“No, kiddo, cards don’t belong in little boys’ mouths.”
“All of your toys are on the floor! Is that where they belong?”
“Let’s not push these magazines off the table. The table is where the magazines belong.”
“But feet do not belong on the table!”
After a while of this, I began to recognize there was one word continually repeating itself without any conscious effort. Belong. I knew this was significant right away, but it took me most of the day to articulate why.
The word “belong” heavily implies a strict set of expectations in the clever disguise of ease and comfort. When something is where it belongs, it is where it should be, where it’s meant to be. Not a lot of wiggle room. Often belonging is for a practical reason that makes sense for everyone involved, which does make it easier and more comfortable. That is why belonging at home with your family or belonging with someone that you love feels so good. It’s nice to belong sometimes, but sometimes belonging can feel like a trap, like belonging in men’s clothes or belonging in a certain activity.
This morning reminded me that “belong” is a common standby of our language toolbox, especially with children.
When I told my young charge that the tiny deck of cards did not belong in his mouth, it was both for his health and for the sake of the cards. They were dusty and he was bending them. I was afraid he would get a paper cut, swallow dirt, ruin the cards, or all of the above. So I told him “cards don’t belong in little boys’ mouths.” What I meant was “you and the cards might get hurt if you put them in your mouth,” but I didn’t tell him that.
This, in my opinion, is a perfectly harmless and legitimate way to use the word “belong,” because it really is in the best interest of everyone and everything involved, and there’s no real reason for him to have the cards in his mouth anyway.
The problem is, where do I draw the line? It’s easy to fall back on where people and things belong as an easy explanation for anything. Even though I am very aware of my language and conscientious about the messages I send to children, I can see myself taking the “belonging” line too far. What began as a safety precaution could quickly and even unintentionally turn into philosophy, and that would be treading in dangerous waters.
“You don’t belong in a Santa costume. You are a little girl!”
“You’re filthy, why were you playing in the mud? Little girls don’t belong in the mud.”
“We’re not going in the American Girl Store. That’s not where little boys belong.”
Notice a difference? There may be a similar motive as before with the cards. In the third example, a parent or guardian may fear the little boy will be teased or that he won’t find what he expects to find and will be disappointed. Maybe their intentions are pure or maybe they just don’t want to go in the store, but either way, using the word “belong” sends a message loud and clear: what you want/are doing is not okay or normal and you are wrong to want/do it. And that’s not necessarily the one they mean to send.
This simple mistake can inadvertently begin establishing gender roles or simply set unnecessary limits on creativity, emotional range, imagination, or experimentation.
Even though it may be perfectly fine to use “belong” in the more harmless scenarios like the ones I experienced this morning, perhaps it would simply be better to just create different habits in the first place.
For instance, instead of using “belong,” I could have explained what my actual concern was:
“All of your toys are on the floor! If we don’t clean these up, it will be awfully hard to walk in here!”
“Let’s not push the magazines off the table. We don’t want them getting stepped on or crumpled! Besides, someone might slip.”
“When you put your feet on the table, you make it dirty! Let’s keep the table clean for our use, shall we?”
I’m no expert, but this might prevent a lot of needless anguish and help children and even adults understand what you really mean, instead of taking an unintended limiting message to heart. I know I will be thinking about this next time I babysit, and when I have my own kids someday!
- How to hack gender stereotyping and let girls and boys just be kids (jilltxt.net)
- Toys: Learning Gender and Gun Violence (queerguesscode.wordpress.com)
- Swedish Toy Company Publishes a Gender-Neutral Holiday Toy Catalog (laughingsquid.com)
- How to Talk to Your Kindergartener (education.com)
- You Can Give a Boy a Doll, but You Can’t Make Him Play With It (theatlantic.com)