don't want that for him."
I can't fault his intentions, his desire to protect his son from potential misery. But I'm suspicious that making sure they don't do anything or become anything that might elicit other kids' cruelty may not be the best way to ensure our children's mental health. I'm starting to wonder if maybe it would be better to accept our children as they are: freckled, fat, funny haired, bespectacled, wearing pink sandals or bending other gender rules, passionate about uncool pursuits like stamp-collecting or chess, whatever. If maybe we should give our kids a place where they feel 100 percent safe and accepted and loved, a shelter from the storm of the schoolyard, where they know that who they are is ok, and they just need to survive this time to discover a more accepting world in the future.
I don't know. I don't pretend to have all the answers and I'm sure my ideas will change as soon as Swee'pea approaches school age, but this is what I'm thinking about right now. And it's what I was thinking when I watched Little Miss Sunshine.
(Warning: spoiler ahead... if you have any thoughts about watching this movie, and don't want to know the ending even though it would still be a great movie to watch even knowing the ending, you might want to stop reading now.)
When the Hoover family finally arrives at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the dad and the older brother want to remove Olive from the pageant. They watch the shiny baby barbie dolls performing their polished numbers on the stage and recognize that Olive isn't one of them. They're afraid that she'll be ridiculed and cheapened by performing at this pageant. The men try to persuade her mother that they shouldn't let her onstage. But Olive's been working on her dance performance for months with her Grandpa, and she's passionate to participate. "Olive is who Olive is," her mom says, and they need to let her perform.
Olive goes on stage, and dedicates her performance to her late Grandpa, who showed her all these moves. And then she embarks on a stripper routine. It's a routine that stands in stark contrast to the other girls' performances, and yet it makes explicit the sexualizing of these young girls by and for the audience.
Olive is who Olive is but this routine was created by her drug-snorting, horndog Grandpa. Was she just a pawn in his ironic statement on children's beauty pageants? Olive is who she is and part of she is who she looks up to.
There are things that children might be teased for that we can control or modify, like what colour shoes they wear. And there are things that we can't change, like weight, ethnicity, disabilities, or crazy grandparents, things that even if we could change, I don't think we'd want to.
If we want our children to believe that beauty is in the difference (which I do, very much), then don't we have to walk the walk somehow? I'm not sure exactly how we do this... I guess I have to choose what parts of our culture I would prefer to change and what parts I would like to propagate. I'm ok with nose-picking and masturbation being something we do privately, away from public eyes. But I think I'd prefer to engender an appreciation for the beauty in all the different shapes and sizes and colours of human beings. And I'd like to keep working towards more flexibility in gender roles, perhaps even do away with roles being tied to gender eventually.
The reality is that the adults in a child's life carry significant influence over them and we must treat that responsiblity with care. Somewhere, there is a blurry fine line between raising healthy people and making them a pawn in our own agendas.
I keep thinking about that bird in the mall, trying to make it a metaphor for this post, these musings. Something about a creature being out of its natural environment and is it the creature that needs to change or the hazardous environment? Then I think about how those men had to capture the bird, subdue it, before they could release it back into its own familiar sky-world where it belongs, and I get confused.
Swee'pea's first hard-soled shoes, pictured with goutweed (ugh!), dandelions, forget-me-nots and Sugar D's new birthday shoes.