frenchpony (frenchpony) wrote,

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On Children And Ethics

For a number of different reasons, I've been thinking about a person I knew when I was nine and ten. I remember some of the things she tried to teach me, what I thought about them, and, most importantly, how I was and was not able to respond to her.

She was a student at the college where my Dad teaches. The year I was ten and my sister was six, he was going to take a sabbatical at the University of München, so we all had to spend the year beforehand learning German. My mother, I think, was nervous about the prospect of taking care of two children in a foreign language and wanted another person around. Barbie was a German major who was looking for an opportunity to go to Germany. So my parents agreed to take her along for one academic semester, as a sort of au pair. They had her over to babysit several times during the year before we left, so my sister and I could get to know her and understand that she would have some authority over us.

I disliked her from the start. My sister got along just fine, but she was still pretty little, and the baby of the family, and if someone told her to do something, she did it. I was much more rambunctious, and not especially inclined to submit my will to anyone else. And, I think, the problems I had with Barbie hinged all on the idea of submission.

Barbie had a very old-fashioned view of the world and of people's place in it, and I think she took her position as children's caretaker a little too seriously. After she had put my sister to bed, she would have long discussions with me in which she tried to teach me how to behave like a Lady. I remember one discussion we had about last names. I don't remember how we got into talking about that particular topic, but we discussed the tradition of women taking their husbands' names upon marriage. Barbie solemnly told me that this was something that all women had to do, it was The Way Things Were, and that I shouldn't grow too attached to my last name, because I'd just lose it when I married (in her world, all women married). I happen to like my last name, and I told her that I wanted to keep it. No, Barbie said, I would not be allowed to do that. Women gave up their last names, no two ways about it. But, I pointed out, maybe I could keep my last name as a middle name. I pointed to my then-favorite author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, as an example.

And here's what Barbie had to say to that: "Yes, some women do get to use their last names as middle names. But only very special people get to do that. Laura Ingalls Wilder was an author, so she was special. You're just you. You won't get to keep your name unless you become special." In a tone of voice which implied that this was, in her opinion, highly unlikely.

What do you say to something like that? Especially when you're nine and talking to someone who's nineteen? This was 1985; it was long before the self-esteem movement provided nine-year-olds with glib responses. I'd watched Mister Rogers, of course, and I knew that Mister Rogers thought I was special, but I knew that it wasn't that kind of special that Barbie was talking about. I suppose I knew that what she had said was not right, but I couldn't respond, because I didn't know why it wasn't right. For all I knew, there was in fact a federal law that said that women had to take their husbands' last names unless they were children's book authors. I resented being told that I wasn't special, but it seemed to be true. I was a nine-year-old who did pretty much ordinary nine-year-old things. I thought that I could become special, but that I probably wasn't special at that moment. I think, most of all, that I was angry that she had been so dismissive of me. Even in 1985, I was decidedly an alpha female, and I did not take well to being belittled. But what can a nine-year-old say? Barbie did have some parent-given authority over me, whether I liked it or not. And there is an unspoken rule that grownups with authority over a child have a right to belittle that child to a certain extent. It's not fair. It's not right. But it does exist. A child can't defend herself. She can't express her anger -- but she can certainly be angry.

The next year, we were in Germany. Barbie took my sister and me to a children's fair. I was ten and high-spirited and exploring a new city -- a new world. I'm sure I behaved rambunctiously at the fair. I'm sure I didn't obey Barbie's commands all the time that day. And I'm sure that made her nervous. She wasn't a very big person, and if I had decided to physically fight her, there's no guarantee that she would have won. In any event, on the way home, she decided to make it a Teachable Moment. She said she would tell me a story. I liked stories, so I agreed.

The story was about two little girls named Alabaster and Ebony. Alabaster was a beautiful little girl, and her skin was white as milk, her hair was as yellow as gold and as soft as silk, and her eyes were as blue as the sky. She was gentle and good and obedient and always minded her parents, and she became more beautiful every day. Ebony, on the other hand, was ugly. Her skin was dark as midnight, her hair was black and unruly, and her eyes were as black as her soul. She was willful and secretive, and did not do what people told her to do. And so she grew uglier and more twisted and evil.

