My son is a self-proclaimed non-conformist, which is something I always have applauded him for. I think most people, if asked whether they would prefer their child be more of a conformist or non-conformist, would probably prefer the latter. In my observations, professors generally prefer to think of themselves as free thinkers. I can think of plenty of meetings where people seemed to be on the same side of an issue but were disagreeing for the sake of appearing to think differently. In fact, Apple’s branding campaign once was based entirely on the premise that everyone should “think different.”
However, it’s one thing to embrace individuality as a 40-something year old adult, and quite another to watch your ten-year-old child live through it. We might all talk the talk about embracing difference and encouraging children to think for themselves, but the reality of childhood is that it is filled with social rules. Though we recognize and combat peer pressure and bullying much more frequently these days, they certainly have not disappeared from children’s lives.
Therefore, when my son decided he wanted to wear neon green and silver gardening gloves to school the other day just because they looked cool to him, I experienced an extreme cognitive dissonance. My professor world is built around encouraging students to think differently and celebrating my ability to do my own thing. I want to afford my son the same freedom, but I’m still a mother and don’t want my son to go to school and be teased when I could easily steer him away from that potentially traumatic experience. I simply could have told him that he can’t wear the gloves, but what type of message would that send? Yet, if I let him wear the gloves without any warning, would I be setting him up for social ostracism?
I know I’m talking about gloves, but this incident is just the latest one of many that I have encountered with my son, and I’m sure this pattern will continue. Yet, when we discourage a child from being who he or she is with the excuse that we are trying to protect them from a harsh society, are we simply becoming a part of that hegemonic force?
I said to my son, “It is your decision whether or not you want to wear those gloves. I’m just going to let you know that you may get one of a range of reactions. First, you could wear the gloves, and no one notices. Second, you could wear the gloves, and some kid says, ‘you look like a weirdo in those gloves.’ Third, you could wear the gloves, and everyone loves how cool they look and tomorrow, four more kids will be wearing neon gardening gloves in 80-degree weather.”
My son thought for a moment about what I said and replied that he was going to wear the gloves. However, just before the school bus arrived, he changed his mind and handed them to me. He said thanks, but he’s not wearing them today. He added, “By the way, mom, you do a great impression of a bully.” He hopped on the bus without a care in the world.
I couldn’t figure out if this was one of my worst parenting moments, or one of my most awesome? Sure, I let him make the decision, but I certainly steered him toward the worst-case scenario. If this were a year ago, I probably would have said no to him wearing the gloves, without any explanation at all.
At the end of the day, he went off happy. Of course, this entire parenting moment happened within the span of just a few minutes. I can spend hours prepping for a class to explore hegemony, ideology, and non-conformity, but I only have three minutes to teach it to my child.
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