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Out of the mouths of babes

One of the great things about being a sociologist AND a mom is that I got to watch 3 kids grow up from scratch. If I hadn’t been so exhausted when my kids were younger, I would have taken better notes on all of the interesting and sociologically insightful things they did and said.   It was fascinating stuff. It was so cool to watch them figure out their physical and social worlds. They were always negotiating language and social norms and trying to classify and categorize EVERYTHING. I always thought that in a lot of ways, my kids were like little social scientists who were trying to figure out their social and cultural context. They were always refining their understanding of the categories and classifications to which various types of people belonged and the unspoken rules about what was and was not socially appropriate behavior.

But learning is hard, especially when you are trying to learn something as complicated as social patterns or social norms. This is because social norms are often simultaneously obvious and invisible. On the one hand, most of us know what the rules are and we do a pretty good job of following them (at least most of the time). But on the other hand, the majority of social norms are taken for granted and are often not formally taught. Young kids have to learn them through careful observation and often through a process of trial and error. This often results in kids making widely inappropriate and politically incorrect observations and (to their parents’ horror) comments as they negotiate their understanding.

Since my kids are older, I had forgotten about how interesting it was to watch them figure all of this out. But recently, my colleague, Kazuyo, shared a story with me about her five year old son, Marcel, that got me to thinking about all of this again. Marcel, who is bilingual and bicultural told Kazuyo that one of his friends (who is from Chinese decent) ate noodles for breakfast. Marcel thought it was ‘crazy’. Kazuyo was mortified and quickly set about educating Marcel on the variety of things that people from different cultures eat for breakfast. She told him that when she was growing up in Japan, many of her friends ate rice, soup, and fish for breakfast, but that her family ate toast. Marcel immediately wanted to know why her family didn’t eat soup. Kazuyo then realized that Marcel wasn’t making a judgment about his friend and that her initial fears of having raised an ethnocentric child were unfounded. Marcel was just trying to refine his understanding of how things work.

This story reminded me of a couple of times that my kids let me know they were struggling with social classifications. When my oldest daughter was about two she went to day care for the first time. She was in a class with lots of other two-year olds and one day she came home and announced “Kevin is a boy.” Smartly, I asked, “how do you know if someone is a boy?” Rebecca thought about it for a minute and then said, “boys use their outside voices when they are inside.”   I asked if there were other differences between boys and girls and Rebecca said, “boys are not very good listeners.” I asked if there was anything else and she finally said, “what is that thing?” Although I knew as a sociologist that gender differences were often more important than sex differences, I was still surprised that Rebecca listed two (stereotypical) gender differences before she got around to noting a sex difference.  

Several years later, after attending a talent show at the elementary school, my four year old, Isabel, was running around the house repeating a phrase from one of the skits that went something like “I’ve got a girlfriend.” Her five year old brother, Sam, quickly jumped in to correct her by saying, “Isabel, you are a girl, so you would have a boyfriend.” At this point, my nine year old, Rebecca, corrected Sam by saying “She can have a girlfriend if she wants to, there is nothing wrong with that.” I remember thinking that this was a perfect snapshot of three stages of social and cultural development and understanding.

There are so many social and cultural rules and classifications that we don’t talk about. This is partly because we don’t need to (because we think we know and understand the rules) and partly because we aren’t comfortable discussing differences between people. But if you ever want a quick lesson in the sociology of gender or ethnicity, or anything else for that matter, spend a few hours with a preschooler and ask them to tell you what they notice. Chances are, you will find that they are working hard to map out their social environment and therefore are noticing (and commenting on) lots of things every single day that most of us either just ignore or aren’t comfortable discussing.

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