Prejudices are learned, and this is how it starts.
In June, my son completed the first-grade. And during the course of our summer together, I’m realizing that he learned much more than how to identify the different types of clouds and how to distinguish between different parts of speech. Sending my son off to school, where he had to navigate the “big kids’ yard” at recess and lunch, meant he was out of my protective bubble. It meant he spent time with a lot of different kids and was exposed to words and phrases that had never been spoken in our home before. (At his elementary school, my son’s kindergarten recess and lunch had been more closely supervised on the school’s separate, and much smaller, kindergarten yard).
Initially, this other aspect of my son’s education was made clear to me in a rather mild manner. On a few occasions, my son replaced “tushie” with “butt,” and even started commenting on the “butts” he saw on large strawberries. Then “fart” replaced “squeak” (a term my son first started using as a very little guy and never outgrew, for “squeak” has found a place in our family’s permanent vocabulary.)
But, I remained calm about it all until one particular incident. My son let out a very loud shriek, and then declared that he “screamed like a girl.” I wasn’t letting this one go, and asked him what he meant by that. How exactly did girls scream? He said girls scream differently than boys. I pursued it; I asked what was different about a girl’s scream and a boy’s scream? He said they were just different, and when I asked him where he learned that, he told me one of his classmates (a boy) told him.
Since then, at every relevant opportunity, I’ve tried to remind my son that the biggest difference between boys and girls is that a boy can never have a baby grow inside of his body. Other than that, boys and girls can grow up to do all the same jobs. Boys and girls are capable of the same things.
There are some parents who may think I’m overreacting, but I believe that left unacknowledged, the entire situation can snowball from there. You know that expression, “boys will be boys”? Usually, we’re talking about non-positive behavior—assertive, aggressive, violent behavior. And it’s not the way boys have to behave.
Likewise, there is no one way for a girl to scream or throw a ball. Prejudices are learned, and this is how it starts. In fact, a blog post on Psychology Today, lists five reasons why using the old fall-back “boys will be boys” is actually dangerous to a child’s development and self-identity.
In our family, words like “hate” and “stupid” aren’t allowed. And in our family, we don’t put others down. I can’t control what my son will say or do when I’m not with him. All I can do is teach him these lessons at home, explain to him the reasons why we do and don’t do certain things, and hope that he takes them to heart and practices them even when I’m not around to remind him.
Because I’m not just sending my son to school to learn academics. He’s also learning how to navigate a larger world, and how to distinguish right from wrong, and how to say and do one thing even if it’s not what his friends are doing.
Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer, who finds inspiration in her 7-year-old son and from her memories of her 12-year teaching career. Her writing has appeared in several publications and anthologies including: the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Role Reboot, United Teacher, L.A. Parent, MomsLA.com, and Lessons From My Parents, among others. She blogs at http://wendykennar.blogspot