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Tomorrow I get up early and my son and HB drop me off at the airport. I spend all day flying to the east coast for a conference that was planned months ago. Isn’t it always the way where nothing … Continue reading
HiroP and his little friends are all mad for Star Wars, bakugan, and Pokemon cards. They’re also all expressly forbidden from having them out to play during the school day. If they can take them out to finger, it’s only in “aftercare,” when the teachers are off duty and the folks who keep watch over the kids on the schoolyard are decidedly much more relaxed about everything.
Since HiroP has been at this school, his very best friend is another Asian American boy named H. H. is basically a very sweet kid, with an inborn charisma, impish joyfulness, and effusiveness that draws other kids to him. (If I were to be all sociological about it, I’d say it’s partly because H.’s dad is the alpha male; i.e., unimaginably wealthy through various businesses. Great wealth provides great freedom, and who doesn’t respond positively to that ease and worry-free, boundless optimism?)
H. sometimes has an acquisitive streak, however, and no more do we see this in the Bakugan Incidents and the Great Pokemon Free Trade Agreement.
HiroP is by nature a guileless, giving, generous child. When bakuganmania swept through their pre-kindergarten class, thanks to H., HiroP had to participate. We bought our son some, with the caveat that if they break, that’s how the cookie crumbles. (These little 3D puzzle balls unfold in unexpected ways when you toss them against a hard surface. Hello? Toss against a hard surface=break.) If he purposely smashes them all or doesn’t take care of them, he doesn’t get a thousand more.
Well, the kids like to trade and fondle their bakugans and Pokemon cards. Sometimes the play takes on a slightly darker shading, as when one innocent child is descended upon by others demanding that cards or bakugans be given to them. (It’s sort of a regressive tax: the insistent and greedy can end up extracting quite a bit from the insecure and naive.)
It sometimes requires clever Jedi mind tricks to stay on top of it all.
The Bakugan Incident
One day early in the year, H. requested that HiroP trade him a bakugan.
I heard about it in the car on the way home.
“I gave him my blue-green dragon, my purple and black one, and [fill in a few others].”
“That sounds like fun. What did he give you in return?”
“How was it a trade, then? Trade means you give one, you get one.”
“You didn’t get any back?”
“Okay, then, what you did was give him a gift. That’s different from ‘trade.’”
HiroP thought about this silently. Not-good feelings were swirling inside him. He now only had a few bakugan left, and H. had many many. Plus, the “trade” had been misrepresented to him by H.
“Honey, it is okay for you to ask for one back if you give him one. That’s what trade means.”
HiroP digested this quietly as he sat in his car seat. Later, Ms. R, HiroP and H.’s teacher, told me she bans these toys for precisely this reason. “Some kids don’t understand what it means to ‘trade,’ or the difference between ‘giving’ and ‘borrowing’–that once you give it away, it doesn’t come back to you. And we get upset kids.”
I grasped what she meant. The playground Pokemon or bakugan economy is one of desire, envy, possession, inequality, wanting to be liked/included, and hedging against being unliked/excluded. It’s seductive for all those reasons and more.
The Bakugan Incident, Part II
We don’t always chat in the car ride home, we also chat in our jammies right before the bedtime story. That’s when HiroP told me in passing how he’d admired H.’s “suitcase” of bakugans.
“Can I buy twenty-hundred thousand MORE bakugans, mama?” he asked. “H. has so many he has to put them all in a little suitcase.”
“Wow, that’s a lot. How many do you think are in there?”
“HUNDREDS. Can I buy lots more too? I want as many as H. has.”
“Well, H. brought his in to share. Did you get to play with H.’s a little?”
“No. He didn’t take them out. Just showed them to everybody. No one was allowed to touch them.”
“No? That doesn’t sound very fun for you, just looking at them.”
It was completely incongruous, but at that moment I thought of Thomas Harris’ novel the Silence of the Lambs and a line where Harris wrote of evil dressmaker Jame Gumb (paraphrasing), “to see was the essence of envy.”
