Thursday, August 30, 2012

Yesterday, after I had finished getting dressed, Eli came into my room and said, "Mommy! Why are you wearing a collared shirt?" I said, "Because I like this shirt," to which he replied with a small smile, "But you look like a boy!".

"Really!?", I thought, "This coming from a boy who wears a sparkly Dora nightgown to bed and wigs and leg warmers!?".

I had to laugh, but I also had to be serious and take the opportunity to drive a lesson home. I asked him how it made him feel when people said he looked like a girl because of something he was wearing ("sad") and asked him how he thought it made me feel when he said I looked like a boy because I had a collar on my shirt ("sad"). I reminded him of past conversations we've had about not poking fun of someone because of what they are wearing or what they look like, that the important part of a person is what's on the inside. He seemed to understand (for the moment, anyway) and he turned around and scampered off to his Barbies.

This conversation appeared to resolve itself easily enough, but I know it's one of many that we will continue to have in order to reiterate the lesson.

I thought about this last night as I put Eli to bed and he told me about all of the things he plays with in his classroom. He told me about the "dress up" center. I asked him what he likes to dress up as and he said, "a builder". I have to admit, I was surprised. I was expecting him to say something like a princess or a ballerina since that's what he likes to dress up as at home.

"What do you like about dressing up as a builder?", I asked.

"The hat," he said. maybe he's going for a Village People kind of thing?

Still, something about this didn't sit right, so I pressed on and after a bit of digging, I got the answer that I knew was the real one lying under the surface: "People think I'm a girl when I dress up in girls' clothes."

"Does that make you feel bad?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

Of course, my first instinct was to be sad and feel sorry for him. I hate the idea of Eli not being Eli because he's worried about what other people think. I hate the idea that questions about wether he's a boy or a girl could upset him. But I also am beginning to learn that a person isn't necessarily being mean when they ask if he's a girl when he's wearing a dress or a wig. Sometimes, they are just being curious. They just want to know.

It's the same principle that applied to when he wanted to know why I was wearing a collared shirt. He wears a collared shirt to school. He's a boy. In his mind, boys wear collared shirts. And his mother, a woman, was wearing a collared shirt so he thought I looked like a boy. He wasn't necessarily being mean, he just was pointing out what was obvious to him and questioning something that doesn't fit into his framework.

This exchange helped me tremendously.  It gave me tools to offer to help him construct open and honest answers to those questions that inevitably come up.  Hopefully, a more cut and dried approach can help avoid hurt feelings when someone asks, "Why do you a have a Barbie lunchbox?".  He doesn't have to assume that they are teasing him and the assumption that they are asking out of curiosity may offer him the ability to respond in a matter-of-fact way, taking the emotion out of the equation completely and perhaps avoiding an upsetting situation.

Of course, I'm not naive enough to think that everyone out there who asks is simply being curious. I know this isn't case. But for now, it is the case and so for now, this is our approach.

As I finished tucking Eli into bed last night, I asked him if he wanted me to get him a new lunchbox, maybe something more subdued (his lunchbox right now is pink, sparkly and has a big old Barbie across the front). He looked at me, wide-eyed and serious and said, "Oh NO. I LOVE my lunchbox."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few months ago, I had taken Ethan to Starbucks to kill some time before we had to pick Eli up from school. While Ethan sat sipping his chocolate milk and working on homework at a small table in the corner, a woman with a cane and a limp hobbled over to us. One of her eyes had clouded over with a cataract and her speech was a bit broken. She launched into a detailed story about how she needed $18 for a shelter that night and I'm sad to admit that I felt uncomfortable and a bit vulnerable being (literally) cornered by someone. I lied and said that I had no cash on me and couldn't help.

Disappointed, she hobbled away and I immediately felt ashamed. I have always tried to teach Ethan to be helpful and respectful toward others, including those who are homeless, and always offer whatever help I can to someone who appears to need it. I often pack extra snacks in my car in case I come across someone who is hungry. On this particular day, not only did I refuse to help this person when she obviously needed help, but I realized I set a horrible example for Ethan and missed out on a great teaching moment.

I wanted to fix this. I had to fix it. Berating myself for not responding to her request for help, I went outside to try to find her again. She was gone. And so was my opportunity.

I told Ethan how sad I was that I hadn't immediately responded to that woman and explained how disappointed in myself that I was and apologized to him for not offering a better example to him. We cleared our table and went to pick Eli up from school and run to the grocery store to get something for dinner but keept an eye out for the woman as we drove.

We arrived at the store and as soon as we walked in, both boys began to act as though they had never been brought out in public before. Still frustrated from earlier, I lost my patience and furiously led them back out to the car and began to drive out of the parking lot, listening to their pleas for second chances and promises of better behavior. At that point, I realized I had two choices: follow through on my threat to take them home without the ingredients for the meal they requested or go home unprepared to make dinner. Since I already had lost the mother of the year award that afternoon, I realized I had nothing left to lose, so I turned around and parked the car.

As we walked back into the store, I spotted someone familiar sitting on a bench near the door. It was the lady from Starbucks! Understanding that this was my chance to right my wrongs that day, I ran up to her and said, "I have been looking for you!". She looked a little confused and then I explained that I had talked to her at Starbucks and I wanted to help. Her confusion turned into a huge, toothless, happy smile. I gave her what she needed for her shelter stay, plus a little extra for transportation and said, "I'm so glad I found you again!". She looked at me and said, "Girl, so am I. So am I. You are so kind." If only she had seen me five minutes earlier yelling at my kids...

In all seriousness, it was so easy, yet felt so good to help her. I wish it had been my initial instinct the first time she'd asked. As I drove home, I thought about this, but Ethan interrupted my thoughts with a question, "Mommy, how did the lady get to the grocery store? It was a long walk and we didn't see her on the way." It's true. It WAS a long walk and I realized how many things had to happen just the right way in order for me to find her again...If it had taken a few less (or a few more) minutes to get Eli, we might've missed her. If the boys hadn't acted up, we might've missed her. If I hadn't turned the car around, we definitely would've missed her.

Perhaps it wasn't just Ethan who was destined to learn a lesson that day. And perhaps there is something to be said about the power of second chances.