“We’re all different, but different is good,” my son said. He’d taken a seat on the couch between my husband and me and held his arm against mine.
At 7 years old, he does that far less frequently than he used to, but occasionally, he reminds himself — out loud for extra reassurance — that differences are to be celebrated.
“The world would be boring if everyone looked the same!” my daughter chimed in from the table where she was drawing one of her unique, fantastical pictures. At 5 years old, she is extremely confident with her beautiful, dark skin and curly hair. She embraced her physical qualities at a young age and hasn’t ever wavered in her certainty that she is absolutely, positively fabulous the way she is. She’s equally confident about her intelligence and her capabilities.
My son has similar conviction in his appearance and his character. He takes pride in his generosity and care for others. He feels a need to remain strong, but not so much that he’ll sacrifice his gentle heart.
Before I became a mom, I lived a pretty comfortable existence. I assumed that my husband and I would raise our kids similar to the way my mom and dad raised me. I have great parents and aside from the minor “I’ll never do that when I’m mom” notes, I figured I had a good grasp on how to proceed.
That was before I began educating myself on race and how people of color navigate the world differently in many circumstances. I’m a sponge when it comes to information, so once I began to understand how my privilege as a white individual dictated my life experiences, I knew that I’d have to parent differently. While some of the troubling issues that students of color experience in schools may not affect my kids as severely because of the schools they attend, the important fact remains that statistically, children of color aren’t always treated the same as white children.
In addition to navigating race, my husband and I are both aware of how traditional education affects children by gender. Over time, girls tend to “shrink” in the classroom while boys are inadvertently taught that emotions and feelings aren’t to be expressed. We don’t want those really special qualities that make them who they are — my son’s kindness or my daughter’s confidence, for example — to lessen.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that we can talk all day long, and if we’re lucky our kids will retain a portion of what we say, but a lot of learning comes through our actions. So we choose our words carefully. We don’t single out descriptors for one child or the other. Both are strong, smart, funny, cute, interesting, loving, sweet, sensitive, kind, giving, serious…all of the things that people can be. Whether they’re expressing emotions and asserting themselves, they’re being who they are, not a “pushy girl” or a “sensitive boy.”
We buy books, toys and movies that features characters that reflect their appearances back to them. Hearing my son read a book and remark, “That boy has my eyes!” or my daughter happily point out, “Her hair is just like mine! I like it,” is significant.
Pink can be a boy’s favorite color and girls are just as strong as boys. Small, simple reminders go a long way. Today, my kids were playing Wii Bowling together.
“BOOM! You’re the lady!” my daughter exclaimed.
I looked up from my computer and smiled at her.
“What?” She asked. “I’m not going to say ‘you’re the man’ because ladies are just as good as men!”
After a brief, thoughtful pause, she added, “Maybe even better.”
So far, so good.
Laura Willard is a law school grad who has successfully avoided using her education for eight years and counting. She’s a wife and an adoptive mom to kids who make her world go ’round. She’s an editor, writer, content curator, social media manager and sometimes blogger. She’s certain sarcasm is a language, so she’s totally bilingual. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.