I hated that story. I hated Barbie for telling it. I knew why she had told it to me, and I resented it. My skin wasn't white, after all; it was sort of pinkish. And my hair wasn't golden, and my eyes weren't blue; my hair was thick and dark brown and curled in millions of tight little ringlets, and my eyes were brown. I wasn't beautiful, and I knew it. I could never hope to reach Alabaster's standard of perfection. And I felt terribly sorry for Ebony. None of the African-American girls I'd gone to school with were bad people. They could be naughty, but only in the way that all little girls can be naughty. They weren't evil. They were just regular little girls. One of my best friends was biracial, and I certainly didn't like to think of her as being evil just because her skin was darker than mine.

That story is wrong on so many different levels. It frustrated me and made me angry, because, just like when we discussed names, I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't articulate why it was wrong. Now, in 2005, I can explain in detail all the reasons that this story is racist, sexist, and implicity classist as well. In 1986, I couldn't do that, but I knew that it was wrong. And once again, there was nothing I could say in response. Instead, I reacted nonverbally. I simply ignored Barbie for the next few months. If she was going to tell me stupid stories, then I would not let her have any more authority over me.

I discussed it with my mother a few years ago, and I learned that she didn't really care for Barbie either. She told me a few things about Barbie that I had not known. Barbie had grown up in a rigidly fundamentalist family, which was where she had acquired some of her ideas about childcare, and she proved to be much less responsible than my mother would have wanted. I wish I had known that year how she felt about Barbie. If I'd known that my mother was on my side, I could have told her about the things Barbie was telling me, and I would have had an ally who was sophisticated enough to respond to her.

I was ten. A ten-year-old is mature enough to know right from wrong, but isn't yet sophisticated enough to articulate that difference. I didn't know what racism or sexism were, but hearing racist and sexist opinions made me mad. What made me madder was that I couldn't tell anyone how I felt, because I didn't yet have the words. Being ten is frustrating that way, and I'm sure that a lot of the people who eventually changed the world were people who were frustrated at not being sophisticated enough to articulate what they felt about the world at age ten.

I hear lots of grownups talking seriously about education and what children ought to be taught at certain ages. There's a general philosophy going around that children don't know things until they're told. If you don't fill their tender little heads with the ugliness of history, or the knowledge of how the body works, they just won't know, and they'll remain pure and innocent forever. Notions involving race issues or sexuality or morality won't even cross their minds. They won't deviate from the simple rules you've taught them.


Children know things. No one sat down with me and explained racism before 1985. I knew the standard lesson, which was that, once upon a time, there was segregation, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. had come and that Everything Was Okay Now. I had never even heard the word "sexism." And the connection between race, gender and class was -- well, I had no idea that there was even the possibility of a connection. But I knew. I knew that what Barbie had said about women and names was wrong. I knew that her blanket dismissal of me as "not special" was a terrible thing to say to a child. And I knew that the tale of Alabaster and Ebony was in the worst possible taste. No one had formally taught me that. I had learned it all by myself. Lessons in school about race and class and gender only gave me the ability to articulate what I knew to be right and wrong.

I wish people would trust children more. Tell them about the bad things in the world -- it won't surprise them. Children already know what it's like to be marginalized. They know what it feels like to know that one has no voice and that one's opinions are worth less than the opinions of the more powerful. They know the frustration of being silenced in debate because they don't have the words to refine their ideas. Of course they can understand complicated ideas about discrimination. Children are people, just like grownups. They think and feel, and they know things about the world. It's okay to talk to them, and it's okay to listen.

Grownups should listen to children and take them seriously. Because there's nothing worse than knowing that something is wrong and knowing that no one will listen to you if you tell them that it's wrong because you can't articulate it in a properly sophisticated way.

I think I still feel this way a lot of the time, though I'm twenty-eight years old and a graduate student -- by all standards an adult. I don't feel grown up most of the time. I still feel like I'm ten years old, bright and opinionated but almost entirely missing that final layer of sophistication to deal with grownups naturally on their leve. I don't like to use complex, flowery language except for effect. And I think that's why I like to write about children. There is a darkness to them, born of all the things they want to say and know about the world but which they can't express in words that those in power would understand.
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