August 28, 2013
Ziya is two, but she’s clear about sex, her body and reproduction. That gives her a language to ask questions, assess knowledge, think about herself, identify her rights and break silences around all too common phenomena such as child sexual abuse.
If you ask her how babies are made, she’ll say that the daddy puts his penis in the mummy’s vagina, that a liquid comes out with sperm, that the sperm go up the vagina to mummy’s tummy where it “makes friends” with mummy’s egg (this part she came up with, not me), and a baby grows before coming out through mummy’s vagina. She’s seen natural births on Youtube. She knows where she came out of from my body, in the driveway no less. She’s got basic information to answer her question of where she came from, and she has gone on with life like it’s no big deal.
She also knows what to say if anyone touches her vagina or bum bum. We tell her to shout ‘No! I will tell my mummy’ and I tell her that if she feels she needs to, scrap it out as much as she can. When she throws a tantrum, she’s all flailing arms and legs, hitting everything in sight, acting like Scoobie Doo’s nephew Scrappy Doo. I tell her to hit and kick just like that if she has too, and we practice so that, if it ever happens, asserting herself won’t be new. Girls, and boys, need to be empowered from early to powerfully defend themselves from abuse.
The other day, she said to me, ‘Mummy, I have a nipple on my vagina’. I said, ‘that’s your clitoris’. She asked, ‘what’s it for?’ I had to laugh. I said, ‘it’s for you to feel good and you will discover how later on’. I’m not going to feed her nonsense about her genitals being only for reproduction and not for pleasure, because whatever hypocritical adults think, she’ll naturally discover that just as all children do.
She’s got to learn to own and love her body completely if she’s going to be the most capable of making it through life in ways that are healthy and chosen. She takes all this in stride, like learning anything else. It makes you wonder why we act like this stuff is taboo.
When we are not open about sex, when children do not learn to name the most vulnerable parts of their bodies, and when we pretend that children are too young for facts about reproduction, we are perpetuating other silences too.
We wouldn’t give children a lack of clarity about geography or history, why do that about sexuality? Don’t we want them to understand themselves better or to tell us when something is happening to them that they don’t agree to? We are also acting as if children are not living in an adult world already, learning more than we realize about it and figuring out how to talk about it through what they overhear or from TV.
Stone likes to tell me that all this is all well and good, but wait until Ziya starts school and other parents who don’t want their kids to know about their bodies or sexuality complain about Ziya’s upfront explanatory honesty.
What can I say? In a world where sexual violence is everywhere, and where children are not safe, this is one girl who is going to all the information she needs to know. Words, truth, self-knowledge, safety and power are her right and I’m going to help her to make it so.
August 28, 2013
Socialisation of children is a path of continual decision-making about your approach to truth. These decisions are not made in isolation, but involve both parents, and often grandparents and other family. Not everyone always agrees, but children either need to be spared conflicting information or advised about how to deal with different views, which is part of learning about the reality they are growing into.
Ziya’s school is non-denominational, but twice a day they pray, starting with the words, ‘Dear Father’. Of course, because I’ve given little thought to schooling, other than where she will learn through play, never be beaten and feel respected and empowered, the whole question of prayer never occurred to me. I’m atheist, but if I was to pray, it would likely start with the words, ‘Dear Mother’, because I can’t conceive how God, like humans who create life, could have anything other than breasts, womb and a vagina.
As an anthropologist, I think that humans create conceptions of God or gods and goddesses that match their own worldview. In a world that wasn’t founded on male domination or where we considered gender to be more flexible, our gods could also have feminine aspects or goddesses could have male incarnations or God could instead be imagined as a Mother figure to revere, as with many cultures that have existed across place and time whose beliefs are as valid as we consider our own.
As a mother, I teach Ziya to see a walk through a forest as a moment for meditation and those peaceful places where rivers meet seas as sites for kneeling quietly to breathe, listen and feel. Sometimes, we say good night to the trees, birds, animals and the earth because it is these that I think are deities of life and the complex, mysterious abundance of creation.
As a parent, I’m not going to tell her Santa Clause is real, but I’m going to let her encounter the world as it exists and learn to ask questions about why. I’m not going to teach her about God, but no doubt everyone else will and when she asks what I believe, I’ll be truthful because that’s how she will know she has to make up her own mind too. Now that Zi’s in school, I have less control over the ideas she will encounter. That means it’s my job to have new conversations with her.
