Amazingly enough, the big parenting story this week concerns a pair of pink zebra-patterned shoes.
Pink zebra-patterned ballet flats, I should add — because the details matter — which a five-year-old boy named Sam reportedly fell in love with at the shoe store, and then wore to his first day of preschool several months ago. Last week, his sister posted a photo of Sam’s shoes on Facebook’s “Have a Gay Day” page, noting that when her mom had pasted his picture on her own Facebook page, a number of relatives had come forward to lovingly warn that the shoes were “wrong,” would “affect him socially” and might “turn him gay.”
This infectious concern then went viral, with mom-blogger Mary Fischer wondering if the mother in question, however well-meaning, was perhaps setting her son up for a lifetime-scarring dose of “insults and ridicule” that a more reasoned choice of footwear could have prevented.
All of which led me to a couple of reflections:
1) That my mother would have dismissed the pink zig-zagged confections as “not school shoes” — “school shoes” being sturdily-constructed cloddy things with laces and arch support, in dirt-defying shades of dark brown or navy blue. If the mom in question had simply reacted to the light-colored, impractical ballet flats with the kind of lip-tightened rejection that my own mother would have sent their way, the whole story would have been over. (And because we are all doomed to reject our parents before becoming just like them, I sent my own older daughter to preschool in her chosen shoes — black patent leather Mary Janes with leather soles — earning myself a talking-to from her teachers, who said she needed more sturdy shoes in order to run and climb with the other kids.)
2) That the reaction to the mom, the boy and the shoes reflects just how much magical thinking has seeped into our national parenting conversations.
The notion that a preschooler’s shoe choice — or a parent veto-ing that choice — will have a lasting effect on his life’s outcome, protecting him from the long-term risk of being a social outcast is, I’m sorry to say, absurd. So, for that matter, is the idea that his choice of shoes, on one particular day, is indicative of who he is or will grow up to be.
Now that Sam has entered the social orbit of his peers, his mother’s decisions regarding his footwear will be one very minor input shaping his personality and life experiences. If it were possible to protect him from being ostracized or bullied by counseling him against wearing pink zebra flats, how easy life would be. How much less painful, indeed, it would be.
(MORE: Why American Kids Are Brats)
I remember well what parenting felt like when my older daughter was in preschool. Every activity she undertook, every precious word out of her mouth, every behavior, every clothing choice seemed incredibly important. Her life, the preschool world, our life together formed a warm little bubble, a totalizing reality drenched in high drama and deep meaning. How shocking it was to find, a year after she “graduated,” that she barely remembered her teachers and classmates at all! How incredible to think that the drawings, hand prints and yes, shoes, that summed up her whole being could so quickly turn into mere relics.
Looking back at both my daughters, there are many aspects of their early childhood experiences that have turned out to have lasting truth: their social and emotional styles and general temperaments, their physical and early learning strengths and weaknesses. The hard-wired, inborn stuff, in other words. The stuff that — despite all my best efforts — I couldn’t fully discern then, much less control.
It’s the very human drama at the heart of what we typically refer to, coldly and dismissively, as “helicopter parenting”: this attempt to use our own powers of control to keep our children happy and safe, which, these days, tends to mean making them successful, socially as well as academically, at school. But the magical bubble of very early childhood doesn’t last. Life happens to us all.
And as for those rubber-soled Stride Rites that replaced my daughter’s impractical, much-loved Mary Janes; they didn’t make her run any faster or climb any higher. They didn’t take away the quirks — strengths and weaknesses — that left her out of step with her peers. They just made her look a tiny bit more like everyone else. From the ankles down, at least.