Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Let Them be Friends

No one asked if they were getting married.
I hated it when I was a kid. You probably did too.

It made me squirm a little, I could feel the heat rising up in my ears. I grew silent and stared straight ahead. My brain suddenly felt thick, not knowing how to respond, searching for an answer that would be both cutting and safe, but feeling strongly that the best approach was probably to say nothing at all. It was the same feeling I'd get when I was being bullied and knew, without any doubt, that help would not be coming. I was cornered, no matter what I said or did next, I would be punished in some way. In this instance the suffering would be limited to mental and/or emotional trauma. It would pass soon enough, but the sediment of this, and every moment like it would build up into a reef of seething resentment and distrust.

The thing is, it was probably usually an innocent query from most people. It was never innocent coming from my dad. Though it wasn't malicious, he had a way of taking things too far. Most of the adults, and even some of the kids who engaged the topic, likely thought it was all in jest. Just a little fun. They didn't know what it was doing to me, and I imagine, many boys and girls around the country.

What is it? (I know, I'm doing the click bait long mysterious intro thing. Sorry.) What's the one question that caused so much anxiety in young Berto? It's this:

"Do you have a crush on anyone?"

Why?!!! Why do we ask kids these things at such a young age? Especially if they're not offering up the information on their own? And when we ask, why don't we take it seriously? Why is it a joke, a way to tease? Don't kids have enough to deal with socially that they don't need adults piling on to what is already a fraught social navigation?

"OK. Take a breath, Berto. You're over reacting a little bit."

Am I? AM I?!

I don't think I am. Think about it, how many friendships have you seen in young kids, hell how many can you remember from your own life, that ended because of outside questions about a crush? It happens, and it's not OK.

When kids are little they play with whoever is around. As they get just a little older, pre-school according to this article from Psychology Today, they start to gravitate towards same-sex friendships. Having read a few articles about this, I wonder at how matter of fact they are about this pull towards same-sex friendships. Most of them describe it as being totally normal and natural, and not at all due to societal factors like parents who consciously or not, push their children into this division. I don't wonder this in a vacuum. I see it every day. I remember it from my own childhood. Parents who nudge their children into whatever gender roles they themselves were nudged into. It's pervasive, and when it comes to the "crush question," it's largely unacknowledged.

Pink Chicken Footies
Sure, maybe you're sitting there thinking about the new-age parents and the recent tidal wave of gender neutral parenting. I think back to a yard sale we had in 2010 when we were moving to D.C. We were selling a bunch of baby clothes. A hip young couple came by, the woman was visibly pregnant. I listened to them as they picked through our assorted onesies and other newborn size offerings. "Ugh, turtles" she said. "Hmm...footballs and basketballs," he remarked disapprovingly. "I like this one, but the chicken with the bow is just so normative." she said about a pink footie PJ that Buddy had rocked like a straight up boss. "Yeah," her partner remarked as they turned away, "it's a shame people just can't do gender neutral."

"Thanks for coming." I offered cheerfully as they walked back down the driveway, too good for our 25-cent/piece infant clothes. Inside I screamed, "You idiots! Gender neutral doesn't mean only giving your kid green and yellow! It doesn't mean avoiding footballs. It doesn't mean any of that! It means just putting clothes on your kid without giving a shit about what's on it. My son wore a pink striped footie featuring a chicken with a bow. HE LOOKED AWESOME! AAAAAAHHHHH!!!!! GIVE YOUR DAUGHTER A BASKETBALL! IT HAS NO GENDER!!"

My man looks good in pink.
Lou provided an example of this just last night. I don't remember how it came up, but she was talking about coming out as someone who prefers the color blue. I know, maybe that's an extreme way of describing it, and yes, it's supposed to be funny. I'm sorry, I hope it's not offensive, but the way she talked about it, that's how it seemed to be for her. At the ripe old age of almost-seven, she talked about how she had always liked blue, but for some reason when she got to day care she just let everyone tell her to like pink. "So I just went along with it. I don't know why, I wanted to tell them I really liked blue, but I felt like I couldn't. Then I started telling everyone that I liked pink. I don't know why. But now I tell people about what I really I like, and I don't care what they think."

