The Birth of A Stereotype

Turtle came out of his room in his red Valentines shirt and wearing a baseball cap backwards this morning. I commented that he looked really cute in the hat and he said:

"Mom, did you know that bullies wear their caps backward?"

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, if they have caps."

"How do you know that?"

"I've seen pictures of bullies in some books at school and they always have their caps on backward."

"So, are you trying to be a bully today?"

"No!" (smiling shyly)

"Right, just because someone's hat is on backward, doesn't make them a bully. And also can't there be bullies who wear their hats forward? or don't have hats?"

"Well, it was an information book, so it says all the bullies have their hats on backward."

"Well, I think you can't tell by someone's hat whether they are a bully or not."

"Well, it was an information book, Mom."

So this is how stereotypes are born, huh? Clearly every picture book he's seen that features bullies stereotypes them as the kind of kids who dress and look a certain way. Which is sad and inaccurate. Unfortunately there will be all sorts of bullies Turtle will encounter in life and I only wish they could all be easily identified in advance by something as simple as how they wear their hats. The reality is much more nuanced than that. At least he wanted to wear his hat backward anyway and didn't fear being identified as a bully.

Of course, later in the car ride to school, he explained to me how the boys might be wearing red today and the girls might wear pink and purple. But the boys won't because those aren't boy colors. I proceeded to explain that there are no rules when it comes to colors and people can like any color they want and reminded him we had just five minutes before both been admiring the pink blossoms on our plum tree. I told him that you can't know what everyone likes unless you ask them. I was told "well, I asked all the boys in my class and they all don't like pink and purple. Those are girl colors." I countered, "well, I know some other boys who do like pink and purple." And then I sat and thought to myself how I had picked out pink liner paper for Fox's* dresser and how it was already filled with pink and purple hand-me-downs. How much do you push fighting stereotypes when you realize that you've bought into them, at least to a certain extent, too?

And this whole information book thing has been an issue lately. At some point, I had explained to him the difference between fiction and non-fiction, in the context of wanting him to understand that some of the stories we have about animals and people at home were really true stories or that other books were reference books with true facts. Ever since, that has been used against me. Anything I try to correct him on, he tells me that he got the idea from an information book, which is supposed to justify it regardless of how wrong it is. Oh my. And again, I realize that he's merely reflecting my own values. I am an information book kind of gal. I'm a skeptic and tend to not buy into an idea or be comfortable justifying it until I've read about research studies that validate it. Which is a good thing, I think, in the age of blossoming internet quackery. But the part of the lesson I haven't been able to get across to my almost 5 year old yet is how you have to know how to validate the source of your information and balance it against everything else you know. All in due time...

*Fox is the baby girl I'm expecting in 9 weeks.

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