A Halloween Treat

Halloween has come and gone and I am sitting here slowly coming down from a sugar high. Our community had an elementary school Halloween parade and I walked with my daughter for two hours this evening. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and I enjoy seeing the creativity and the joy that the holiday brings.

I had started a blog post a week ago about gender roles but I never got around to finishing it. But after observing and watching young children today and tonight, I find myself reflecting on gender once again. While gender can be a complicated topic, I just want to focus attention on gender roles for the moment. Particularly, I want to encourage you to think about the messages that your children hear regarding gender and gender roles. More specifically, I want to focus on the messages that boys hear.

For example, earlier this week, I was shopping at Target and I overheard a woman talking to a boy in the next aisle. I overheard her say, “Hello Kitty? No sweetheart, Hello Kitty is for girls. You need to pick something else.”

Last weekend, my daughter was playing by herself on a blanket during a soccer game. I noticed a young boy looking at her dolls and watching her play. This boy had nothing to do, so I said, “Do you want to play with Amanda?” As soon as I said the words, the boy’s father appeared and firmly stated, “No he’s fine. Unless he wants to go home and have a tea party.” I am assuming you can imagine the sarcasm and criticism in the Dad’s voice.

In both of these situations, boys heard strong messages from people they love that they must conform and behave in ways that society considers gender appropriate. Boys constantly hear messages that make it difficult and challenging to experiment and behave in ways that society deems as gender non-conforming…unless it is October 31st. Halloween is the one day of the year when boys are given a treat- the freedom to experiment with gender roles. Today, I saw dozens of boys taking advantage of this treat and dressing like girls. They knew that the holiday gave them the opportunity to do something they normally cannot do- experiment and deviate from strict gender norms.

A video is circulating on social media that validates the idea that Halloween is a relatively safe time to throw caution to the wind. And yet, you can see it is not without worry or fear. Please watch this short 2-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NjFBzeeeoE

We will continue to explore gender roles over time, but for now I encourage you to reflect on the messages your sons hear from you. Would you be comfortable with your son dressing up like Wonder Woman on Halloween? Why or why not? Overall, do you find yourself limiting the things your boys do? What impacts and informs your parenting decisions around gender roles? Is there anything you wish to change?

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Starting the Conversation

In my last post, I encouraged parents to break their silence and be proactive in the teaching of tolerance and respect. I use the word “tolerance” with reservation because I am looking for more than tolerance. I think we tolerate tooth aches and tolerate loud music. To me, being tolerant means you are just barely able to deal with something unpleasant. I want to push you to move way beyond tolerance. I want to push you to embrace and respect differences. Don’t just tolerate them. Value the differences and teach your children to value them too.

How do you do this? Many people, especially those who find themselves in the majority or ingroup, have very little experience talking about these issues. It’s one of the advantages you may have if you were born with light skin, straight, male, cisgender, or are part of a majority cultural or religious group.

When I first started learning about cultural differences, I was working in an international preschool on the campus of Cornell University. We had children in our program from across the globe. It was a fascinating and deeply enriching experience. I was working with children and their parents across language barriers, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. How do you make everyone in such a diverse environment feel respected and honored?

What I have learned over the years is that being respectful of differences involves the ability to adopt a worldview that is comprised of three separate, yet related, elements. These three elements include the ability to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of these differences.
  3. Respect the differences, without judgment.

These elements also need to be an integral part of the conversations you have with your children about diversity. For example, let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Shuji have funny-looking eyes?”

A culturally competent response needs to include all three elements described above. For example, your response may be:

“I don’t think Shuji has funny-looking eyes. He has eyes that are a different shape than yours (Element 1). Shuji’s eyes are almond-shaped just like his parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes (Element 2). Both you and Shuji have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes (Element 3).”

Preparing your children to understand and respect differences is one of the best gifts you can give them as they enter a world that is increasingly diverse. It starts with the ability to talk about cultural differences in a healthy and respectful way. As long as you include all three elements in your conversations, you will send a healthy message about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help your children develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

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Teach Your Children Well

This afternoon I attended a seminar called Hate Groups in the Wake of Charlottesville: A Community Leadership Briefing. The meeting was held at a local Jewish synagogue and attracted a fairly diverse crowd. The audience gathered to listen to a distinguished panel of speakers that included Joseph Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Oren Segal, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Joseph and Oren were joined by two local FBI agents, Kevin Fisk and Ben Egan, each with expertise in the areas of counter terrorism and civil rights respectively.

The seminar started with questions posed to the panelists. Several questions were about the “alt-right” (short for alternative right) movement. The consensus of the panelists was that the alt-right is a re-branding of white supremacy with slightly different tactics. The alt-right is specifically targeting younger people and is trying to mainstream their message. They rely heavily on social media as a recruitment tool and are boldly making their presence known on college campuses across the United States.

It was pointed out that the use of social media by extremist groups has the ability to unite individuals who are often isolated. In the past, extremist groups needed a charismatic leader to bring a group together, but social media provides a forum to connect isolated individuals and a platform to cheer each other on. For the first time, people in different geographical locations can unite and connect in their extremism.

After listening to the panelists, the audience asked questions. The question on everyone’s mind was, “What can we do to fight these extremist hate groups?” The panelists gave two answers:

First, we need to build communities that embrace differences. We need to support and encourage each other regardless of our ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, class, or other differences. When one community is targeted by hate, we need to surround that community with love and support. We unite and stay strong. We speak out against the hate.

Second, we need to talk to children and youth about these issues. The panelist pointed out that kids who are not well-informed about cultural diversity, or are not taught the importance of respect, are the ones who fall victim to the extremist groups. As parents and grandparents, we need to teach our children about the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion. Our voice needs to be louder and stronger than the extremist voices they might encounter in school, on the playground, on campus, or on social media.

Have you talked to your kids about the importance of diversity, equality, inclusion, love, and respect? Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Make a promise to end the silence. Talk to your children. Read to them. Give them the tools they need to stand up to hate and fear. Model love and respect. Value equality, inclusion, and diversity. Show them that love conquers hate.

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