OK, I know I'm straying a little off topic here, but I'm coming around to it.

Just friends
When you press kids about crushes or tease them about who they "like," you're simply highlighting and emphasizing societally contrived differences between boys and girls. You're teaching children that they should only see the opposite gender as a potential romantic partner, rather than as another person in the world. When you do this before children are ready for those kinds of relationships, especially if you tease, you also introduce the idea that they should feel ashamed or uncomfortable about their relationships with the opposite gender. There are many reasons why our country is going through its current and long overdue awakening over how men treat women at work (and in general). One of these reasons is how we adults socialize little boys when we turn their platonic friendships into something they're not.

This often starts when kids are inappropriately young. I've heard parents of toddlers, or babies who are still crawling joke about how kids from the playgroup, or at the park are sweethearts. Really? Ew. Can you do me a favor and not sexualize my 20-month-old? Thanks. Beyond that, this line of questioning and teasing is almost exclusively heteronormative. When I hear parents engage in this behavior they're never saying "Hey Timmy, is that your boyfriend?" I've never heard anyone predict that little Jane and Samantha are going to get married based on their enjoyment of playing in the front yards together. Statistically your kid probably isn't homosexual, but do you really want to chance nudging them towards the closet before they can even walk?

It's tough because even if you refrain from this kind of behavior, it's still out there. Lou has been coming home telling us who she's going to marry since she was in daycare. I don't know if she got it from teachers, or parents, or kids, or Disney movies, or from having married parents. It's been about a 60/40 female/male split on who she's said she's getting hitched to, and I don't know if that means she's gay, or didn't really understand what being married meant. I'm fine with either explanation. I don't need my 3-year-old (now 7-year-old) to fully understand any of that yet. Though, she's known the biological facts of reproduction since she was about three, and she knows that men and women can marry anyone they want, I don't need her to feel pressured to declare herself until she decides.

I recently broached the topic with Buddy. He's been having some trouble with rough play at school. It's been mutually agreed upon rough play, and for the most part no one has been hurt by it. But the teachers don't like it. A couple of times he's mentioned verbal spats that grew physical. I wanted to know what the issues were. Buddy has a lot of girl friends that he plays with at school. At age 9, I know the kinds of things kids tease about. For all the reasons above, I didn't ask him about any crush he might have. I asked "What kinds of things do people tease about?" He was non-committal. "Do they tease about crushes? Like, who likes who?" They do, but for him that's not what any of his altercations were about. It seems that most of teasing at school starts not with boys and girls being friends, but with someone telling a friend who they themselves like. Being nine-year-olds, the secret never keeps and someone tells the object of the crush, and sometimes problems arise. From there we talked about the nature of crushes. How it's OK to have them, or not have them. How if someone accuses you of a crush (what a terrible concept "accused" of a crush) it's OK to brush it off, because ultimately it's not something to be ashamed of. It's either true or it's not, and either way it's between you and the other person. Relationships, in any form, aren't subject to public approval.

You can fight crime together without other entanglements.
I hope my kids have a good sense of this stuff. I hope they know they can come talk to us when they do start to venture beyond feelings of normal friendship. I hope I can foster an environment where they know they won't be made to feel ashamed of their feelings. I also hope they continue along their current trajectories, having friends of the opposite gender who remain just friends. My goal is for them to form and maintain comfortable relationships with people in general at school, at work, and socially, that are devoid of "will they won't they" complications.

I want my son and my daughters to move through their lives seeing the person in front of them, not a bunch of external complications and societal noise. It starts with helping them cultivate normal friendships with members of the other gender. It starts early. It starts at home.

Just let your kids be friends.


  1. So true. I hate when stereotypes are thrust on kids. Great post.

    1. Thanks! It was very cool to hear it come up on the podcast.