I always knew my boys would have long hair. I mean the thought of cutting it when they were little just never crossed my mind. What’s more adorable than a sweet baby boy? A sweet baby boy with long gorgeous hair of course. Admittedly this is my own personal opinion, but I stand by it.
What I never expected, and in hindsight possibly should have seen coming, was the countless people who would glance at my boys for a split second and automatically assume they are girls. It happens ALL. THE. TIME. And I really don’t mind. I look at my kids and I see boys with long hair, but I also understand how a passerby could glance at them and make a quick assumption that long hair equals a girl.
It’s not always a true assumption, but it is an innocent one.
When someone refers to one of my boys as a girl, I smile kindly and let them know that he is in fact a boy, with long hair. Most people quickly apologize or simply say, “Oops! of course he is!” and we move on. But sometimes the conversation takes a slightly different path, and then I start to mind.
This was my interaction with a kind and well-meaning cashier last week.
Cashier: Oh she’s beautiful!
Me: Thank you! He is actually a boy, he just has long hair. (Somewhere in the background the child in question is interjecting with an adamant, “I am not a girl!”)
Cashier: What?! (pointing directly at my son while my son sees and hears the whole conversation) You’re telling me this is a boy?
Me: (smiling but desperately trying to move the conversation in a different direction) Yep!
Cashier: (shaking head in disbelief) Seriously?
Me: I throw his hair in an ponytail when it’s extra hot out. But trust me, he’s a boy.
Cashier: (jaw literally dropping) You do what?! (looks around frantically) POLICE! POLICE!
The cashier drops the act, winks at me, finishes bagging my purchases and calls me sweetheart as we walk away.
Because really, I felt like I was in a bad sitcom just then.
The issue is not that people mistake my boys for girls. The issue is not that I don’t want anyone to ever say anything that might possibly offend one of my offspring. The issue is not that the cashier suggested I should be arrested for putting my son’s hair in a ponytail. The issue is not that I can’t take a joke.
You want to know the issue?
When you make jokes about who my child is or is not, when they hear you say that something about them is unacceptable, when you point at them and question what they know to be true about themselves, you change the person they see in the mirror.
The heart of the matter has nothing to do with my boy’s hair length, and everything to do with adults thinking before they speak to kids.
Even as adults, the words people say to us are powerful. A stranger on social media leaving a hurtful comment can bring all of my insecurities screaming to the surface. How much harder for a child, one who is just beginning to discover who they are and who they want to become, to navigate sarcastic or joking comments centered around their identity.
You can call me dramatic, it has happened before, but consider this.
We see so many kids, children so young, struggling with anxiety and depression and self harm and eating disorders and on and on. So often the blame is placed on their peers or Hollywood. I can’t help but wonder, if they were asked, how many of those precious kids carry deep wounds from the careless words of an adult.
I do not think that the sweet, misguided, cashier wounded my son. In fact my three-year old has seemingly forgotten the whole interaction. But last year, after too many similar situations, my oldest son asked me to cut his long hair. His words broke my heart. “I love my long hair mama, but I don’t want people to think I’m a girl anymore.” We cut his hair the next day. He stared at himself long in the mirror and I asked if he liked his haircut. He nodded, “Yeah, I like it. I liked my long hair better, but now no one will call me a girl.”
I am left wondering, how many thousands of interactions will my boys have with adults during these precious, formative years of childhood? How many of them will be life-giving? How many will cause them to question their value? Their identity? Their purpose?
How many children have changed who they were because someone told them what they are, who they are, is less than enough?
I cannot protect my sons from everything. Or even most things. Trust me, I have moments I want to be like the mom from Bubble Boy and never let them out into the real world, lest they scrape their knee or get knocked over by a bully or catch the common cold. I sometimes mutter under my breath in the grocery store aisles, while my kids beg for Froot Loops, about food dyes and gmos and evil marketing companies preying on children with cartoons and preservatives. I have had my heart-broken watching other kids ignore or refuse to play with my boys. I also understand that these are all normal, albeit difficult, parts of childhood. And sometimes they even get the Froot Loops.
The thing I refuse to accept, no matter how normal or common it may be, is adults speaking anything but life into children.
We have all been there. We have all gone through the awkward, uncomfortable, scary, hormonal, acne-ridden journey that is growing up. Remember that before you roll your eyes at rowdy teenagers aimlessly wandering the mall on Saturday afternoon. Think about it before you wonder why the exhausted and overwhelmed six-year-old throwing a tantrum in public can’t control himself. Before you make a joke, ask yourself if you would have thought it was funny at their age, or would it have stung?
And hey, don’t be afraid to apologize if you say something without thinking.
I’m a red-headed Irish woman who lived most of her adult life in New York. I was born with a temper and a wild spirit. When I think something, I say it. And too often those sharp words land on my boys. I am not perfect. I never will be. I will always make mistakes. But one thing is for sure, my boys have heard, and will continue to hear, me apologize to them when I accidentally say something hurtful.