Have I told you lately it's okay to like princesses?
Among the lead characters in the hugely successful American sitcom Modern Family are Cameron and Mitchell, a gay couple with a baby girl, Lily, adopted from Vietnam. My three-year-old (“three and three-quarters”, as he insists) recently peered over my shoulder to watch an episode with me on an iPad.
It probably was not the most age-appropriate viewing but I suppose I assumed that the majority of it would pass over his head. After a few minutes he looked up and asked: “Does Lily have no mammy?” When I told him that she did not but that she had two daddies, he pondered a moment and said: “That’s okay.”
I wondered how long his view would last. It lasted just a few weeks. The other day he asserted firmly to me that everybody must have a mammy – perhaps because for him his mother is the most important person in the world.
We live near the Luas green line and a favourite outing is to travel to St Stephen’s Green, enjoy the buskers on Grafton Street and occasionally walk around the Disney Store. My three-year-old used to love visiting the princess room there, which boasts a “magic mirror” that displays a different Disney princess character depending on which toy wand is waved in front of it.
The last time we were there, however, he stopped abruptly at the edge of the pink-tiled floor and sadly observed that this place was just for “girls”. Seeing another boy walking through, he seized the opportunity to wave a wand at the mirror once but then retreated to the “boys’ area” of the shop.
Until recently, he was blind to the colour of people’s skin. There were occasions when — and sometimes in public places — he would refer to or talk about a “black lady”, or a “red man” or a “green child”. We realised he was identifying people on the basis of the colour of their clothes. Last weekend, however, he told me authoritatively that “brown people all come from Asia or Africa”. I don’t know where he got this.
All this got me wondering about how and at what age difference is socialised. From where do children get the idea of what is “normal”? It also reminded me of a marketing campaign run by the Northern Ireland Office in the early stages of the peace process that was designed to set the atmosphere for reconciliation or, in the words of academics Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker, “market peace in Northern Ireland as a consumer commodity”.
The campaign included two particularly memorable television ads. One featured Van Morrison’s hit Have I Told You Lately and the other his song Days Like This.
In the first ad babies and toddlers played together in a creche apparently oblivious to any sectarian or cultural differences. In the other, two boys, probably aged eight or nine and clearly established pals, played together on a beach and innocently swapped a King Billy badge and a GAA medal. Both ads ended with Morrison off-screen quoting his line from Coney Island: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
Sectarian divides persist
The premise of the marketing campaign was that a sense of cultural or religious difference is something children develop later in life. It seemed somewhat naive in the mid-1990s and seems even more so now after two decades of peace, when sectarian divides persist and 14-year-olds are to the fore in riots they and their elders claim are designed to defend their right to a British and loyalist identity.
Anyone seeking advice on how best to rear a child who respects diversity and difference is met with a variety of views. Even the expert commentary accessible on the internet, limited though it is, disagrees on how and whether parents can shape their children’s values in this area and, if they can, at what stage and age parents might best hope to do so.
Some of the commentary is fatalistic, saying parenting, even if active in encouraging openness and respect for diversity, cannot buttress much against the overwhelming impact of television, the playground or society generally.
There is, I suspect, no easy answer to the question. It seems to me, however, that it is not a bad thing for children to understand that some people are different and that there is diversity in every sphere of human life, activity or existence.
It seems inevitable that they will come to appreciate this anyway. The task is to persuade or better still show our children every day that those lives, existences and choices have equal validity. So while most children have both a mum and a dad, some families are structured differently and may not have a mum. Those children are no less loved or cared for.
The lesson from Northern Ireland is probably that exposure to other cultures in childhood or to children from other cultures is no guarantee of respect, tolerance or integration.
Our task as adults, whether we are parents or not, is surely to help children acknowledge difference and individual choices but not from a standpoint of judgment, particularly if those judgments are crowd-sourced or wedded to a popular view of the world.
So, while liking the Disney princess room might be perceived to put a little boy in a minority, it is a choice that merits validation and, if required, support.