Tuesday, January 17, 2017

These Are The Boxes We've Created

Years ago, my wife and I read Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand as part of a book club of which we were members. It was a fascinating look at how women and men tend to communicate differently. Everyone in our group agreed that she hit the nail on the head, except, of course, for when it came to us. None of us felt that we or our spouses fit the dichotomy, but the rest of the world did. I feel the same way about birth order: my siblings and I don't fit the theories, but everyone else does.

A couple boys found themselves playing with our collection of My Pretty Ponies and troll dolls, items usually found in the "girl" box.

We are always wrong whenever we try to put individual people into boxes based on their genitals or race or age or other accidents of their birth, but that doesn't mean that the boxes aren't real. Young children are born without knowledge of our boxes because they are a societal, not a biological construct, even as all of us, in our bigotry, sometimes live as if they are. A great deal of the learning that happens during the preschool years is learning related to those boxes: it's why most of the girls spend at least some time, even if only for a day, exploring princess play or why most of the boys, even if only for a day, explore tough guy characters like super heroes. These are the boxes we've created for "girls" and "boys," even as we strive to show them that they don't need to climb into those boxes.

"Help me! My baby is lost!"

When my daughter Josephine was a baby, I dressed her in overalls and kept her hair short. As she got older, we played sports together, worked in the garage with tools together, and generally did "manly" things. Then, one day, at around two-years-old, she came into possession of a bejeweled crown, put it on her head and said to me, "You just don't understand what girls do." She then wore a crown of some kind almost every day until she headed off to kindergarten. She was exploring that box because she had to explore that box, just as I had spent much of my boyhood playing at soldier or cowboy or Batman because I had to.

"I'll rescue her! What does she look like?" "She's orangish-yellow and has long hair and pictures of bows on her side."

Then, once we understand the box, we spend the rest of our lives trying to climb out as we strive to create who we are, who we really are, as individuals. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, in their lazy bigotry, seeks to keep us in those boxes, even feeling threatened by us or worried for us when we try to climb out.

"Don't worry, I'll find her!"

The boxes are real and at one level they are useful, just as Tannen's book helped me better understand "women." On the other hand, they are traps, just as her book told me nothing valuable about the individual women with whom I actually spent my life. We're not going to get rid of the boxes. Even if we did manage to tear them all up, we would simply, as a society, construct new ones because it's part of what humans do. I guess we just like to play with boxes.

What we can do, however, is to remember that the person with whom we are, just like us, is striving to climb out, and to offer them a hand if they need it.

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