Tuesday, May 29, 2007

too bad I can't think of a title

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.

first hard-soled shoes
Swee'pea's first hard-soled shoes, pictured with goutweed (ugh!), dandelions, forget-me-nots and Sugar D's new birthday shoes.


Christine said...

Oh my, this is so hard. Especially the gender roles thing. As a mother of both a boy and a girl i feel torn my this constantly. My son has long, lush hair and many people consider this hip and in style. But there are many, many people who ask if the the "little girl in the super hero cape" is having a nice day. Or, "doesn't it get in his eyes?" No one ever asked this of my girl. Ever. A few weeks ago a little boy called him a girl. Not maliciously, but because he simply didn't know. He has been taught that girls have long hair and boys have short hair. Period. I don't want to teach my kids this, but i do recognize that this is the norm for in this world we live in right now. And i struggle with possibly cutting it before preschool starts in the fall to protect him from the few kids who might tease. But i don't want to cave. I want to be strong and teach him the same. But i will also want to cry and murder when i hear he has been teased over it. I just don't know. The kicker--he is only 2 and has no clue. He is just happy in his butterfly diapers and Sean Cassidy locks.

Christine said...

Oh--and from what i can tell here, you are the kind of mom who is going to do a wonderful job of teaching your little one that the world is bendable and roles flexable. That being different is beautiful, and that what we think of as traditional (read: supermodel) beauty comes with its own sad price, too. Swee'pea will be just fine, Cin.

PS Red hair is wonderful! I have alway (no bs here) wished i were a red head!

slouching mom said...

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..

I agree, and I think that what makes some kids targets is not a feature, or the lack of a feature: it is their sensitivity to being targeted. Kids can easily spot someone who will react to bullying. In other words, they have an innate sense of who would make a good victim.

So I think we'd best prepare our children not to be victims. All the rest, IMHO -- weight, glasses, braces -- is just window dressing.

Her Bad Mother said...

I totally share your thoughts on LMS - she's her own girl, or at least that's the message but she's also so much the creation of her grandfather. Is it so much the better to be her grandpa's girl than her father's? (However creepy her father's obsession with self-improvement, isn't it too easy a target?)

I worry a little bit about going overboard in shaping her to my tastes. But then I see that she's really so much her person, regardless of my influence, and that she's going to be who she's going to be, and that I can't control how people receive her and respond to her. Is that comforting? Not entirely. But it's a little bit liberating.

cinnamon gurl said...

Slouching mom, I hadn't thought of it that way. Any ideas for specific things we can do to not become victims?

Christine, hee hee, thanks for the props to red hair. I like my hair a lot now, especially because I don't need to brush it ever because of its curls.

And HBM, the father in LMS really got on my nerves about the winning and losing stuff, but perhaps that's just one of my own things. I suppose her performance really brought home for me that the one person in her family that she could really attach to was a drug-snorting horndog, and that's pretty sad. Not that he's all evil, but he's not much of a role model...

I really shouldn't be trying to glean parenting lessons from a film about a family who could illustrate the definition of dysfunctional.

cinnamon gurl said...

Oh, but I also think Grandpa had a great sense of irony and making a statement to the pageant people... which I think is pretty cool.

banana said...

This post brings me a long way back...When Reg was born, I refused to purchase any pink item and staunchly dressed her in blue jeans with bright red striped shirts - and indignantly informed anyone who mistook her for a boy that girls like red too. Imagine my chagrin when she turned 3 and decided that pants were a form of punishment and refused to wear anything but dresses to daycare, school etc. I went with the flow, purchased a number of dresses at value village and let her play in them and mostly she wore what she chose.
I agree that some kids will get teased and others won't - though it doesn't stop the worry - Regan dealt with bed-wetting until 9 or 10 even - she once had a sleepover (at about 6) where she wore a pull-up (thank goodness for them!) and all the other kids asked for one instead of making fun of her - we tried to ensure she wasn't embarassed about a physical problem she had no control over. Of course, she still was embarassed (more so near the end) until she suddenly grew out of it.
She is now 14 and I am realizing more than ever that all we can do as parents is try to give our children the love and understanding they need so that they have the tools they need to make thier way through this complex world - also, we must recognize our limitations - we can't control everything and prevent all hurts...whether we buy pink shoes (or red or blue shirts).

Aliki2006 said...

Lots to think about here...I agree--I do think some kids will be targets no matter what. This hits close to home for me--last year, when Liam started kindergrten all the kids seemed to be on more or less equal footing. But two years later I see the lines of division happening. Liam seems to be on the outside and has already been picked on by some kids, while other kids are already the "most popular" in *1st grade*!! It breaks my heart. I love Liam's quirkiness but I also want him to have an easier time socially.

Great post--especially the part about the bird. And I love the shoes!

NotSoSage said...

Sin. As usual, a brilliant, insightful post.

I think about this a lot. I really want Mme L to be her own person and not a pawn in whatever agenda of gender-bending I may have...

But I do get frustrated because, just like Olive, what may appear to be choice has actually, often, been imposed upon her. For instance, in one of her recent "report cards" one of the comments was, "[Mme L} successfully distinguishes between male and female persons." Really? I'm not always successful at that. And I know that when she sees a person with long hair she calls them a woman and a person with short hair is a man. That can't be from her own experience, given that Joe and I go back and forth between whose hair is longer all the time.

That said, I'm all for your plan to be 100% supportive at all times. It worries me to hear people say things, "I don't want her to be fat. It's for her own good, so she won't be teased." It seems like good intentions, but I worry about it getting out of hand. Home should be the safe place where you are entirely you. At least until the teenage years. :)

And I'd be interested in what SM has to say about ways to prepare our children to not to be victims.

Mimi said...

Oh god i was totally and perpetually the victim all through elementary school and most of high school. And you know me! I'm presentable! But I had the 'victim' look, I guess.

I agree that trying to mold your kid such that he doesn't get picked on sends the wrong message: better to offer the unconditional love, that message that says your child is wonderful just how he is, peers be damned, *that* is a powerful thing.

bubandpie said...

I've got a Teflon patch on my brain where the thought of Bub being bullied just refuses to stick. I can't go there.

There's no telling what he'll be like in a few years, but right now the things that make him most likely to be bullied are the very things I adore the most. I love how quirky he is - and I can't bear to even start thinking about what that might mean for him.

Mouse said...

I've actually got a post brewing about teaching about gender differences (and the fact that I really have no idea how to deal with it). Scooter's also had to deal with some teasing already, because of how sensitive he is--that's been improving between Scooter's own development and his teachers' help. But this is something I know will crop up again throughout his childhood.

By the way, I've had a thing for redheads for most of my life!

slouching mom said...

Oh, god, guys. I'm no expert here. But if I could convince my children that other kids bully to get attention for themselves, that often they don't know any other way to get attention, that they are the ones we should feel sorry for, that the best strategy is to IGNORE, IGNORE, IGNORE, that letting them see you react is the worst thing possible, that often the most effective comeback is to be funny --

well, then, I'd think I had done my job.

Beck said...

There are the things that we cannot protect our children from, their inate differences - too shy, too loud, too fat, too skinny, too small - and then there are the other things that we CAN make easier for them, like dressing them in a way that is reasonably in line with the standards of the other kids in your area. For me to send my boy to school in pink sandals, for example, would just be sadistically cruel - he would get the crap beat out of him.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Aack! I have written and erased at least six responses to this. What IS it that I want to say?

I think what it comes to is meanness. People are going to be mean to your child. How do you protect against that? You can't, not as long as we're all human. But you can give your child a sense of his own power and strength. A sense that he's special, that he's loved. I think that goes a long, long, long way.