My friend’s daughter is in the 1st grade. Though they do not own a TV, she is already sporting a sexy sass and eying boys. The only real explanation is that she is mirroring what she sees at school. Kids are already talking about “dating.” Her class has a collective conscious that their sexuality is something to wield as a means of control, like Samantha’s nose twitch on Bewitched. (And I promise, it was already in reruns when I was a kid!)
In a meeting with a school counselor, I hear of another 1st grader. After he recently smacked a classmate’s butt, he wound up in her office. As she pursued the little boy and his reasoning, his attitude said “duh” everyone knows, while he verbalized, “It’s what girls deserve.”
Bottom line? Kids are sponges. They will absorb whatever is most frequently put before them, whether it’s domestic violence and machismo at home or over-sexualized peers in class. And the reality is that our seven-year olds are exposed to far more than we can prevent or control.
The same school counselor expressed her concern that her kids have to code-switch: shed what they know as normal from home when they come through school doors and vice versa. NPR hijacked this term from linguistics to broadly describe the “hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.”
My friend’s daughter has to code-switch everyday when she enters her classroom: Mom may say it’s not appropriate to “date” at age 7, but every single one of my girlfriends likes a boy and to be cool, I have to too. The butt-slapping 7-year old code-switches every time he returns home: Ms. Smith says girls don’t deserve to be treated like that, but my uncle and granddad and older brother treat all their girls that way, so what’s the deal? Can we truly expect children to switch so quickly, so effortlessly? Is it any wonder that these incidents are happening?
As adults, unless we raise children in an isolated bubble, they will absorb the rhetoric and narrative of those with whom they spend most of their time. And yet, if we don't expose them to the world, how can we teach them to respond in beautiful and honoring ways? How do we raise boys and girls to value themselves and others within their own selves, not to the manipulation, control, or degradation of the other?
I offered my friend one nugget of a suggestion, timidly, for my own kids are still in adolescence and I have no proof my hypothesis works.
But I’ve seen the Sponge Effect.
And to combat it, I’ve sought to raise my kids’ perspective above the daily drama of school politics, relational positioning, and cultural messaging. I’ve read them stories of girls living on the other side of the globe, forced to walk miles for water, marry at their age, or stay home from school because of hygiene issues. We’ve watched films about Jewish children smuggled out of ghettos or Vietnamese girls who bike for hours a day to attend school. I’ve opened their eyes to sacrifice, for sure. But more than that, I’ve opened their eyes to the bigger narrative of kids: past and present in every corner of the world. If we were all created in God's image, do we not all deserve to be valued in a way that is honoring to Him? Now, when one of them complains about the most recent school drama, I remind them that we all have something in common.
My goal is to locate my kids in a meta-narrative: Yes, I believe there are universal truths. Let us at least start with human dignity for all (and abolish butt-slapping because of the belief it’s what she deserves!) Perhaps then, we can agree to valuing ones self for one's self, not based on the arm one is attached to? Of course, there will be differences in opinion on sexuality, gender norms, and roles in relationships, but can we not agree to these basic truths? Children ought to learn to value themselves and others with dignity.
And that is worth absorbing.
What about you? What have you done to help curb the sponge effect?