Friday, February 3, 2012

Umbrellas, Men & Princesses

5 ½ years old “On Umbrellas”

We were shopping for sneakers and there were some umbrellas that Alexey explained are for girls and others for boys.

Simone: Why are there different umbrellas for boys and girls?

Alexey: Because girls like princesses (the ‘girl umbrellas' had princesses as handles)

Simone: Why do girls like princesses?

Alexey: Because girls wear dresses.

Simone: Why do girls wear dresses?

Alexey: Because they’re beautiful.

Simone: Why are girls beautiful?

Alexey: I don’t know.

Simone: We’re all beautiful.


In other news, my youngest (who just turned three) is now beginning to ask questions about bodies. Lately, he has been fixated on looking at how I pee and why his penis looks like a tube but my peeing part looks different. He asks me daily to show him where I pee from, regardless of where we are (yes, that makes for fun bus rides). He’s also really into his princess and wanted to look like her so I put my shirt on him and the result is to the right. Isn’t he amazing?


5 ½ years old “On not knowing gender”

Alexey and I were going over his Kumon homework and reviewing pronunciation of some words. When he saw the word ‘men’ he didn’t know how to pronounce it because he didn’t know what the word meant.

Simone: Do you know what ‘men’ means?

Alexey (sharpening a million pencils with his new sharpener): No

Simone: Well, people get categorized as men…um…do you remember we talked about gender…do you know what gender means?

Alexey: No

Simone: Uhh…well, people with certain body parts like if they have a penis and testicles are then grouped to behave a particular way and others say they are men…and other people get called women…I don’t like these categorizations…they’re not really worth teaching…do you know your gender?

Alexey: No

Simone: This is hard to teach because it doesn’t matter, in the long run…let me see, do you know how others think I’m a woman?

Alexey: …not really

Simone: Well they do, but I don’t feel I’m a woman. I’m a person…who am I? What’s my name?

Alexey: Mommy!

Simone: Yes, mommy or Simone. It’s more important to me to be thought of as a person. You are a person as well and at the end of the day, we’re all people. So some people would group you and your brother and daddy together and say men. They would then place grandma and aunt and great-grandma together and say women.

Alexey (completely uninterested): Can I play tic-tac-toe and eat Nutella?

Reflection: I was amused at his lack of knowledge around gender or his own gender or how others are men or women but I suppose that’s not all the surprising given our rearing of our children.

“Pochemy vi dali kukly vashemy sinu? Vi isportite malchika..” or “Why did you give a doll to your son? You will ruin a boy..”

I am glad that my son’s first Barbie is the Halloween Barbie – that way I can tell him that her vapidity and lack of realistic measurements is just a scary costume. To us, children growing up outside the U.S., Barbies were the cat’s meow, an indication of all things fancy and a way to compare our parent’s class to that of other families. When naked ‘pupsiki’ were all we could afford, Barbies symbolized a ‘better life’, a life many of our parents sought when emigrating to the U.S.

Now we’re here raising our own children, figuring out ways to balance status markers with values we’ve picked up along the way as American teenagers. To some, there is no contradiction – life is about working hard to buy that which most prominently will signal to others that we’re quite well off, quite successful, thank you very much. To me, however, some traditions are better left in the past. There is little place in our lives for Russian-Armenian paradigms of family dynamics, sexist and archaic by nature. My sons aren’t groomed to be ‘real men’ who are to be providers with 2.3 BMWs when they grow up. They are not raised with upward mobility as a goal or with ‘hard work is your cross to bear’ representations of character.

They are raised to be citizens of the world and to be social justice activists. They are told their integrity is worth more than dollar signs, their happiness more than others’ opinions of their so-called deviant ways. Ours is a home where they grow up without limitations of gender identity or sexuality developments - a home of freedom even if tempered by reminders that ‘the world outside’ and ‘your grandma’s culture’ are different and not in empowering ways.

And so there will be many contradictions in their life. They too will wonder what their Russian-ness means and what their being American citizens represents given the ever-shifting world. Perhaps they will even raise my grandchildren, children of a future where I hope the Barbies of today will be obsolete. All I know is that when one’s ethnicity or culture is held as important enough to think that it’s better than others or when either is conflated with a boundless drive for money or power, we’re doing it wrong. I want to do what’s right by my children instead.