August 13, 2015 by Katia
When I think of birthdays, I’m reminded of a post I wrote a couple of weeks before my son’s sixth birthday in May and never published until now.
My son is five, which means he’s enthusiastically deciphering the world. All five of his senses, and possibly a sixth, are actively engaged as he collects data to help him solve this big round riddle. My son watches and listens closely. He asks questions, makes observations, draws conclusions and sometimes defaults to inaccurate generalizations. He believes that there are rules to explain everything and he seeks them out like a scientist, identifies and questions them like a philosopher and occasionally creates them like an ancient conjuring up a myth. He is also just five and sometimes he repeats things because they sound cool, or because he likes the way they roll off his tongue stimulating those overworked senses or just for the heck of it.
My son will be turning six in a couple of weeks, which means he’s in senior kindergarten and he interacts with other boys and girls his age and when he says things, I don’t always know which ones are his “things” and which ones are borrowed and whether they represent a bud that needs to be cultivated or nipped or whether they’re a “just for the heck of it” kind of thing. That is why I had to pause and consider my actions when during a weekend family stroll, I heard him tell his little brother “but Daniel, she’s just a girl“.
The girl in question was Scarlet Johansson dressed up as her Avengerscharacter on a poster decorating the window of one of our local eateries. The boys naturally gravitated toward the colorful image and soon enough they were busy picking favorites. Once little brother made his selection known I drifted away and was about to board the parent time machine and travel into the future where — to his bemusement or embarrassment — I’d be sharing this endearing detail with Daniel the teenager, when I was interrupted by my older son’s comment.
My five year-old is the kind of boy who would stick his neck out for others. Not once or twice have I watched him protecting a friend, confirming through tears of pain and sobbing that the injury he endured during a heated game was indeed an accident. He’s the kind of boy who mentors his younger peers in their mixed JK/SK classroom. He’ll step in for his little brother if he feels that I’ve wronged him and he will rarely strike back. He’s the kind of boy who was best friends with a girl until he started attending JK at the age of four. Which is why I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a strategy in place and I fumbled through my attempt to tackle this potential issue, discovering along the way that what my heavy artillery consisted of a feeble “but mama’s a girl too“. Unsurprisingly all I got in return was an embarrassed shrug and half a smile before he went back to the important stuff, plotting against Bad Guys.
“There are two methods for cultivating the uniqueness of self: method of addition – paradox, method of subtraction.” says Milan Kundera in Immortality. Five year-old boys use both. Unlike in the author’s observation they do so in attempt to construct self while eliminating uniqueness. In their search for rules five year-old boys turn to their peers and study their behaviours:
Like scavenging birds who constantly replenish their nests with new finds, five year old boys use the method of addition by ceaselessly collecting new attributes to augment their budding self. To conform with the Platonic idea of Boy, boys have to love zombies. They have to know the characters in Star Wars. They have to use certain words and expressions and when they’re trying to get the attention of their friend across the street, they have to speak in a certain voice. They will use the method of subtraction with equal enthusiasm in order to equate themselves to other boys: they subtract the appreciation for the Frozen soundtrack from the idea of Boy and replace it with the opposite – disapproval. They subtract the love for certain colors and TV shows some of which they used to watch. They subtract the use of certain expressions like “my love” in reference to them, because five year-old boys don’t. To five year-olds the world consists of opposites. Boys are what girls aren’t. Is “just a girl” merely a derivative of that perception? Maybe, but does that-which-is-not-you have to necessarily equal bad? And how do you talk to boys about equality when that boy vs. girl contrast is one of the current building blocks of the personality they’re working so hard on cultivating?
I’ve been trying to teach my son that there are no boy or girl-specific colors. There shouldn’t be any gender-specific games or jobs that women can’t perform. There are different types of families. I try to pick my battles and don’t insist on tolerance for all T-shirt colors. I’d rather let my son practice his identity augmentation by dismissing the innocent color pink, but when it comes to using an expression that, even if not meant to do so, belittles another gender it seems like a more dangerous path to walk on.
“Just a girl” to a five year-old boy may not bear the same meaning as would those words out of a grownup’s mouth, but words can create and perpetuate realities. Say something often enough and it becomes a thought pattern then a belief. Words can worm their way into your lexicon and from there to your mind allowing the context to construct itself around them later, which is why I won’t let my son to use the saying “just a girl” again, innocent as it may be at this stage. I don’t want it to establish a hold on his language then mind and remain there long enough to eventually gain the same meaning we, grownups, attribute to it.
This post is a Finish the Sentence Friday post. Please visit our hosts:
Kristi at Finding Ninee
Stacey at This Momma’s Ramblings
Mimi at Mimi Sager