As a citizen in our multi-religious society, I don’t have a policy of censorship. Ziya’s not going to be harmed by prayer, even to a male God that I don’t believe in, which simply reminds her to be good, kind, grateful and conscientious. She should be exposed to other beliefs, learn what they can offer to her and live harmoniously with others holding different beliefs from her own. I think that when you learn about religion, you are also learning about culture, gender, philosophy and the sacred, just as you can learn about the need to question rather than blindly believe, to seek answers in history, and to reflect on what kinds of ideas and power order the world.
I wish that some days her prayer started, ‘Dear Mother’ just as it does ‘Dear Father’ because, frankly none of us can definitively say it’s one or the other, and because I see male headship and domination in the hidden curriculum greeting her everywhere she turns. In my own and her everyday negotiations with ‘truth’, I’m charting a journey not everyone will agree to. Hopefully, the open-mindedness I would like to bring is what others will also.
August 28, 2013
That’s the best way to describe registration day at Ziya’s first school. She wasn’t there and will no doubt be perfectly fine on Monday. It was me. I was terrified. I have a PhD. I’m smart. I totally didn’t think about eight million obvious things about school, like the fact that I still had to label everything or the sense it makes to get a set of shorts and tops that we could use like a uniform or the obviousness of what registration means in terms of all the documents they told you to bring when you first signed up in May.
I arrive at the school, feeling all shnazz that Stone and I had all done Ziya’s school shopping, like the email from the school said, and had arrived on time. School supplies? Check. Labelled and boxed? Check. Then we go to registration. Naturally, I don’t have any documents I should have. Birth certificate? Immunization? Photos? Signed forms? Check? Umm. No.
I sat there wondering what I thought the whole point of registration really was and tracing my way back through my memory to the fact that I did know I needed this stuff, but had clearly forgotten in the midst of trying to get my finalized book proposal to a publisher and preparing for the start of the university term.
I’m a conscientious mom. I’ve been in contact with the school about giving Zi a pre-school tour and about her being vegetarian. I thought I had it in flow, but the realization hit that I’d now need to dedicate a proper section of my brain to Ziya and school, something that hadn’t occurred to me because she’s still only two.
Everyday, I have to make sure that she heads off with something for ‘show and tell’, I have to make sure that she comes home in shoes that are actually hers. I have to be more than good with her when I’m with her at nights and weekends, I have to also plan for her days and follow up on them after. It’s like I’m discovering a whole new world of parenting.
You think you feel like an adult when you have the baby and she is sprouting healthy and happy. You think that you’re developing greater maturity when over time you learn to balance partnership, parenthood, work and even a little time for self, but it’s another stage when they start school.
Mostly, my lesson for the moment is to be less preoccupied and to recognize that this learning curve requires more attention that I was used to for earlier stages of her life. Like everything else, it will come more naturally with time, but for now, I’m starting all new at this school thing too.
There are so many things to think about with each day that she moves out into the world. So many decisions and so much more to pay attention to. It’s me who feels like I’m growing up.
Parents who have been here before will shake their head that I’m only here now, but clearly Monday’s first day of school is the beginning of a lot of firsts for me too.
August 21, 2013
Meet Marge the Cow. She feels so ordinary that the chickens hatch a cunning plan to give her a baby. She sits on the egg to keep it warm, pushes it in a wheelbarrow around the farm and is finally fulfilled when the chick is born and she names it Daisy.
Obviously, I didn’t buy this book. I think that Marge should go out and become a scientist or philosopher or journalist tackling the meat industry, or break out of the farm and foment revolution. Yet, because, somehow, it’s now Ziya’s favorite, I read it for her anyway.
In the story, the “farmer’s wife” calls the press about the egg. To jail with dat, I like to call her the farmer and him the farmer’s husband. It’s an assumption that she is not the one with the agriculture degree or from a farming family, which by the way is not negated just because she is married.
Besides Marge are so many other instances of total stereotypes in the hidden curriculum of children’s lives. I made huge efforts to choose each of Ziya’s many books one by one. I read reviews over months. I made lists so that her library included stories with girl, boy, non-American, non-White and Caribbean characters. Finding far too few, I turned to stories with animals, like the monkey who fools the crocodile, the raven who stole the sun from the gods, the baby hippo who sees all the other baby animals getting kisses, and the llama who starts school and misses mama.
