When Evan was about three, Sam was holding him as they left a store. Leaving immediately behind them was a little person. "Daddy! Why's that man so tiny?" Evan asked, loudly, as three-year olds are certain to do.
But Sam wasn't rattled and neither was the man. Sam offered him a quick grin and a pleading "excuse my child" look and answered Evan's question: "Well, buddy, everyone's different. People come in all shapes and sizes."
A few years later, just after Molly was born, my parents and the boys were visiting us in the hospital. Becoming restless in the tiny room, Max needed a field trip, so my mom brought him to the nursery window so they could peek in on all the brand new babies. It was a full nursery that morning and my mom and Max were noticing all of the beautiful babies...some were teeny tiny, some looked big enough to be three months old. Some had heads sleek and shiny as a cue ball, others had full heads of hair. "Mom Mom!" Max said, pointing, "Look at that baby! His skin looks like chocolate!" My mom looked. And then my mom noticed that, what seemed to be, the baby's entire extended family was standing next to her, within earshot. Again, the response came easily: "Isn't he beautiful, Max?" "He sure is, Mom Mom!"
The thing is...kids notice physical differences among us. It's one of the easiest and most important ways that their new, developing minds make sense of their world. And kids are proud to share with you what they notice, as if they're aware of something you aren't. In our experience, the people who have overheard our kids' less-than-socially-acceptable comments have all been gracious and kind, probably because, if they have children of their own, they've been on the other side of that social-inappropriateness once or twice before, too. And we try to respond to our kids' questions honestly, while modeling appropriate, respectful behavior of our own.
As our kids are getting older, the differences that they're noticing are more subtle than physical attributes. Partly, this is due to the fact that they are more aware of socially normative behavior and so finding the behavioral outlier seems worthy of mention. They'll notice, for instance, the boy with autism, the girl with Down Syndrome, the child who can tell imaginative, detailed stories of pretend play yet can't seem to remember the names of colors.
And I'm okay with this noticing. It gives us an opportunity (or, many opportunities, really) to remind them that we're all different....our bodies are different and our brains are different and our clothes are different and our families are different, but (almost always, and when it comes to what really matters) our hearts are the same. (We haven't delved into the topic of homicidal sociopaths. Maybe we'll never have to. Imagine...)
I think one of our many (countless, endless, crucial) responsibilities as parents is to teach our kids to be compassionate and positive members of society. Members who treat their friends, neighbors, and strangers alike with kindness, understanding, and respect. One of the ways we teach that is to talk to our kids (often, endlessly...) about our differences...and how these differences do more to unite us than to divide us. (We've all got our something that makes us feel like we're tiptoe-ing on the fringe of what it means to be "normal." And if you don't think you do, then you just haven't found what it is yet.)
Our conversations became more important to me as Max found his sparkle. I wanted him to know that he's allowed to dress as he wants and act as he wants both in our home and out in The World. I wanted him to know that there are plenty of boys in this world who like to wear dresses and who feel "prettiest" when they're fully accessorized...that there are plenty of boys who are just like him. Just because we haven't run into any on our playgrounds or seen any in our restaurants...just because we haven't found them yet, that doesn't mean they're not out there.
Our conversations, it seems, are sinking in. Our message of We, Humans of the Earth, Come in All Forms...our reminder that individuals and families can come in different shapes and sizes and colors and degrees of sparkle.
The other day at the pool, Max came swimming up to me faster than he's ever moved in the water. "Mommy!" he gasped, "I just for the very first time in real life saw one of those families you were talking about!"
"What?" I asked, at a complete loss as to what he was referring. I looked around but just saw the typical crowd for a weekday morning at our pool: a bunch of moms with kids, a few dads, and the teenaged lifeguards.
He tried not to point. "Over there, coming through the gate! It's a two-mommy family!"
I glanced over.
And saw two moms and four or five kids...friends...who had clearly planned to meet up for a pool play date.
Sometimes it's hard to teach diversity in a small town. But seek and you can find....sort of.