Post 253.

It’s hilarious and so typical. These last years, Ziya was vehemently into pink. Every opportunity to get dressed was declarative. In contrast to my choices, she would insist on locating pink pants, pink tops and pink hairclips, proclaiming that it was her body so she should decide. As I stood in front of the cupboard doors, blue pants and yellow tops dangling ineffectually from my arms, you know which feminist mom was seriously contemplating the pros and cons of teaching empowerment to a contrary four year old.

Avoiding absolute fundamentalism, pink could be matched with purple in her lexicon of outfit possibilities, and Zi would initiate repetitive conversations about which colours were our favorites – mine is green, and hers pink and purple. Such verification was intended solely to confirm which colours she consented to, which she thought went well with pink, and which coordinated with various media influences, such as Doc McStuffins or Lego Friends.

My friends laughed at the irony of Ziya’s steadfast commitment to such gender stereotypical representation, for I eventually gave in to my inability to change the mind of a four year old despite the fact that I was pursuing all kinds of efforts to change the public’s mind about the normality of a sexist status quo.

I threw up my hands because I recognised that she was unlikely to escape the dominance of precisely those ideas. Understandably, she was also working out how to fit in with her peers and social norms. Plus, all parents know when and how to choose their battles with children, who will negotiate with the bloody-mindedness of a terrorist or a gladiator to get what they want.

Lo and behold, and out of the blue, she is now done with pink. But, of course, guess which colour is suddenly her favorite?

Black.

Whole new conversations must be initiated in contexts with no apparent relevance, and old positions must be explicitly revised, to make the point about these new terms of level cool.

Now we are pulling my black shalwar dupattas from the cupboard to joyously create black robes like, of all characters, Voldemort. Dolls are being marker-made up with black ‘lipstick’. Apparently, we must go looking for black flowers. Black starry pajamas are being donned after afternoon baths. Black and red tutus are being fashioned, and worn over self-same pajamas, all entirely explained by the trending status of black.

Dizzied by this unpredicted turn of events, all I could do is sit in front of the cupboard and dreamily wish for a minty mohito. It’s humbling to know that, however capable you consider yourself in the public world of work, you will hardly be able to keep up with a six year old’s changes of mind and personality.

The change is surprising as the hearts and glitter girl power of Sophia Grace and other Disney children stars still provide the soundtrack for Zi’s home-based “dance shows”. Maybe it came from playing new characters, like zombies, with her neighbhourhood friend, whose interests are also changing. Or, because we finished the first three Harry Potter audio books over Santa Cruz’s morning traffic, and she’s intrigued by the beckoning power of dark forces and Hogwarts uniforms. Maybe she’s decided to identify with my sister, who herself had a long Goth phase, and who Ziya associates with snakes, bats and dangerous wildlife.

Our children have multifaceted psychological shifts in their little lives as part of their growth. For parents surviving storms, and the stress of school tests, it’s a good reminder that they also excel in evoking so much laughter and love.

Post 224.

‘Do we have to grow up?’ Ziya asked, at the end of Tuesday night, on her sixth birthday. I could only shake my head.

I don’t remember wanting to stay small. I remember wanting to grow up, become a teenager, become an adult. Adults seemed to have so much freedom. As Zi says, pouting, no one bosses around adults the way adults boss around children. At least, like her, that’s what I saw.

Unlike some other adults, I don’t want to go back to my childhood. I like this age, this stage and the control, power, insight and influence that years of school, work and hard knocks have provided, which I hope to use to make the world a better place, to mentor and inspire another generation, and to define the priorities and values I want to live by.

But, I also understand that along with those come ever more responsibilities, compromises and stress, which, like all of us, I take in stride even when they feel exhausting or overwhelming. In those moments, childhood seems so much simpler, so much more a world of magic and play, so freer of complexities, whether global or interpersonal, than now. Children don’t feel so world-weary, do they?

Yet, as many know, such nostalgia is pointless. Far too many of us were in fact negotiating complicated, even dysfunctional childhoods, managing lack of control over our world as children do, with resilience, with whatever coping strategies we can invent. I always wondered why adults thought that children didn’t understand what was going on in their midst, giving what they thought were age-appropriate explanations, as if children were not fully clued in to what adults thought they could hide or pretend wasn’t true.

So, I shook my head, not knowing quite what to say to a girl, six for only one day, who, in her own way, was weighing these existential dilemmas. I wasn’t going to assume she didn’t get it. I think children do.

