The benefits of chosing the orange shirt
Our kids both still young and have hair of intermediate length, so their gender presentation is largely determined by the clothes they choose. The older kid in a purple t-shirt with a beetle on it? Girl. The younger kid in an orange t-shirt with a shark? Boy. These were the shirts they chose on the day we learned to kayak.
The kayak rental shop we chose offered guided tours. The owner said kids, even those as young as ours, would be totally fine in the front of a tandem kayak. Also that the guides would tow us home if it came down to it. This was how we, along with eight other people, ended up in the care of the owner’s two energetic college-aged sons for three hours.
I don’t want to recount the tales of our epic journey that possibly included a semi-embarrassing tow out of the boat lane leading to the open sea except to note that the addition of a large rock as ballast next to a small kid can greatly improve kayak handling. What I want to tell you about was how differently our energetic young guides and their father interacted with our two kids.
Kids are often hard for adults to understand. They will speak quietly, sometimes use creative grammatical constructs and, since they are self-centered, will leave out the context necessary to understand any response they give. Conversations can be slow and sort of annoying. After a few questions at the beginning, our guides mostly ignored our older kid – which is totally fine – but, oddly, persisted in bantering with our younger and objectively harder to understand kid. They teased about sharks, asked about favorite colors and sports, pointed out seals and currents, engaged in gentle trash talking about kayaking skills, and joked about eating the leaves and sticks from the water with our younger kid. They didn’t give hir the option to not respond and xe got over being quiet, realized that it didn’t matter what xe said as long as xe said something and opened right up. It was fun to watch them build a relationship and create and maintain private jokes over the course of our journey.
When we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and piled into the van to take us back, one of the guides insisted in sitting next to our youngest, told hir that next time xe had to jump off of the rock we had stopped at with the big kids and teased hir about falling asleep in the kayak. Our kid’s ridiculous trash talk about how many more times xe had already jumped off the rock and how much faster xe paddled than our guide was warmly encouraged. At the shop, while waiting for our turn in the bathroom, the father pulled hir aside and gave hir a complete dried exo-skeleton of a baby horseshoe crab he’d found, a brochure from the dcr about their lifecycle and a pin that said “I heart kayaking”. For our older kid? Nothing. It was like xe didn’t exist.
Now, by this point in time, it’s true that our younger kid was much more confident about voicing hir opinions in this context. Xe had, afterall, had almost three hours of practice doing just that. This made hir much more rewarding to talk to. Our elder kid, lacking the benefit of a few hours of casual banter, was still shy and a little difficult to understand and this undermined hir confidence to interact with our guides. It was easier for everyone not to bother.
There is no way of knowing if our guides subconsciously singled out our younger kid for special attention because they thought xe was a boy and ignored our older kid because they though xe was a girl. What is certain, however, is that the social boost our younger kid received continues past that interaction. Xe brought the horseshoe crab into preschool the next day to share with friends at circle time and has already taken the lesson in talking big to heart, with new tales of leaping off of the tall rock a hundred times and swimming faster than sharks, to the delight of young and old alike.
All of us had a great time on our trip. Our guides kept us from being washed out to sea, skooled us in the ways of the kayak and had some interesting tidbits to share about the local natural history. It was a bonus that they were happy to lavish a little extra attention on one of our kids. I’m happy they did. I wouldn’t want it otherwise.
But. But… This is a small example of the social mentoring that happens all the time, preferentially to boys. Not all parents will hold private lessons in beginning trash talk and creative embellishment at the ice cream parlor to level the playing field. And as kids get older, well, I am qualified to teach intermediate trash talk too, but mentoring from a true expert is invaluable. So, as you casually mentor the youth in whatever it is you excel at, try to pull all of them along – regardless of the color of their t-shirt.