Our most important goal in raising our 5-year-old is neutrality. Gender, race, nationality – none of those labels should matter to her. They are just little pieces that contribute to the entire wonderful package. We painted her room green and yellow in a jungle theme. We never start a sentence with “Only Boys” or “Only girls”. Anyone can wear anything – “it’s a choice” we tell her. Boys can sport earrings and paint their nails if they so wished; and girls can build roads and drive CAT machines. We set no limits to how she explores the world – she loves to dance and cook and climb trees and work with her tools – all with equal zest. We tell her that she can do whatever she wants as long as she does it with passion.
We were doing everything right, as far as I could tell. What then would prompt my confident, smart and extraordinary little girl to tell me one day that she wished she could be a blonde?
I was driving her back from day care, and we noticed someone with red hair and pink highlights running on the sidewalk. I asked her what she thought about that color combination and she said “its fine, but I want to be a blonde”.
There is really nothing wrong with the idea – she can be a blonde or red-head or whatever else she wants to be. But she has long, curly, dark hair. Why would she want to change it? Based on everything we had tried to teach her, she was supposed to say “I like dark and curly hair because that is what I have”.
I went through one of those overly dramatic moments all parents have – when you think you have failed your children absolutely and completely. I asked her why she preferred to be blonde, and she crossed her arms and said “Hm. Not fair, I hate my black hair”. Many questions later I realized that one of her friends told her that she had dark hair which means she must go back to India one day. My daughter wanted to be a blonde so that she could be “like everyone else” and escape the perceived exile. I realized something I hadn’t noticed or paid attention to until that day. Her pre-school classroom is predominantly white – until recently my daughter was the only Indian child. There were no Asians and only one or two African-Americans.
Somehow, despite everything we had told my daughter, she had found a way to dislike a physical aspect of her natural, human self. She wanted to “fit in”. Obviously, it broke my heart in a thousand different ways.
We had forgotten all about this pesky little aspect called diversity. We kept telling her everyone is equal, we forgot to mention that everyone is not the same, and that it is perfectly fine to be different. We were naïve enough to think it’s not a lesson worth spending time on.
We realize now that talking about our differences doesn’t have to be a harsh or terrible thing. It is merely a fact. It doesn’t matter why the other little girl (who is a sweet, smart child) said what she said. What matters is how my daughter reacts to these kinds of situations. It can be with anger and resentment or it can be with some element of awareness.
And so our goal has evolved. Beyond neutrality, we want to talk to her about our planet and its vastness. We want her to embrace it and celebrate it. All the different kinds of people in it, and what makes them unique. The different ways people worship, religions and rituals, different countries – all of it. We talk to her about India, about how we may visit with her one day when she is older.
We want her to be confident that she is special and unique because of all her little features, not despite them. We never want her to feel like she has to change to fit in.
And if she still wants to be a blonde, so be it!