Yes, we have to grow up, I answered, though I’d keep you this age for another year or two if I could. I could hear her thinking in the dark. ‘I like being a child’, she said. ‘Of course you do’, I thought.

One of my friend’s sons had told her she was so lucky to do all the things she loved, like mopping, cleaning and washing dishes. Zi had said similar things about how I got to do all the things I want, like go to work all the time. That feeling of entitlement of children, the expectation that they should enjoy life, even while we give them chores and teach them to take up responsibilities so that they come to appreciate and reciprocate our efforts, is an achievement. It’s a happiness they only get now, precious and fleeting.

‘I wish nothing was real’, Zi concluded, ‘then there would be nothing to change’. Maybe she thought that if everything was imaginary, you could imagine things however you wished, the way she wished her toys would come alive as Doc Mc Stuffins’ did or the way she imagined making real tea in tiny tin toy teacups. Maybe if nothing is real, then their passing doesn’t matter so deeply.

‘You don’t want things to change?’, I asked. ‘I don’t want things to be different’, she answered. I can’t say that I understood all she was experiencing, except she was happy and didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want to have to start again tomorrow.

Is there any of us that haven’t also felt that way? Is there any of us who haven’t wanted to hold one night, one achievement or one relationship like that forever, even as we watched it turn to mist and dissipate?

Ah, six year-old rueful observance of life’s passing.

What’s a mom to say except that this is only the beginning of that feeling and there isn’t an adult alive who doesn’t know it.

Welcome to your one wondrous life, little warrior of light.

There is only one lesson. Whatever your fears and joys, seize every second. Then, refusing rut and regret, let go, as the next moment to live to the fullest inevitably and irretrievably beckons.

Post 231.

Imagine my amazement that Zi would be familiar with the playlist of songs currently topping charts, by everyone from Rihanna to Taylor Swift to Meghan Trainor. These were songs I didn’t know and don’t play. Yet, she was singing along to chorus and sometimes verse. Where did such socialization happen?

First, older cousins who opened her eyes to the Disney channel world of tween pop music and culture, playing the role that older, adored cousins have somehow always played for little girls.

Then, friends. I overheard one playdate asking for Zi’s Barbies, and describing the details of how many she owns. Given that she has none herself, Zi pulled out some White, blond doll someone gave her, and it passed the test, preserving her street cred.

She listens in on the sidelines of school conversations and figures out what information she needs to know for next rounds, then comes home and asks me for the Hastek sisters’ cover of Spice Girls’ songs. I tried to show her the global girl power version, highlighting rights to education, marriage after childhood and more. She just said, no mummy, that’s the wrong one.

Stone thought I shouldn’t have looked up Lego Friends when Zi wanted to see who the characters were in Lego’s girls’ line of products, which is annoyingly pink and purple, but also features one of the few black girls with curly hair in any of their collections. Ha! Another friend came over and was already into the series of short, addictive videos that the company produces about the characters. All I did was route her to being in the know.

As I buy clothes in bigger sizes, she complains about the ones that look like boys’ T-shirts, refusing black, greens and blue, and insisting on pink. It’s all to match the outfits her best friends have. It’s all about their approval. So and so will like these shiny gold shoes. So and so and I can wear our pink skirts together next time.

My sister, who is with us, and went through stages from Goth to army surplus store chic, was just as amazed at how important approval and belonging had become, on narrow, gendered terms. There’s only so much a feminist mom can do when hyper-feminization of girlhood is part of the life stages of patriarchy. Six year olds wear shoes with heels. She wants nail polish because other five year olds wear nail polish on weekends.

I bought dinosaur-themed birthday materials. In all seriousness, Zi asked if I thought her friends would want to go home when they realized that it wasn’t a princess party. My choices for her get evaluated by these standards of hip. This is how you know your sapodilla is no longer a baby. Girl culture, in all its stereotypical colours, obsessions, conversations and criteria, has taken over. It was always going to happen. I just didn’t think it would happen so early.

My sister asked me why I give in to the colours or videos Zi has decided she’s into. I don’t know that I have much choice. Did you want to be that kid, among your peers, dressed in your parents’ ideological warfare against the world? Moms tell me that they give in because their girls are going to get exposed to whatever others are allowed anyway. They play jazz, like I do, but also Justin Bieber. They give them make-up to pretend, but they also sign them up for football.