It occurred to me that H. had recently returned from a lengthy stay at the family’s other home. H. had made a prince’s entrance, welcomed as a conquering hero. And the “giant” suitcase of bakugan was part of H.’s re-entry.
“Hmm, you already have lots of bakugan yourself. And you can always add a request for some to your birthday wish list.”
“Pleeeeaaaaaase? I want as many as H. has!”
I hugged my son close. Pressed my nose into his freshly washed, damp hair. It smelled delicious. “Did you ever stop to think that H. goes to two schools? The one you go to, and then the one at the other place he lives?”
I could tell HiroP was intensely curious as to where this was going.
“Well, maybe the reason he has so many bakugan is that he has to make twice the number of friends. He has to make sure he has friends in both places. It must be very hard to do that: a little scary, a little lonely, even. Maybe having so many toys helps him.”
Instead of HiroP seeing H.’s material abundance as sign of plentiful inner fulfillment, I’d now flipped the perspective so HiroP could see all those bakugan as a sign of insecurity, lack, even the absence of something all kids keenly understand the need for: friends.
(It might not be wholly true, but it’s worth considering.)
I decided to let HiroP determine if this had any ring of truth, given that he sees his friend day in and day out. The cumulative experience of his friend, and HiroP’s gut, would tell him if what I said about H. carried weight.
HiroP was very very quiet, as when absorbing something and mulling it.
And you know what? That night and since then, there’s been NO begging by HiroP for zillions of bakugan and a little suitcase to carry them in. None.
The Great Pokemon Free Trade Agreement
Flash forward to the spring. HiroP now has a very full deck of carefully selected Pokemon cards, partly from gifts (bankrolled by grandma and grandpa!) and outright gifts and trades from other kids. He’s a full-fledged participant in the underground Pokemon economy.
In the car ride home, we somehow get to talking about Pokemon cards. HiroP tells me in exhausting detail the ones he has. (I tune out for about 5 minutes.) And then, he mentions that he sometimes trades his undesirables for ones H. doesn’t mind giving up either.
“It’s even-stevens?” I ask, remembering our conversation earlier in the year.
“Yes. Although sometimes H. will go ask A. or L. if he can have one of their cards, and they give it to him. ‘Will you trade me that for free?’” HiroP says, imitating H.’s sing-songy wheedling tone.
“Do they give it to him?”
“Yes. But not me. H. knows with me he has to give one to get one.”
I marvel at how well my son has drawn boundaries. I’m happy that he has a reciprocal and equal relationship with his friend H. And I also marvel how H. works his scam on his other friends.
“Will you trade me that for free?” Parsing that more closely, we see that H. does understand what ‘trade’ means, but doesn’t care. And the wheedling tone says he knows he’s not dealing from a position of reciprococity, or with any intention to do so.
“I’m glad you set H. straight about trading,” I tell my son. “See, you told him what you think is fair and he agreed to it. And it didn’t hurt your friendship to say what you needed.”
HiroP imitates H.’s high-pitched wheedling tone again, not in a mocking way, but in a knowing way. I’m glad my son’s tuning fork is so well sounded.
But I felt bad for A., and L., and their having been taken advantage of a little by H. They will have to learn this lesson later. Hopefully it’ll be before more than a simple toy has been given away.
Since the passage of Prop 8 in California, I’ve been working hard to repeal this obviously discriminatory change in the law that makes LBGTQ people second class citizens. (I’ll tell you about a project I’m helping to launch to dent support for Prop 8 in another post.)
I sometimes throw myself into things because my gut and my passions demand it, and it isn’t clear to my brain why I feel as strongly as I do. That was the case here. Usually, there’s some underlying reason that’s not immediately evident but if I think about it carefully, it both surprises me and seems exactly right.
