Ugly Parents

In case you missed this, my job is to take care of other people’s children; I hope to become an infant/toddler teacher, and I’m a nanny for now. I love my job, take it very seriously, and the parents I work for appreciate this, as they should. I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect a child in my care, and I’m not usually even related to them. All of which is to say, I care about children. I know a lot about children in general–their development, their physical and emotional well-being. I have formal training from school and work and informal training from parents like my sister and the families I work for. The specific children in my care totally capture my heart. As you might imagine, my services are in pretty high demand.

Shutting down the judgmental part of my brain, the part that silently yells at parents in shopping malls, has become a very important skill. I work in families’ homes, and I see how hard parents try. Your choices are none of my business, and I don’t know your family as well as you do. Plus, I don’t want you telling me how to raise my kid, when I have one, so I don’t tell you how to raise yours.

But I will not be keeping my mouth shut about this: if you want a babysitter who will police gender boundaries for you, find someone else. With me, your children will play pretty much however they want to play. I will not discourage your daughter from her love of backhoes and construction sites. I will not discourage your son from his love of pink tutus and princesses. If I hear “that’s for girls” or “that’s for boys” I will have a conversation with your child about why that statement is just not true. If they heard it from you, I will still tell them that it’s nonsense.

In order to describe how I came to this conclusion and how I try to identify families I might not want to work with, I’m going to tell you two stories.

Background story #1–I spent this summer working part-time at a child care center that implements the following dress-up play policy: any kid can wear anything as long as it’s safe and sanitary. Boys dress as princesses. Boys wear “fancy shoes” that are often covered in glitter. They particularly love the fancy shoes, mesmerized by the way the glitter sparkles as they walk. They love it at 1, 2, 3, 4 and even 5 years of age. But the five-year-olds at the center have recently started saying “pink is gross” and taunting anyone wearing the color. They don’t know why it’s gross. We don’t know exactly where they picked it up, or who started it.

So this morning, an article called “The Pink Scare” in Bitch Magazine hit me hard. In this piece, the unflappable Avital Norman Nathman, aka The Mamafesto, blogger extraordinaire, discusses media coverage of “princess boys.” It seems that some people are afraid of what might happen if boys interact with too much pink. Yes, the color, in general. Dresses, crowns and anything princess–also scary.

My face turned lobster red as I pictured a grumpy adult taking away “my” babies’ fancy shoes because “pink is for girls” or telling a boy that he can’t be a princess. The “pink is gross” battle the teachers are fighting at the preschool comes from fear based in the very adult concept that deviating from traditional gender roles is dangerous. I do find Avi’s piece uplifting simply because it shows that there are moms like her standing up for a child’s right toplay. But I am very, very angry after reading her summary of all the ways adults insert their fears into children’s lives.

Background story #2–A few months back, I found myself in a backyard “light saber” battle with a five-year-old and suddenly realized I had no idea how his parents would feel about this. (They were fine with it. We had a blast.) He was really interested in using the light sabers he had cleverly improvised from foam swimming pool noodles as props for the story he was narrating, and violence was not the point. So I made a judgment call. I still think it was the right call. I would have asked him to change the game, however, if his parents had had rules against this sort of pretend violence.

Since then, I ask during the following question during an interview: “Is there anything you do not allow your children to do during play?” In the past, I always had in mind pretend guns and swords made from sticks. So I still ask first about violence in play. But I just recently started asking this as a follow up: “If you came home to see your son playing ballerina with my pink scarf, for example, would that upset you?” As you might have guessed, I am interviewing parents with that question.

Didn’t I say I wouldn’t judge? Didn’t I say that I respect parents’ wishes? It turns out, there’s an exception: ugly parents. If you tell your kid he can’t have anything pink because a color is only for one gender, not both, or that a game is only for one gender, not both, then you are teaching sexism and homophobia. I will not participate. I will not encourage your child to fear the blurring of gender binaries just because you are afraid. I will not help you make your beautiful child as ugly as you are. I will not take part in the insidious flood of messages that follow kids until they learn that “feminine” = “weak” = “gay” or “bossy” = “bitch” = “lesbian” or any other nonsense a culture of fear can come up with.

This idea of Ugly Parents came from a blog post about one woman’s unique reaction to bullying. Photographer and small business owner Jen McKen is now refusing to photograph “ugly people.” Why? Some of the clients who had booked her turned out to be students participating in a Facebook page dedicated to bullying their classmates. In her words, “If you are ugly on the inside, I’m sorry but I won’t take your photos to make you look pretty on the outside!” I love it. She is simply taking a stand against something she personally finds reprehensible. Less apathy, more action. Me, too, Jen McKen. Me, too. I will not babysit for ugly parents.

Avi (we’re twitter “friends,” so we’re on a first-name basis, right?) closes “The Pink Scare” with this beautiful statement: “As I watch Elijah play with his fleet of cars, his nails painted a glittery purple, I’m confident that he will be able to see through the shades of pink, blue, and gray surrounding him in order to figure out who he is. And if he can have fun doing it, then all the better.” Because it is how we learn who we are as children and because it is FUN, I want to say “yes” to play. If I say no, I want to give a child a reason. I am being paid to spend time with a child, so I like to take time to explain every little thing, if that’s what they want. “That’s not safe,” “We don’t have time for such a big project today,” and “That doesn’t belong to us” are answers I like. They teach common sense, time management and respect for other people’s belongings (and that includes the family couch). These answers start conversations. They don’t end play, they redirect.

Parents hire me and pay me, but I work for kids. I want to be another adult who cares, listens and encourages them to explore and enjoy childhood, with all its joys, disappointments, limits and limitlessness. I love that little kids are never afraid to look me right in the eye and ask questions. Generally, those questions add up to “Who are you?” I answer them honestly, because everyone deserves honesty (not necessarily every piece of information I could possibly share, but that’s another conversation). Then, I ask them right back. When I ask “Can you tell me about this drawing?” I am asking “Who are you? What’s important to you?” Every parent, including my own mom, loves a quote that goes something like this, about early childhood: “Anyone can act like a tiger, but we only have a few years to be a tiger.” Why is that only cute if it applies to a furry animal? I will not help anyone who wants to limit a child’s imagination. I will not repeat “You cannot be ____ today.” Why do we have to tell any four-year-old that boys can’t be princesses? Why does it matter if the real-life title is gender-specific? And, more importantly, WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING YOUR CHILD when you say such things?

Be a tiger. Be a princess. Be a king. Be a dancing giraffe. I’ll pretend right along with you. Let’s play.