This post is about “references”. No, not job references or character references — rather, the ability to be able to reference some thing, some one, or some concept that, essentially, will make sense to a 5-year old.
Not too long ago, I wrote about how I was watching the Republican National Convention with my 5-year old daughter. While watching it, we saw the McCain photo slides of men with dark skin, turbans, and machine guns juxtaposed with images of the American flag. My 5-year old said, “Mommy? Daddy? Do those people want to kill America? They look just like Nura’s family. Does Nura’s family want to kill America?”
Nura is her friend. Her family is Muslim. They were the first Muslim family we met and who we grew very close to over the years. When my daughter first met them, she asked them why they wore long sleeves, “scarfs on their heads”, and long pants while she was dressed in a High School Musical tank top, shorts and hot pink Crocs on a 90 degree weather day. In a single conversation, Nura’s mom told my daughter about their choices, their religion, their beliefs. But, through their relationship over the years, my daughter learned so much more. She learned that they loved one another, that they were a family with a great sense of humor, and that they gave big hugs.
The last time we saw them was during a weekend in September, and Nura’s mom explained why the girls were not going to be joining us for dinner. When my daughter asked why Nura’s dad and brothers were always gone, the mom explained the importance of prayer during Ramadan. Growing up a Catholic and being married into a Christian family, the first time I had ever heard about Ramadan was when I was 21 years old — I read about it in a book. My daughter was learning about Ramadan, at age 5, from a family.
Back to the RNC: Hearing the words come out of my daughter’s mouth brought painful tears to my eyes. I couldn’t believe that my 5-year old was getting the message that people who looked like Nura’s family wanted to “kill America”. I was thankful that, at that important learning moment, I could help her work through what that meant. I asked her questions about her favorite memories of the Nura and what she misses about Nura’s family. She told me about their fun adventures at the park this summer, the way Nura’s Mama hugs her tight when she sees her, and the funny stories they made up in September. She also brought up that they “wear warm clothes when it’s hot.”
“Do you think Nura’s family wants to kill America?” I asked.
“No, Mommy. But, then why do those people want to kill America?” my 5-year old asked.
“I am not sure. But, I know that just because some one looks like those people doesn’t mean they want to kill America.”
She seemed to get it, so I wasn’t going to push much further than that. For her kindergarten mind, I felt that referencing Nura’s family had laid the groundwork for at least challenging the photos she saw and the feelings she connected with it. I was thankful to have been able to refer to her friends at that important moment.
Today, on the way home from school, a similar situation came up again where I was thankful we had a reference. Then, I found myself wrestling with my desire to reference another.
Already in the car on the way to see her cousin, my 5-year old asked if we could turn back to our house to pick up a “boy Pretty Pony.”
“Why? Why do you need to get a BOY Pretty Pony?” I asked curiously.
“Because, mommy! We want to pretend the ponies are getting married! And, we need a boy pony and a girl pony!”
Already more than 1/2 way there, I said, “I’m not driving all the way home just so you can pick up a BOY pony… pause... And, also, you can always pretend that two girls are getting married. We DO live in Massachusetts!”
“Ewww!! That’s gross!!!! Two girls can’t get married! That’s soooo weeeeiirdddd…!!”
*** ouch, my socially just heart started to break ***
“Actually, honey, two girls can get married. And, two boys can get married. Remember Ryan’s moms? They are married. They are a family. They love each other.”
“Okay, fine. Two girls can get married. But, boys can’t marry each other! That’s gross, Mom!!”
I knew she needed me to refer to someone she knew. So, I quickly searched my brain for an example.
“Well, what about….. what about…. I mean…. isn’t there….. wait? Do we know any families that have two dads?” I desperately searched and searched.
“No,” she responded.
“Well, have I read you any books that have two dads?” I said in disbelief.
I asked the question already knowing the answer, “Are there any kid shows that you watch that have two dads?”
A reference? Do I even have one??? I mean, I have male friends from college who are married, but she doesn’t know any of them. A few years after we graduated from college, my husband and I had gay roommates. But, she doesn’t know any of them, either. Urgh!
The sassy 5-year old quickly followed up, “So, uh, Mom? Prove that two dads make a family. Who is a family with two dads that we know?” as if she were testing me and my commitment to diversity and social justice.
“I guess we don’t know any, honey. We should probably figure this one out.”
And, the conversation ended there. I called my husband when we got to my sister’s house. He works in a school with a number of gay families. “Hi, honey. Quick, we need some play dates with families with two dads” I exclaimed in desperation.
Woah. Wait. Hold on Diversity Girl….
Did I just do what I, myself, can’t stand when it comes to issues of race? Is this the same in the race conversation? I’m usually appalled when someone said, “I need to find a Black/Asian/Latino friend”. Was I doing the same thing??
Needless to say, I spent the next few days trying to dismantle my privilege and the analyze why I felt so uncomfortable with a) our lack of gay role models in our family life, and b) my eager reaction to “Quick! Find them!”
I know others wrestle with this same issue, especially with race. So, real quick, here’s what I came up with for myself: The difference, for me, is whether I’m doing it (the “Quick! Honey! Find some friends!” reaction) to check off a list or to make the world/my family/my daughter’s education and experience better for ourselves and our society. I do want to have diverse representation in our family’s lives because it helps to make us better contributors in this world. My daughter’s only reference to Muslims is of a loving, kind, funny, and warm family. Because of her friend’s parents who are both women, she’s growing up knowing that women love each other in many ways, and that 2 moms DO make a family. In a multiracial family, she knows that Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Latinos are smart, dedicated, integral parts of the American definition. From the kids in her school, she knows that some kids are raised by combinations of moms/dads, grandmothers, aunts, and guardians.
References are important. As a parent, it helps me to talk about difficult situations with my 5-year old when I can reference someone she knows. People often ask, “When is it too early to talk about issues of race?” I say, it’s never too early. As parents, we just need to find the ways to talk about it in a manner than makes sense to them. And, for me, being able to refer to people in my daughter’s life has been the most effective and authentic way of doing so.
Post note: After that conversation, we did end up buying a number of books that did feature two-dad families. And, just the other day, my two married friends attended the birth of their child! They sent pictures to us, we sat as a family and went through their online album, and were able to talk about how two men can get married AND be parents!
Liza Talusan is the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. She is an active member of Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (www.girlsaspire.org) and believes that mentoring is one of the best way to make changes in this world. She serves as an advisor and mentor to students of color as well as to organizations designed to educate and promote cultural competency.