Yet, in almost all of these stories, the monkey, crocodile, raven, hippo and llama are also all male. When Stella, official World Champion of Staying Awake, puts Beanbag Frog, Cherry Pig and her puppet-mouse to sleep, somehow we have to believe that a little girl’s favorite toys are all also male characters. If this is random, why do you think that in all the stories that I have which feature little boys, none of their favorite toys, such as dinosaurs and pandas, are ever female in return?
Then there is Lola. She’s African-American, has brown skin and hair like Ziya, and she loves the library. Lola reads stories and imagines who she will be, sometimes a pilot, sometimes a tiger, sometimes a princess. To jail with this princess tiefhead. I tell Zi that Lola imagines herself an empress, because these brown-skinned women made history and ran empires, and because the Rastafari tradition of resistance continues to give ’empress’ Caribbean meaning.
To jail with blond Disney Cinderellas and Rapunzuls waiting to be rescued, and the bad rep given to the old, wise women of forests, who have been demeaned as evil witches. There’s a rich world mythology of female goddesses out there. Zi already knows she’s powerful like Kali, brave like Durga and smart like Saraswati.
I’m waiting for Fancy Nancy, who is all about science, to be a sapodilla-brown, dougla-hair girl instead of a little red-haired one. You have to search hard for the everyday adventures and aspirations of African, Indian and Caribbean girls outside of the US, and amidst seasons, neighbourhoods and families that look like ours do.
There is a hidden curriculum of sexism, but also of racism too. We can pretend children are too young to pick up on these things, but that’s simply not true. We can instead teach them to go off script, change characters’ sex, rewrite the narrative and make it reflect our own.
Decolonising her young mind one book at a time is what I hope happens with every night’s bedtime story in our home.
August 14, 2013
Standing on the road in front of the PM’s office on Tuesday, I had to shake my head that the Highway Re-route Movement and Wayne Kublalsingh are back under the hot sun. Respect and more power to them. They’ve been in this battle since 2005 and there is no doubt they are fed up, even as they stand firm.
They stood respectfully at the side of the road with their placards saying, Heritage Before Highway, Save Homes, Communities and Thousands of Acres of Agricultural Lands, Mega Money Project for Millionaires, and most wretchedly or perhaps powerfully of all, Listen Prime Minister, The Voice of Truth is the Voice of God. They’ve organized camps, sit-ins, protests, meetings and vigils. These are neighbours and members of humble families saying things other citizens of the republic are also saying or shouting or bawling every night on the news. Old and young are out in the sun to sort out the future of their own homes, but their struggle puts the rest of ours in clear view.
Our elites are all terrified of stepping out of their air-conditioned SUVs, they’re living in enclaves looking like upscale barraccoons, and moral national leadership will not come from them. These are business people, they do charity. As a class, they won’t be the ones who get laws into place for domestic workers’ rights or against illegal quarrying and for environmental sustainability. The poor are focused on getting water in their taps more than once a week or finding taxis that will work on bad roads or securing small work however they can, but when the state runs out of money or its debt payments are too high or when social impact assessments remain undone or when representation sheer fails, they are the ones who suffer most. They might be too busy trying to eat to think about the failures of democracy, good governance or unsustainable development, but these will reach in and starve them first, which is why thirty or so, everyday folk standing on the roadside saying ‘Abide by the Armstrong Report’ is our business too.
Watching them, I found myself wondering how this movement could do more than grab media headlines and public attention, how they could awake the sleeping giant of popular emotion, which is what made Wayne’s desperate hunger strike so successful last year, and what they could do to make other citizens from Icacos to Toco understand and care. If we don’t care, the PM won’t either. Progressive change is always a momentum from below, when citizens let politicians know that they will feel if they don’t hear. Like the Highway Re-route Movement, all most of us need is for those at the top to actually do the things they know are right, follow the rules, just even follow through. Then women, men and children wouldn’t have to stand in hot sun to find out if the PM will do what she knows she should without having to be told to.
It could be protests to protect mangroves from Movietowne or the savannah from Carlos John’s license to pave or Toco from a shipping port or Chatham from a smelter or heritage from a highway. Here we are again is all I could think as I got in my car to get Ziya from daycare and get myself to work, leaving Wayne and the others to struggle for decision-making processes that the nation is rightfully due. When government acts above the law, today it could be them, tomorrow it could be me or you.