There’s been a lot of talk in the mainstream media in recent years about child-on-child bullying. Rightfully so, in many cases, since kids can be as cruel as adults and often their cruelty goes just as unchecked as the cruelty of grown-ups. As a culture we’re still enamored with the myth of childhood innocence (and its doppelganger the narrative of childhood depravity). Children are either seen as beings of sweetness and light to be sheltered from the reality of the adult world or they’re seen as barely-civilized monsters a la Golding’s Lord of the Flies — ready to devour one another (and probably the adults around them) at a moment’s notice. We are both terrified of, and disdainful toward, young people.
Between these two poles of “good” and “evil” it can be very difficult for us to see young humans for what they are: people with a wide range of experiences and behaviors. People who can grow and change and respond to their environment in the same way adults do. Sometimes their learning happens at the encouragement of adults. Sometimes kids learn incredibly well without adult management and, in fact, can teach us a thing or two about what it means to be decent human beings.
To whit: two recent articles that have come across my dash in which the young people behaved in a significantly less bigoted and freaked-out fashion than the adults. First, a recent article in Bitch magazine by Avital Norman Nathman, Pink Scare: What’s Behind the Media Panic About ‘Princess Boys’? (Summer 2011). In discussing the panic over boys who express and interest in “feminine” activities, clothing, and toys, Nathman quotes a mother who was harassed for letting her son choose accessories seen as “girly” by other parents:
“I picked up Dyson from gymnastics and some parents spoke about his pink butterfly backpack,” she recalls. “A mother: ‘What a shame that mom buys girls’ stuff for her son.’ A father: ‘I’d never allow my boy to be anything but a boy.’ Then the son asked Dyson, ‘Where did you get that backpack? I like butterflies.’ As Dyson answered, the father grabbed his boy [away]. Kids are not the problem.”
You can read the full article over at Bitch Media. In our rush to explain children’s behavior with theories of gender or innate evopsych proclivities (“human beings are just naturally selfish creatures”) we forget that from the moment they are born children are steeped in a dense network of relationships in which human behaviors are modeled for them. It’s a wonder, really, that despite adults cueing children so relentlessly that pink butterflies are for girls there are kids with a strong enough sense of self to disregard those messages and simply express an delight at something they like.
Similarly, via Jos at Feministing, we have the story of a 10-year-old trans girl who has been accepted as no big deal by her age-mates while the adults around her totally spaz. While parents went ballistic and called the child a “freak,” demanding she play on the boys’ sports teams and change in a private bathroom, the kids seemed completely chill. As the girl told her local news outlet, “They haven’t really said anything … my friends stick up for me and say ‘he feels like a girl so he can be on the girl’s team.’ ” Jos writes of the story:
I hope it’s clear that the acceptance she’s felt from her peers is much more important than the specific pronoun they use. Yes, language matters, but I know I greatly prefer the support I get from a friend who genuinely accepts me as myself, even if they’re not up on all the lingo, to someone who talks the talk but doesn’t ultimately treat my identity as valid.
So I just wanted to take a moment this Friday to give a shout-out to the wee ones of this world who are refusing to cater to adult anxieties and instead continue to interact with their friends (and, hopefully, relative strangers too!) with kindness, generosity, interest, and enthusiasm. It’s people like you who give me hope for the future of this planet — no matter how young in years you may be.