You know me. I rarely straight-out dish the parenting advice. But there’s something irking me, so here goes:
Whenever people see toddlers or little kids of different genders playing together, they always say the same thing:
“Awwww! Is that your girlfriend?”
Stop it. Stop it right now.
It seems harmless enough, even cute, but it isn’t either of those. It’s doing irreparable harm to both your son’s and your daughter’s future relationships. The clear implication is that the only possible relationship two people of differing genders can have is a romantic one. You’ve just told your child that a peer relationship with a person who pees differently than he does is out of the question.
Think I’m overreacting?
Listen sometime. The next time you see that situation at a playground, daycare, family gathering, pay attention. You’ll hear it, I promise you. You’ll hear it more than once, and you’re lucky if you hear even once a simple, “Is that your friend?”
It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because little kids don’t get it. They don’t understand that we think it’s our way of saying we think they look cute together. They just don’t get it, any more than they get irony, or sarcasm, or satire, or Wes Anderson movies. They’re concrete. They think you’re serious. They think they’re doing something wrong.
Two minutes ago, your knucklehead was happy, playing with another kid. He was pushing a ball back and forth, or playing with little dinosaurs or blocks or animal figures or cars or (gasp!) dolls, or he was sharing crayons or carrots or boogers with another kid his size, or whatever it is toddlers like to do. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve pointed out to him that this is a different creature entirely he’s been hanging out with. Now, all of a sudden, this person is a girlfriend. Well, he doesn’t even know what a girlfriend is, or at best has some vague understanding that it involves something icky. Now he doesn’t know what to do.
And it doesn’t help that it’s usually said in a sing-songy teasing tone of voice. Now the knucklehead is feeling defensive. He’s feeling teased. And little kids don’t like that feeling.
Your knucklehead is going to spend the rest of his life in the company of women. Some will be friends. Some will be teammates. Some will be bosses, co-workers, waitstaff, doctors, teachers, employees, and therapists. Why not give him a head start with these people? Why not get him used to expecting equality in his relationships with these people? Why limit him? Why limit them?
Because if every single time your boy hears “Is that your girlfriend?” when he’s in the vicinity of a girl, you will surely narrow his vision to that relationship. And her vision as well. You’re handicapping them before they even get out of the gate. They don’t need that. Options should be open at this point.
Here are some things you can say instead:
- Is that your friend?
- What’s her name?
- Is she funny?
- Is she a good runner?
- How far can she spit?
- Is she good at drawing?
- Is she a good person to play with?
- Does she know any good jokes?
- Does she pass the ball or just hog it all the time?
- Does she seriously like the Yankees? Or did somebody make her put on that shirt?
Help your kid keep the possibilities open. Sure, he’ll probably spend much of his childhood gravitating toward male friends; most boys do.* But what if the key to that algebra problem is held by a female classmate? What if a girl can help him with that soccer kick? What if that one word of encouragement or provocation that could make all the difference in his life is spoken by a girl?
Do you really want to be the person that taught him not to listen?
*Maybe because of what they’ve heard from adults all the time. I’m just sayin’.