Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Toddlers, aboriginals and gays. All yucky.

Dust my Broom (h/t) links to an interesting Spiked magazine article about tolerance and young kids. The author worries that a little knowledge is dangerous, and that it might lead to intolerance, rather than tolerance. Case in point, her young daughter said "aboriginals are yucky" because she found out, in a class no doubt intended to instill respect and tolerance, that aboriginals eat grubs. To a three-year-old who eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, that's gross.

Similarly with homosexuality. In teaching kids about gays, the teachers either will show pictures of two dads or moms kissing, or they won't, but the kids will figure it out for themselves at the jungle gym. Kissing is gross to a three-year-old.

The article's conclusion:
Thus, far from an increase in tolerance the inappropriate mixing of information
about varying sexual practices [, cultural eating habits] with lack of cognitive
readiness has led to intolerance.

I'm ready to concede that there are problems here. We need to be aware of how a three-year-old will interpret new information into their own little prism or schema for world-understanding. You can't tell a three-year-old, for instance, that people go around kissing one another or eating sushi. I'm certain they will think this the height of impropriety and/or grossness. To their early medical knowledge, these things are as surely causes of the spread of cooties (which is to be avoided) as being touched by a known carrier of the cooties.

But does thinking some group of people to be gross or yucky mean that the kids are intolerant? Better, does it even matter?

Of course it matters, at least a little. If it's true that kids go on to believe things they believed as kids, then we've got a case for continuing intolerance. But kids grow out of these things. Boys (rightly) think girls are gross. Girls (incorrectly) believe boys to be gross. (Take that, ladies!). There are certain sets of beliefs that relate to yuckiness which should rightly be matters of indifference. It is not important that the children not think a group of people who do things or are different from themselves to be yucky, but that they don't hold the adult version of "those guys are yucky."

We don't think girls are sexist for thinking boys to be yucky at the age of three. We think this is normal and fine and something we all grow out of and probably something important to our upbringing. So why fret so much over the supposed intolerance of three-year-olds?

Perhaps the reason is a problem of exposure. Girls and boys are around each other all the time, and they eventually discover that, contrary to their earlier scientific discoveries, not all of the other gender is yucky. Some do not discover this. We call them "radical feminists." But radical feminism is rare. Most of us, most of the time, see the absolute idiocy in overly-simple categories by the time we're, say, 13. I suspect this is because we see instances of "boys" and "girls" all the time that do not meet our criteria for being in that category. The category begins to change (or we say things that we really don't believe--like "she's not really a girl"). The same, however, is not true when it comes to gays, aboriginals, or other groups like that. Although we are around gays all the time, few self-identify, and you can't tell just by looking.

This lack of exposure might make the early categories resistent to change. (Or exposure of the "wrong sort." You don't "expose" children to a gay lifestyle by waltzing into a bathhouse, or a gay bar at 2 a.m. That's a strategy people who don't like gays make use of. We call these people "radical heterosexualists." Actually we don't call them that. I call them that. I think the label is a good one.)

The worry about what a three-year-old says or thinks is probably largely a matter of indifference, unless it is coupled with something like a predicted lack of exposure, or something else. So don't fret so much when your infant calls a whole group of people "yucky." The world she inhabits is so chock-full of yuckiness that it is hard to believe that it really matters. Worry, instead, that she has the opportunity to play with, be around, or otherwise hang out with, people of all different sorts and kinds, preferences and beliefs.


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