Dear Calm and Sense,
What do you do when you see an expression of bigotry? I was dropping my three-year-old off at preschool, when I overheard a father of another child discussing his concerns about his child during “dress-up” time. He indicated sternly, to the preschool teachers, that he did not want his child, a three-year-old boy, to wear a boa, and that he "discourages cross-dressing." The teachers indicated that their practice is to let the children play with all the clothes and decide what they wanted to wear.
I’m appalled by this father. His son is merely at play, but the father can't seem to tolerate any variation from what he believes is the "norm." But I’m not sure what else the preschool teachers could have said. I really feel badly for the little boy, whose play is being controlled at such an early age by a man who seems to be fearful of gender-specific clothing. I see this father and his son fairly regularly, and it all just makes me so sad.
Free To Be
Dear Free To Be,
I commend the preschool teachers for not laughing outright at the father and managing a measured response. They were, after all, trying to make their paying customer happy. But in my fantasy, the teachers could have explored the issue more... Picture this alternative scenario:
Father: I don’t want my son to wear a boa.
Teacher: Okay. Why is the boa of concern? Perhaps it is too long? Are you fearing it’s a choking hazard?
Father: No... I just--
Teacher: Because we could just make sure there are skirts and dresses and shirts and pants available—they’ll build his life skills, we want all our students to be able to get dressed independently.
Father: NO! No skirts or dresses, they’re just as--
Teacher: Just as what? They’re not long and skinny like that noose-like boa, they have very large head openings... I don’t understand...
Now, of course, this scenario wouldn’t work in real life, as it's not the best idea to mock a person concerns. It is, however, important to bring attention to a person's fear. Gently, at minimum.
I wish the teachers had said, “we’ll try to redirect your son to other items in the dress-up box if the boa makes you uncomfortable.” Because that’s what this is about: the father’s discomfort.
As for you, a parent of that father’s child’s classmate: All I can suggest is that every chance you get, give that little boy a high-five, a warm hello, a smile, anything, every day, to let him know that he is always appreciated and valued for who he is and whatever he does. If he’s wearing a blue hat, say “nice hat.” If he’s wearing a pink tiara, say “nice tiara.”
Tell that father, when you see him, “Your son is fantastic. My child loves him. He’s such a bright, nice boy.”
When you see a bigot, teach him how not to be one.
Be the change!
Dear Free to Be,
Remember the outrage (!) just a few months ago over a JCrew ad and pink nail polish? Who knew it was so easy to bring down Western civilization? I'd have done it long ago.
This came up when our children were in preschool as well. Occasionally at pick-up time boys might be wearing pink tutus or would have painted themselves in all manner of colors. Some parents were uncomfortable, but then three weeks later their children have moved from the tutu to the tank engine for the next two weeks. Young parents read a lot into the small things children do. She likes blocks: future engineer. He enjoys boas: destined to be Priscilla of the Desert. It seems the teachers were great to explain they offer a variety of dress ups and let the kids decide. That is what free play is about.
As Renu said, just continue to be warm and set an example of acceptance and inclusion. Dad's eyes may open as he sees that others don't share his concerns.