Do you remember how you saw the world when you were a kid, before the outside world told you what to think? Before you learned how to categorize other people, and how other people categorize you?
What if we could all see the world through a child’s eyes?
Kids can teach us a lot about how to be a better human.
Ebonee West works in a classroom with first- and second-graders. She’s witnessing them at the age when ideas about identity are first starting to form. She’s also a mom to five kids. She says her older kids, “by circumstance and design,” grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood and went to African-centered schools.
“For my younger children, they go to a social justice-centered school, so they’re having more conversations about race than my older [kids] did, but they are a little insulated,” West said.
Jodie Patterson juggles roles as a mother, entrepreneur and LGBTQ activist. She's also the author of the book, The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation. She has five children, including 11-year-old Penelope.
“Penelope is my third child. And within the first year, I started noticing signs of what looked like disruption and anger,” Patterson said. She says Penelope would resist putting on clothing, bath time, hair brushing — anything that had to do with the body.
“And right before turning three, Penelope articulated to us, to me specifically, how Penelope saw Penelope, and it was very different from the way I saw Penelope,” Patterson said.
Patterson saw Penelope as a girl at birth, at least physiologically. But Patterson says "by the age of almost three, Penelope said: I am not a girl, I’m a boy. So that’s when I noticed Penelope articulating himself in the world and identifying himself in the world."
Both West and Patterson agree that identity is nuanced, and their kids do, too.
West says a couple of years ago, one of her sons asked her if his teacher was black or white. She says she found it odd because she didn’t think the teacher was in any way racially ambiguous.
She did end up telling her son that his teacher was white. "I was like, well, you know, you can look at her and see that she’s white," says West, "and he said, ‘I can’t tell white people from black people.’” At first West thought it was kind of nuts that he couldn't tell the difference, "but when I thought about his friend group, more than half of his friends are mixed race and they all kind of look racially ambiguous." So, she says, he's understood from a young age that identity is nuanced. "But what I really want him to know is that it's not the most important thing; we don't have to figure out what people are and categorize them."
Patterson helps her children navigate the concept of identity by letting them take the lead.
“I say it’s your responsibility to tell me who you are,” she said. “That’s why I asked my kids to study hard in school and read a lot of books, and open up conversations at the dinner table, and meet new friends, travel the world.”
They also play around with the idea of identity.
“I say let’s starfish today,” Patterson said. “Starfish means not worrying about any one particular thing, touching everything in life, stretching out, not being girl or boy, just being a spirit and regenerating in their loss.”
Both parents agree that what’s most important is to let kids take the lead when it comes to talking about and expressing their identities.
“I like the idea that our children now have words to describe the gray areas,” Patterson said.
“They have ways to describe things that aren’t black and white,” West said. “I didn’t have this language, I didn’t teach my millennial kids about these things. They taught me about it.”
Listen to host Bryce Huffman’s full conversation with West and Patterson in episode 5 of Same Same Different from Michigan Radio on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
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About the artist: Rachelle Baker is an illustrator and Printmaker from Detroit, MI. When she’s not drawing, she’s reading comics and trying to be friends with cats in her neighborhood. You can find more of her work on her website and on Instagram @indoorcatgirl.