My four-year-old son Jackson has a best friend named Emma. She lives next door to my mother-in-law. When Jack stays for the weekend, the two of them are thick as thieves. Together, they drive my mother-in-law nuts tormenting the cats and always wanting to swim in her pool. They go to the park, watch Toy Story and Frozen. They eat countless boxes of macaroni and cheese. The regular kid stuff that regular best friends do.
My wife and I love their friendship. We’ve always believed there’s a place for every friendship, and that everyone, regardless of gender, should be validated for the uniqueness of the bond. What has surprised us, though, is everyone else’s attitude towards Jackson and Emma’s friendship. A lot of other adults shoehorn the two of them into weird societal mile markers of sex and gender roles. We see it constantly. Others refer to Jack and Emma as though there’s a predestined future looming.
“Is that your girlfriend?”
“Aren’t they cute together?”
“One day, y’all will get married.”
Such responses are frustrating, and also a little tough to navigate. It’s our job to protect our kids from the crazy scary stuff in the real world. But beyond the very real big dangers, we also have to pay attention to the microscopic issues we see every day. We try to keep our son safe from other people’s expectations of “reality.” There will be a lot of things I’ll be unable to protect my son from. But right now, I’m trying to prevent other people from planting those seeds.
Very early on my wife and I knew we didn’t want Jackson to view male and female relationships as entirely predicated on sex. There are plenty of reasons for that, but for us, when someone alludes to his friendship with Emma as nothing but a forecast for an inevitable romantic end, it cheapens the bond.
Jackson and Emma didn’t have to play together. She could have just been that little girl who lives next door. But it’s fantastic that they found common ground in a mutual desire to devour McDonald’s chicken nuggets and draw pictures of dogs that look more like circles with lines sticking out of their heads.
When parents tell Jackson and Emma repeatedly that the only reason they value one another is rooted in some future romance sucks. First of all, they’re little kids. Secondly, this enters a weird notion into their subconscious, one that threatens their bond.
When I was Jack’s age, I was taught that boys hung with boys and girls hung with girls. Blue was for the dudes and pink was for the chicks. Those were the unspoken rules. Today, that isn’t the case. And I’m glad it isn’t. My wife and I celebrate diversity in all forms and we’re changing social norms about who kicks it with who.
We want our son to know that people can be friends without attraction or gender-specific norms creeping into the conversation. I remember feeling frustrated as a kid because hanging out with my friends who were girls was met with expectations for hanky-panky. In reality, most the time, we just wanted to get Taco Bell. Thankfully, a lot of that noise is being called as bullshit, and rightly so. Kids need to be kids, not projections of our insecurities.
As Jackson gets older, he’ll find a crew of nerds to cruise on BMX’s with, doing young dude stuff. But should a girl want to join the posse, it’s critical for him to welcome her with open arms, and without an expectation of a romantic relationship.
Right now, Jackson and Emma’s friendship is pure. It’s based on nothing but a child’s desire to share all of these new experiences with someone fun. That’s what childhood should be. As far as my wife and I are concerned, we’ve got no problem correcting someone when they start dropping pink and blue ideas and alluding to a looming marriage down the line. All we want is for the two friends to play.