Well… you see… it’s like… the thing is…
Mayo is making steady strikes with his use of expressive language. Four words he has down pat are: mommy, daddy, baby, and boy. It is no coincidence that these are the four types of people he has in his immediate family. The thing is, he has generalized these terms and attempt to fit all humans (and now, some animals) into this classification system. This is actually a brilliant example of Piaget’s theory on assimilation and accommodation. But that isn’t what this post is about. Instead, it is about the awkwardness that can sometimes result from his inaccurate usage of these terms based on their common definitions (as opposed to those he has created for himself) and the loss for words I sometimes experience when attempting to correct him.
Based on his usage patterns, here is how he seems to see the world:
Mommy – a tall person with female secondary sexual characteristics and/or traits that would generally qualify as female gender conforming
Daddy – a tall person who lacks female secondary sexual characteristics and/or traits that would generally qualify as female gender conforming
Boy – a child between the ages of approximately 2 and 10
Baby – a baby
As you can see, this classification system is woefully inadequate for describing the full compliment of diversity that makes up the human species. Teenagers often confuse him. He couldn’t decide what to call my colleague’s 13-year-old son — he of the recent growth spurt, gangly limbs, baby face, and cracking voice. Consequently, we dubbed him, “Thom… tall like daddy, face like boy, act like baby. He also gets thrown by women with short hair or men with long hair (especially if they lack any facial hair). He insisted on calling my friend’s wife a daddy because she had very short hair, a slight frame, and was wearing baggy clothing. And, of course, female children (i.e., girls) get labeled boys without a second thought.
Now, all of this makes sense from his perspective based on how he sees and understands the world. He doesn’t really need a more complex classification system at this point. But one of the ways he will devise one is labeling enough other types of people until he can no longer assimilate them into this system and instead must accommodate his categories and create new ones. To invoke just a wee bit of Piaget, eventually he’ll realize his definitions are insufficient because either too many people don’t fit or he has crammed so many different types of people into a category as to render it meaningless.
This is easy to do with, say, animals. If a child grows up with a cat in the home, she is very likely to call all four-legged furry animals a cat. So she’ll see a squirrel and say, “Cat!” and a dog and say, “Cat!” because she is really using “cat” to mean “non-human” or “animal” or, most precisely, “four-legged furry animal”. So even if you initially point out to her that the squirrel is a squirrel and the dog is a dog, she’ll look at you like you’re crazy and just insist they are all cats. Not unlike how you can explain to me what all the different things growing in your garden are and I’ll probably just call them all flowers regardless. But, eventually, her system will break down. She’ll encounter, say, a horse and think, “This really isn’t anything like all the other cats I’ve seen.” Or she’ll notice, “Those types of cats act very differently than these types of cats. Maybe that is why everyone calls them dogs.” This won’t be a conscious mechanism, mind you. But it will be the process her brain is undertaking.
Are you still with me? Okay, good. (I assume you said, “Yes!” enthusiastically and with much aplomb.) But, again, animals are easy. No one is going to get offended or even uncomfortable if a toddler calls their dog a cat… least of all the dog. People, on the other hand, can present some unique difficulties… on two levels. The first — and probably most obvious — problem that arises is when Mayo labels someone the wrong type. It was a tad bit awkward when he called my friend’s wife a daddy, in no small part because she had just gotten a haircut and was unhappy with how short it was. Many young girls who don’t know him well will get frustrated when he insists that they are a boy. He’s messing with their identity! And I always wonder about women who might dream of being a mom or are trying or struggling to be a mom or for whom the talk of being a mommy is a subject fraught with pain and how it might be feel to have an adorable little guy toddle up to you and excitedly say, “Mommy!” with a beaming smile. No one has ever registered any offense* and I’m sure 99.99% of women in this situation would recognize it for what it was and yet the potential for discomfort is still there due to the limited control we have over our emotional responses to highly sensitive topics.
But that ain’t the worst of it. Yes, the potential for awkwardness abounds but it is usually over and done with in a moment. What I find to be a far more difficult thing to deal with is if, when, and how to correct him. Because doing so A) usually requires presuming I know what someone’s gender is and B) ‘best practice’ would suggest that I offer him an explanation for the correction. So, for instance, just yesterday he looked at a child who was probably about 8-years-old and said, “Boy!” And I wasn’t sure if he was right because the child presented in such a way that it wasn’t obvious. Thankfully, this child was far away so I could say to Mayo, “Yes, that is a big kid like you but I don’t know if they are a boy or girl,” without risking offense. Then there was the time today he was looking at pictures of our pediatrician’s family as we waited in the office and he pointed to her three children and said, “Boy, boy, boy!” Now, from conversations with the doctor I know she does not have three boys; she has a boy and two girls. So I pointed and said, “Boy, girl, girl!” He had already moved on to being enamored with her baseball lamp but had I attempted to explain to him why one child was a boy and the other two were girls… how would I have done so? “Boys have short hair an girls have long hair”? Well, that is far from a universal truth. “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas”? Even if we accept the sex binary**, that isn’t particularly meaningful to him at this age and of little help at the playground (or, really, anywhere). So, yea, the list goes on of potentially awkward situations and a complete inability on my part to help him create better meaning for these terms without reinforcing all sorts of insidious ideas I don’t want him to internalize.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Cool the fish out, Kazzy… he’s two! And, yes, he’s two. And him (or me!) identifying someone with the wrong gendered term isn’t the end of the world. These things hardly keep me up at night. But the reality is, how we identify people is really, REALLY important. And much of what we learn about how to identify people — beyond just the specific words we use but the fact that we so often try to identify and label and categorize people and the characteristics we tend to focus on — happens when we’re young, long before we can truly understand what gender or race or age are, both in the abstract and the specific social weights those and other key identifiers carry. It is the kind of thing, that as a parent and teacher of young children who cares deeply about these and other issues, makes you want to put your head down on the desk and say, “Can’t we just focus on finger paint?!?!” And, oh, how easy it’d be to focus on finger paint! But too many people don’t get to focus on finger paint because they are dealing with all the societal baggage that comes with our failings around identifying and categorizing humans.
Language is immensely powerful. The words we use matter. To get really math nerdy, how many people think they’ve held a square in their hands before? Because the reality is NO ONE has EVER held a square in their hands because squares, as two-dimensional objects, cannot be held. But we all think we have because we were taught the word square before we were taught the word cube or rectangular prism and now we all walk around getting laughed at by the math nerds of the world. But the only targets of offense there are inanimate objects. When dealing with people, we risk all sorts of bad outcomes — bad outcomes that have existed and continue to exist, not merely hypothetical ones — when we use language sloppily and/or abuse it. The desire to categorize seems innate. But the words we use to categorize could stand to be a whole lot better. Even if I gravitated towards gender-neutral terms… words like “grown up” and “kid” (which I do often use in my classroom setting)… I’m still left without an appropriate pronoun. So, folks, please think of the children and let’s work together on being better about this whole thing?
* One care giver one time quasi-jokingly, quasi-seriously corrected him saying, “Oh no… I’m not the mom!”
** Note: I do not.