My preschooler is struggling with her social world. We switched her preschool about eight weeks ago, and she’s around more kids (other school was smaller) and more boys (other small class had only a few boys) than before. It’s also our first experience sending our child to spend the day with a group of kids we don’t know very well.
With Laurie Berkner’s Pandora station playing in the background, I get snippets of the day’s activities on our ride to and from school. She’s working through gender binaries, expressions of femininity, beauty standards, and social class divisions–you know, the standard roster of concerns for the preschool set.
After a few weeks of school, she started to notice differences between kids. One observation cropped up over lunch time:
Kiddo: Mommy, some friends have lunch at school. I want to have lunch at school with them. Can you sign me up for that?
We didn’t sign up for school lunch because we pack lunch, but it’s okay with me if she eats school lunch once a week. She sees some kids have something that she doesn’t have. Still, her awareness of differences between kids and the knowledge that she could “sign up” (in essence, pay up) for something surprised me.
Not only is she noticing what other kids have, she is also aware of their perceptions of her. She is already developing a looking glass self–seeing herself as others might see her. Just this week in the morning, while getting dressed:
Kiddo: I don’t want to wear those pants, Mommy.
Me: Why, honey? It’s going to be cold out and these fleecy pants will be warmer than plain leggings.
Kiddo: I don’t want to wear those because other kids don’t think they look good on me.
<Insert look of horror here>
Dressing a four-year-old with opinions is a challenge. But the idea that she would internalize outside perceptions of what she looks like in her clothing surprised me yet again. I may be (okay, I most likely am) reading too much into the situation, but this isn’t the first time I’ve argued with her about her clothes and if she’s harboring fear or anxiety about other’s perception of her, I worry for her teenage years.
And then, there are the endless conversations about “boy things” and “girl things.” In two separate conversations with my preschooler this past week, she has voiced her confusion about the kids in her class.
Several nights ago, to her father:
Kiddo: Daddy, boys can like pink and girls can like blue. (Her tone implied that she was not curious, but simply confirming a suspicion she had.)
Husband: Go tell mommy that–it will make her very happy.
On the way home after preschool recently:
Kiddo: Mommy, I want to play at Matthew’s house and I don’t care if he only has boy stuff.
Me: Honey, what do you mean by boy stuff?
Kiddo: You know, trucks and stuff.
Me: Did someone at school say that there was boy stuff? How do you know what’s boy stuff and what’s girl stuff?
Kiddo: Well, girls like princesses and boys like trucks. But, I like trucks too. And boys should try playing with princesses before they say they don’t like them.
Sociologist mom or not, there are some things (too many things, really) that I cannot control. We’ve given over to our daughters’ preferences for colors and clothing–they love pink and purple and sparkles. At the same time, we have stocked our house with “gender neutral” items like art supplies and building toys or with books that have strong female heroines. Yet, they know things about the world and about gendered expectations. Worse, they know things about standards of femininity and beauty.
How do I explain how to conform to or diverge from these expectations? I’ve already shattered some of her princess dreams. She loves to dress up in fancy dresses and stomp around in my heels, but when she pines for a “long ponytail” like the princesses in her story books, I have to shut it down. Our Semitic hair is tough to tame into those long, flowy tresses. Straight hair is not a thing for us.
Just when I start to think that I’m screwing everything up, I get a glimmer of hope. Recently one morning:
Me: Honey, was it busy when everyone was changing for swimming at school yesterday?
Kiddo: It was. The boys take karate. (I swore I’d sign her up for karate but I never did). And mommy, Alex (a girl) takes karate.
Phew. “Yes, honey,” I reply, “Girls can do karate, too.”