Any mom will tell you, each stage is a new negotiation. This one is when the world takes socialization from your full control. You catch up and keep up. Stone might decide there’s no way he’s playing Katy Perry. I’m going to have to know all the words. That’s what moms I know do. You also start those conversations about what it means to decide for yourself who you are and what’s cool.

Why does any of this matter? Any anthropologist will tell you that the micro reveals the macro. We should pay attention to the British Prime Minister’s gender politics, but insights as legitimate come from observing globalized sub-cultures shaping terms and options for a new generation of our girls.

 

Post 192.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Rustling with energy backstage, dozens of children waited in darkness and silence, as senior dancers with Lilliput Theatre Company performed lines from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. A few girls in front of me mouthed lines as they listened and fidgeted, impatient for their cue.

Malala’s words were starkly humbling. My chest quietly swelled with feeling, over the three nights of this weekend’s performance, every time I heard the young performers quoting her say: “I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

What a lesson for us adults.

When Malala visited Trinidad, I had explained her story to Ziya. I was explicit that Malala had been shot in the head, and that there were men who did not want girls to be educated. “Why?” Zi kept asking, as four-year-olds do, when adults struggle to explain complex situations.

Lilliput’s show now led Zi to seize upon Mighty Gabby’s song, Government Boots, which played just before Zi went on stage. “What are government boots? Who is Tommy?” she started asking, taken with the catchy refrain of “left, right, left, right.”

I explained that the song was telling Barbados’ PM Tom Adams there should not be so many soldiers. “Why?” she asked.

The sound of soldiers’ boots frightens many people. Soldiers hurt people with guns, and some children are forced to be soldiers after being taken away from their families.

Again: “But why?”

Imagine the show, in which Zi played a child bride, making her start these conversations, real ones about girls being forced to marry men they don’t know and boys being forced to hurt people, instead of them all being safe with their families and in schools.

Imagine me wrestling with how and how much to tell her the truth, wondering what constitutes ‘age appropriate’ knowledge when it’s about the realities of children her own age.

Imagine her at night, with her mind effervescing, as all children’s do just as you want them to close their eyes and sleep, with questions about Malala and government boots.

“Do the children see their families again?” she asked. Imagine all this because I only wanted her to grow less shy and more confident, and make friends, by taking a dance class.

But it seems the world doesn’t allow girls to grow up innocent so.

I admired that Noble Douglas and her company compelled parents, past students and more to invest in one way or another in giving our children a chance to dress up and dance to the chorus, “No, no, no.” And there’s one line Zi now remembers from Malala’s speech: “Let this be the last time.”

For me, seeing the whole process, from weeks of Saturday morning classes to rehearsal chaos and finally to a huge cast of exuberant children on stage, also humbling was the show’s determined mix of community parenting, feminism, global politics, children’s rights, Caribbean culture and joyous creativity.

There was a small ‘army’ of mostly women, helping with children, costumes or make up, making me appreciate how much labour matters beyond what is waged and counts toward GDP, making me recognise the sacrifices of women who never saw the show because there wasn’t anyone who equally shared their childcare responsibility, making me want to ask: “But why?” like Zi.

Unbelievably, after all this, all Zi told her school friends about the show was that she had on makeup. I had to laugh. Seems Lilliput also scored in Zi’s world of actual priorities of four-year-old girls.

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies' class got their routine right on the second night after the super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies’ class got their routine right on the second night after their super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Post 195.

Stone has been trying to figure out how to explain to Ziya that sometimes your best friend no longer wants to be your best friend, and though sadness is inevitable, there’s nothing to do but resiliently be yourself, let go and move on.

‘Is it a school day?’ Zi had asked when she woke up one morning this week. Because of her difficulties negotiating such a changed relationship, she didn’t want to go to school. Indeed, the social life of four year olds is like curriculum from the school of tough love.

This life lesson had been long coming. When Zi moved up school year, the little friend she virtually worshipped no longer clung to her also, and she’s spent the whole year slowly, reluctantly recognizing this.

On afternoons after school, we would hear endless stories. How her friend didn’t have any interest in playing with her anymore and had found a new best friend, how on another day they played all through lunchtime and she felt included and important again, how she also had to learn to play with other girls and find new best friends.

Below these stories was confusion and hurt, and we supported her teachers in emphasizing to her that all relationships change. Ziya doesn’t easily adapt though. She’s shy and self-conscious and, because of such awkwardness, can get deeply attached, holding onto the safety of those with whom she’s comfortable and familiar, investing more emotion, expectation and loyalty than is likely to be reciprocated, and quietly brooding over moments and feelings of rejection.