So why would a straight mom of a little boy be so galvanized to get involved? Where’s my dog in this fight? Is it because I’m “afraid” my son is gay?
Well, in a word, no. I’m completely indifferent as to what my child’s sexuality will be. HB seems convinced Hiro Protagonist is straight (though huz’s very gay-friendly himself). All I know is that Hiro P’s five years old. See, I believe people have fluid sexual identities that manifest around adolescence (usually). They pretty much are what they are. There are probably people who are on either ends of the spectrum in terms of being completely heterosexual and completely homosexual, but most of us are somewhere on that spectrum.
I don’t spend any time speculating what Hiro P’s sexuality is. Because whatever it is, I won’t bother to “change” it. It’s kinda none of my business, anyway, because it’s part of his journey into adulthood into realms that have nothing to do with me. Really my job is to teach him to love, which is a greater overarching principle that applies no matter the gender or genitals of who it is he’s loving.
Rather, it occurred to me that one very valuable and wonderful thing we’ve enjoyed about Hiro P’s school is its wonderfully gay-friendly quality. Do you know what this means for the boys who attend, no matter their age or ultimate sexual identity? IT MEANS THEY WILL NEVER HEAR THE WORD “F—–T” LEVELED AT THEM.
Do you know how powerful and freeing this is? No gay parents of the many children who attend would stand for it. No straight parents of the children who attend would stand for it either.
The new public school we’ll be sending Hiro Protagonist to is in a different town, one whose lovely anti-Iraq war protesters on the corner convinced me I could live there. During election season, I saw a few too many “Yes on 8″ yard signs than I preferred, but there were also a satisfying number of “No on 8″ yard signs too (among them ours). These new schools won’t be the hippietastic haven we’ve enjoyed and appreciated so much at Hiro P’s current school, but in this new community I already know some PFLAG-y parents, some gay parents, and I know there’s a gay-straight alliance group at the local high school. I know if some kid who grows up with intolerant attitudes dares use the “F—–T” word (or the “D—” word) to try to humiliate, discipline, harass, or otherwise bully another child, there’ll be a community that’ll smack that behavior down.
See, when you take away the hateful power of those epithets, you give boys breathing room to be who they are–all of it. Boys straight and gay can begin to explore all the attributes that get ascribed to “the feminine” under the seemingly binary gender system. “The feminine” is supposedly sensitive, tender, nurturing, intuitive, relationship-oriented, cooperative, gentle, concerned with beauty/aesthetics, and/or relenting (some call this passive). “The feminine” is universally denigrated, and the opposites venerated, around the world for no good reason.
You take away the word “f—–t,” and you take away some of the likelihood that a child’s fists will pound the word’s meaning into another child.
We’re all a mix of qualities, and the sooner we realize and accept that, the happier we’ll be, don’t you think?
I think it’s great the less we try to separate and label attributes according to all-too-easy binarisms. Taking away the sticks that beat children into their respective gender boxes is a good thing. Giving up on the need to sort and categorize into two all-too-easy bins is a good thing. And taking away the power of homophobic epithets is in part how we ALL get there.
Hiro Protagonist goes to a hippie preschool by design. And this year, like last, the older preschoolers were asked to hand-make valentines for everyone in the class. (I like that there’s universal heart caring coverage. What’s the point of communicating dislike and exclusion on a day that’s set aside to let others know you, even superficially, appreciate them?)
Now, ordinarily this is no big deal. HiroP loves to make art. Drawings of spaceships, exciting laser beam battles, robots, droids, and other Star Wars-ish stuff flows from his crayons onto the page. (He also draws butterflies, flowers, houses, and people.) It’s impossible to dam up, nor would I want to.
The problem with having to churn out fourteen handmade valentines is that when a miscommunication between the teacher and the parents means you only have two days to do it, the process can’t be the leisurely, enjoyable thing it should be.
After clarifying with HiroP’s teacher on Tuesday morning (from her Monday email) that handmade valentines are expected as of 9 am Thursday, we were in a bit of a tizzy.
