A couple of weeks ago I was babysitting for my granddaughters when the older one, who just turned five, asked me a question that completely flummoxed me.
We were in her room talking, a technique I use to quiet her rambunctious spirits before she goes to bed. We discuss a lot of things during these talks. M. has introduced me to her stuffed animals and dolls, showed me all her jewelry and treasures, looked through books (she’s not fond of being read to), reviewed the latest cartoon movie and gone over what happened during the day. Sometimes I tell her stories from my childhood, which she enjoys.
Eyes on the Prize
That evening I told her the tale of how the prize I had won fair and square was taken away from me. It happened during the annual outing my father’s company, Montaup Electric Co. in Somerset MA, threw every year at the now-defunct Lincoln Park in nearby Dartmouth.
The company picnic always started with games and races with prizes for the winners. After the games, we ate a big clambake in the Picnic Pavilion. Then we had free run of the amusement park rides and games for the rest of the afternoon.
I always loved this event and still like amusement parks. On this particular day I won one of the foot races, although I don’t recall whether it was the sack race, three-legged race, egg race, or something else. What a thrill! As the youngest of four children, I didn’t often win things, given that my older, stronger siblings were usually out in front. I also didn’t get a lot of new things. Back then, younger kids got a lot of hand-me-downs, whether they were clothes, bicycles, or toys. So, the prospect of winning something brand new that was just for me had me over the moon.
A Temporary Prize
When the judges gave me my prize, it astounded me. I held a toy motorboat, about a foot long, made of shiny chrome and polished wood, with red and green running lights, a steering wheel, cushioned seats and even a little flag on the bow.
Wow! I had never even imagined having such a toy, much less one that was brand new—and all mine! Holding it carefully. I looked it all over, trying to come to grips with my good fortune.
Then another judge came up and said, “You can’t have that, it’s a boy’s prize. You should have the girl’s prize.” I protested that I liked this one and that I wanted to keep it, but he took it away from me anyway. They handed me the girl’s prize, which might have been OK had it been anywhere near as good as the boat. Not even close.
The girl’s prize was a draw-string handbag made of black cloth with multi-colored plastic dots all over it. My jaw dropped. Really? I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to like this better than the toy boat. I told them I wanted the boat back but they took it away anyway and I was stuck with the purse. That was, I think, the day I became a feminist.
The Big Question
Anyway, I told M. this story and she posed the surprising question. If you had challenged me to predict the top 50 questions she might ask—or even the top 100—this would not have been among them.
“Why didn’t you have the surgery to become a boy?” she said.
My jaw dropped. “Because I didn’t want to be a boy,” I replied. “I just wanted to have the boat.”
Besides, trans-gender surgery didn’t exist at the time. And even if it had, I tried to imagine my parents’ reaction if I had told them I wanted to become a boy. That would have been an interesting conversation.
Where, Oh Where?
Where do kids learn these things? Where did she learn about trans-gender surgery at age 5? Who knows? M. is very smart and listens to all sorts of conversations. She likes language and enjoys learning new words and expressions. She can read lots of words, even ones with multiple syllables. We are all careful what we say around her, so she doesn’t pick up something inappropriate. M. could have overheard a conversation about this concept almost anywhere and I doubt she has the foggiest idea what it means—which is just fine. She may not understand what surgery is.
But it made me think how different things are now than they used to be—more complex with many more options than ever existed when the four of us were kids. It’s safer in some ways and more dangerous in others. Girls certainly live in a much better, more open world than it was when I was her age. But M will have to navigate ideas and realities that simply didn’t exist back then.
I hope I can help her to do it in our little bedtime conversations.