I was at lunch yesterday with my mother, cousin, and sister. Most of the discussion revolved around our children — many of whom are teenagers now. At one point, my sister said something like: No one can convince you that YOUR teenager will be frustrating or troublesome or less-than-perfect when your child is young. You have to actually live with your teenager to believe that…
This story is about Becton – but my youngest teenager, Skye, plays a role in it. Becton, as you know, is a performer. He will perform his dance moves for almost anyone. His smile is infectious. He exudes self-confidence. The differences between him and some of his peers matter not at all to him (at this stage of life). He reminds me of the song “William’s Doll” from Marlo Thomas’s “Free to Be, You and Me” – a book and record which I absorbed and promoted in the 1970s. If you are not familiar with the book or performances, it is a collection of poems, stories, and songs that reflect a feminist attitude toward gender-roles. That is, it teaches that boys and girls can grow up to be whatever and whomever they want to be, that household chores are not fun, but necessary, and that both males and females can contribute, etc. Check it out, if you haven’t.
“William’s Doll” is a song about a little boy who wants a baby doll, but his father, his brother, and his male friends either laugh at him or try to talk him out of it. They call him names and sign him up for sports. And he’s a good athlete. But he still wants a doll:
“A doll, said William, is what I need,
To wash and clean and dress and feed
A doll to give a bottle to
And put to bed when day is through
And anytime my doll gets ill,
I’ll take good care of it, said my friend Bill…”
This song actually inspired my efforts to treat my older children without regard to gender stereotypes. Emily was given her share of cars and balls. K.J. was given twin baby dolls, a boy and girl, at age two. I have a lovely picture of him embracing one of dolls at his birthday party. That was one of the last times he picked it up. Turns out, he loved sticks that could turn into swords and guns. He loved catching, throwing, kicking, and hitting balls. He collected hot wheels, and still does! I’ve been less ambitious with subsequent children. I have followed their lead more. Skye wanted only animal-related things. Journey loved princesses.
Becton, on the other hand, is my William. With teen age siblings, he has been exposed to more than his share of teenage music and music videos. He loves Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kesha, Britney Spears, Beyonce, and other female performers. We try to steer him away from the dicier stuff. And “inappropriate” has become a word he both knows and uses on a regular basis. We’ve also tried to turn him on to male performers, but their lyrics are not always “appropriate” either. Becton is simply drawn to the dance and costumes and glamour of the female performers.
It’s Christmas, and the money arrives from the out-of-town relatives. Suddenly, Becton has more money than he knows what to do with. For days, he is at our heels begging to buy a Lady Gaga costume for $50. We say, repeatedly: “They only come in adult sizes. It would look ridiculous on you. It’s a waste of your money. We are not going to order such a thing.” But he can’t let it go. He is googling Miley Cyrus black raven costumes. He looks for kid-size dance costumes. He is obsessed. It’s hard to explain how all-encompassing his desire for these clothes was. He would go to sleep talking about it and wake up to renew the planning and obsessing.
After six days, I was finally able to convince him that he would do better to focus on making his own costume from inexpensive clothes from Wal-mart or the thrift store. This afternoon, I agreed to take him to both places. Nothing at Wal-mart, but the thrift store offered a variety of choices. He came away with a wig (long and dark-red), high-heeled shoes, and three glitzy female swimsuits that looked like costumes to him. And he only spent $9.05. Becton was delighted!
I warned him that he might not receive support for his expenditures at home. I specifically directed him to ignore Skye’s responses because I KNEW they would be harsh. “Don’t let them spoil your fun,” I said. Sure enough, as soon as we walked in the door and Skye saw what Becton had purchased, she became enraged: “He is not my brother! I am disowning him! Boys can’t wear that stuff! He is so gayford!” (‘Gayford’ is not a word that is familiar to me, but Emily assured me it was a ‘real’ word and put-down for someone alleged to be gay.”)
Becton turned to me and said, “Skye is already spoiling my fun.” Emily bit her tongue — mostly. K.J., as instructed, said nothing. Journey wondered why she hadn’t known I was going to thrift store because SHE wanted to buy stuff.
Skye followed me around, lecturing me on my poor parenting skills. It was my job to keep him from these girl clothes. He was an embarrassment to the family, and so forth.
I still remember when K.J. was around Becton’s age and he wanted a purse with his name or initial on it. He was adamant. I wrestled with the decision to let him use his money to fulfill his desire, knowing he might be ridiculed if he took the purse to school. Ultimately, I decided to let him make the purchase. He was pleased with his bag, set it aside, and went back to his usual “boy antics.” I was able to look back on the episode as a phase in K.J.’s development that I had handled more appropriately than I sometimes handle requests that surprise me.
When I compare the two requests from my boys now, I realize I was lucky that all my children were young when K.J. was intent on owning a purse. Children handle diversity better when they are young. It doesn’t bother them the same way it does when they are teenagers trying to fit their experiences into categories they can manage and control as everything seems to be spinning out of control — hormonal changes, more demands at school, social pressures, etc. Teenagers are damned judgmental. You just hope you have taught them well up to that point. I am reminded of the song from “South Pacific”:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be carefully taught…”
Now, Skye’s negative judgment about gay-ness did NOT come from her parents. It’s hard to imagine that it came from most of her friends. But it’s out there – still. It is very discouraging to realize how little control we actually have over her opinions at this stage. We THOUGHT we had done the right things.
Truth is, Becton is probably in pretty good hands with us. We don’t care if he’s gay or straight, if he’s a cross-dresser or a star-in-the-making. It would be nice if he got better support from his siblings. But they are young and going through whatever it is they need to go through. My sister gave me a t-shirt for Christmas that reads: Trust Your Journey. That will be my theme this year. I hope you find your own theme and direction in 2011. Happy New Year!