New School Year: "Ew, you have a GIRL on your name tag!"

I’ve got two boys, Boy 1 and Boy 2. Today was the first day of school for them. I know, it’s not even Labour Day. It didn’t help that the weather today was gorgeous and sunny with the thermometer passing the 30 degree mark.

I waited at the bus stop this morning to send them off to their first “full” half-day. Yes, they were in school only from 7:55 until 10:30, then being shipped back home. Tomorrow will be a repeat performance with another half-day. Why they do this is beyond me. Part of me thinks the school board is in cahoots with babysitters around Montreal who cash in on desperate parents who need to dump their kids somewhere because they have to go to work. I worked from home today and tried, as much as possible, to save the world from human rights violations while the TV blasted the crazy adventures of Zach and Cody. Now my kids are thwarting nasty guys in some Wii LEGO game.

But back to the first day of classes, and why children (well, never mine) can be nasty. Each grade level at my sons’ primary school had their own way of identifying which teacher the students would have. For Grade 4, Boy 1’s level, students collected their name tags. If they had a pair of women’s shoes on their tag, they would have the female teacher; if they had the pirate, they had the male teacher.

For Boy 2 they had a different scheme. Each child’s name tag had an image of a character from a Disney movie. My boy got stuck with the evil Queen of Hearts from the cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland (the king was in the picture too, but he’s rather unnoticeable). I didn’t think anything about it until I noticed him walking next to me with his name tag turned backwards; he was fiercely clutching it, making sure no one would see which character he was stuck with. He also had a nasty don’t-talk-to-me-I-have-a-girl-on-my-name-tag look on his face.

I tried to reach a compromise by having him tuck his name tag into his shirt, which worked for a little while, but eventually he had to take it out in order to group himself in the correct class. At this point two children in his grade level came along. When one of them turned my son’s name tag around, he laughed long and hard and teased him for “having a GIRL on your tag! HA HA!” Snicker snicker snicker.

Not boy friendly?

I tried to maintain my composure as much as possible, bent down half my height and stared the runt down. “Don’t talk like that to my son, it isn’t nice! You wouldn’t want anyone to make fun of you.” He kept his eyes on my shoes and mumbled OK.

There are a couple of things going on here. The first thing is that, despite my efforts and those of my wife to break down gender-based stereotypes with our children, they still have firmly-held beliefs of what and who girls and boys should associate themselves with. (To my sons’ credit, one’s favourite movie as a baby was The Little Mermaid and the other one’s favourite doll was named Mimi.) The influence of their peers is (sometimes regrettably) significant, as is the influence of media – from the TV shows (and commercials) they watch to the songs they listen to to the games they play on the Internet.

The other thing, equally troubling, is that kids can be downright mean towards each other. I’m not oblivious enough to think that my own children have never done or said anything mean to another child, but I do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen (and I hear enough from other parents who say that I’ve got good kids, attributes I can credit primarily to my wife). I’d like to think that children are normally not predisposed to such mean-spirited behaviour. But if it’s not something we’re born with, children must be seeing (or experiencing) that behaviour in some way, either from a parent, a sibling, or another child. 

All this to say that there is no reason not to educate children about human rights at a young age. Or at the very least the underlying values of human rights, such as cooperation, respect, fairness, inclusion, and respect for diversity. The kid who dissed my son because he had a queen on his name tag might – and I do say might – repeat and reinforce this type of behaviour more and more as time goes by. At such a young age (Boy 2 is seven), you can easily start to form habits, impressions, beliefs and attitudes (“good and “bad” ones) that can last well into adulthood. By then, it’s pretty difficult to unlearn them. So do me a favour: next time you see a boy with a queen on his name tag, give him a heart thumbs up and tell him he’s totally awesome cool. Someday he’ll thank you for it.

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