I never knew that children were so emotionally complicated and sensitive. Or, perhaps, I never knew I’d have to develop the skills to navigate anxieties so early, balancing on a thin line between indulging and devaluing such momentous trivialities. It never occurred to me that I’d have a child who takes so long to adjust to new situations, new children, new everything. I’m sure neither did Stone.

When you are making a baby, you just focus on its health and normalcy. You assume your child will be exuberant and confident, smart and hardy. You hardly anticipate or consider their potential idiosyncrasies, paranoias and neuroses, and you don’t expect them when they are four.

Zi is more fearful than I imagined possible for children now encountering the world for the first time. One night, waking from fitful sleep, she cried out to us that she was scared. ‘Scared of what?, we asked. ‘Scared of everything,’ she said, and I wasn’t surprised.

At parties with children from her class, I watched Zi play by herself because she didn’t know how to integrate into group play or was the only one afraid of the height of the play structure or waves at the seashore. We began to take her to her parties early because she could handle beginning with one or two children, but was overwhelmed arriving when too many were already there. We’d encourage her to find a kind friend or older child who would look out for her, and were grateful when she soared away with them. Stone and I had to learn more patience, and he explained his own experience of losing a best friend in the transition to QRC.

On Zi’s teachers’ advice, everyday we talk about who she played with at school, and what they did. When she told me they formed a ‘Supergirls’ group last week and how all the girls were in it, I felt that it had taken a year, but our wallflower had begun to more independently blossom.

Like us, our children’s hearts puncture and heal, their days are full of ups and downs, their discomforts may be perplexing and their abilities take time to grow. And, it’s not just Zi as so many other parents know.

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.

Entry 175.

Adults are not so different from four year olds.

We have to overcome fears, try even when we think we can’t to make it through something, and be willing to accept offers of kindness that help us let go of our egos and our tears.  Perhaps, some have it completely figured out, but mostly I know adults still growing up, imperfect and working on self-acceptance, hoping to be as open to what the next day brings as aware of who they wish to be when it comes.

Given that similar challenges appear in one life stage after another, we need to continually claim more skills, confidence and resilience than we might have in the past. It’s good to begin to recognize this even if you are only four. Indeed, watching children’s life steps should make you reflect on your own, whether you are forty years old or four score.

Ziya and I were at the CDA’s Zip Line park which features a multistoried tree house linked by suspended bridges. This unique space has potential to combine child friendliness with substantial tree-cover and flowering plants that could provide the additional adventure of observing a wider range of wild birds, pollinating bugs and butterflies than found in contemporary backyards.

Most play structures are in corporate franchises devoid of green space. Those outdoors have primarily relegated trees to their edges, abandoning not only public savannahs but also children’s play to brutal daytime heat, denying care givers and infants shady space to stay close, and disconnecting recreation grounds from their biodiversity potential.  Taking your child to these structures re quires you to squint through blinding sun or wait until cooler evening.  Did those designing play parks pilot them in the role of a tired working mom or dad dedicated to quality time on a blistering weekend? Why would stones and pebbles cover the ground under St. Clair’s play structure so that children falling from the monkey bars land on, yes, rocks?

As Ziya climbed to the top of the tree house stairs and paused at this wonderful example of what public play options can instead look like, fear of heights or new things propelled her back down. Lifting her, we insisted she go across the bridges while she screamed for bloody murder, preferring to miss out because of her terror.

When we came down, through her sobs and while wondering if I was a bad parent for making her confront her limits, I explained that when we are afraid, we all have to be brave.  After much coaxing by my sister, Zi tentatively agreed to go again with her, and managed it all without a meltdown.

Crucially, a little girl called Honor saw her troubles and took her hand, encouraging her across the bridges, taking her time, talking her through, and accepting Ziya’s trepidation until she accomplished something she initially couldn’t face.

Not all children are boisterous and brave. Not all are confident and carefree. Not all are immediately comfortable with new people, skills and opportunities. Not all will march past their fears, focusing on the potential ahead. But all children need to practice being their happy selves outside of their familiarities, and draw on support from family, friends and even strangers to grow surer and bolder.

Are any of us different? If a four year old could dry her tears, let herself be vulnerable and desire more than anything to be proud for trying to be brave, regardless of long it takes or how far she gets or how much hesitancy remains, she’s one step closer to the resilience we adults are still acquiring each day.