I had no idea where the construction paper was. I had to go down to the basement and scrape up some Finding Nemo stickers from my magic Box of Kidstuff. Luckily we had lots of colored pencils, crayons, paint, glitter, stamps, and what have you.
We usually get home from HiroP’s school around 5:30 or maybe even 6:00 pm (there’s some sort of after school class that ends at 4:15 pm or 4:30 pm and it often takes us 60-90 minutes to drive home. Shocking, eh? This is L.A.).
If he naps on the way home, sometimes he won’t wake up til 7:00 pm. We’ll have a later dinner and do whatever preparation needs to be done for the next day. Bath, brush, bed routine.
So there isn’t a lot of after school time to work on time-intensive projects like valentine-making.
I cut some paper hearts out for HiroP, and set aside half the amount he was supposed to do so over two nights he could complete the project.
Now a grownup would be much more goal-oriented about the task. Maybe even perfunctory, given the numbers of valentines that need to be churned out.
But a child? A boy like HiroP? Will put a lot of himself drawing lovingly hand-crafted colorful spaceships on each valentine. (He tried to please his female friends by making princess crowns and flower-headed wands for the ones who like that stuff.)
At first I was a little exasperated. We grownups know these will be traded around and looked at (by children who can barely READ not to mention write), then discarded when the candy becomes more interesting. So a valentine has at most a thirty second shelf-life once mama reads who it’s from. So in some ways, it simply isn’t worth it to put so much of oneself into a charming, if disposable, gesture of goodwill and affection.
(Looking at the valentines he received in return, some of which were store bought by distressed mamas who freaked when they saw the word “handmade”–who has the time?? Hey, I make no judgements–there was an unequal amount of time spent by all the children on the endeavour.)
I realized that my child holds himself to high standards. He wouldn’t have been happy making quick scribbles for his friends. No, quality hand-drawn Star Wars space battles they must have. Another thing I realized about my child: he’s conscientious and thorough. He likes to draw. And he’s generous–big-hearted. The valentines he drew for the kids I know he doesn’t particularly like were not noticeably stingy with artistic juju.
Now I must admit, it was fun to open up the bag and paw over all the valentines. It’s a ritual we perform when he brings them back from school. He’s already looked at them of course, but he likes to share them with me. And I like to see the creativity of his classmates and enjoy their sweetly pungent little personalities through the art they make. Many of his little friends did pour quite a bit of themselves into thoughtful and beautifully-made valentines. And some seemed a bit–well, produced under time duress.
In savoring the cards with him, I also thought to myself, it might not be a bad thing to teach him as he gets older to be a little more discerning about how much of himself to share with others. Because the cruel fact is that if you aren’t savvy about your relationships with others, there’ll be an imbalance in how well you treat others versus how well they treat you. Now, at five years old, perhaps I’d rather err on the side of an outpouring of fondness than to encourage him to withhold it. At this age, hierarchy, calculation, and cruelty are still mercifully tempered by we adults who try to mediate and filter those things from their world.
But I can see in years to come that he must treasure his good-naturedness, and spend his affectionate good will wisely on the people who’ll truly reciprocate with the same generosity he shows them.
Reciprococity is an important part of self-respect, and a way to maintain a boundary as well as cement a bond. I don’t know if this is the Chinese culture speaking through me, but it seems every Chinese child grows up knowing that there’s an unwritten semiotic code to gift-giving involving the gift itself and the cloud of gestures and context surrounding it. And it’s important that gifts be appropriate; conversely, a gift can communicate a great deal to the recipient about the esteem in which the gift-giver holds the recipient (and vice versa). Quite often I see no sixth sense about this from Anglos–mostly, it seems to be about expense. And equally often I feel wearied by how freighted gift-giving can be within Chinese/American culture, and wish it were as simple as the cost.
A lot to think about, and all from sparkly-painted bits of paper.