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Aug 4 2011

Nature Tackles Nurture: Forced to Rethink It

By at 11:46 am

Liz and her son.

Of all the parents who used to tell me I’d change my stance on the nature vs.  nurture debate once we had a boy, the only one that ever mattered was Sister Feminist. The others I could dismiss in a self righteous second.  (Like the mom down at story hour, who used to chuckle when her son would poke the tractor on my daughter’s t-shirts.   “I just don’t know what boys did before the invention of the combustion engine!”)

I met Sister Feminist at synagogue when she and her partner were trying to get pregnant.  A year later, they had a son. Like us, Sister Feminist guarded well the tower in which she kept her first babe. She let in no bulldozers. No big plastic dump trucks. Not even little toy cars. “The only thing we have with wheels is a plush turtle!” she told me, arms raised in exasperation. And still, before her son could talk, he kicked his feet with wild excitement and made engine revving sounds whenever they passed a 16 wheeler.

“I don’t know how else to explain it, Liz,” she’d say in disbelief.  “I just don’t.”

I didn’t know how to explain it either. So I said nothing. Just listened. And smiled.

Until a few years later when I had boys myself: one in the carrier, the other held tightly by the hand. Then I had something to say.

“Well?” Sister Feminist would ask, stretching the word with her tongue for a few seconds so that the length of the question would better match the severity of what was at stake.  Might I share a little wavering of position?  She wondered.  Maybe even let loose a little full blown feminist blasphemy?

So I told her about the trip to the Y. How baby Ankle Biter was strapped to my back and toddler Moon Boy held fast by my hand. But then there was the clipboard to hold, and the pen to write with, and so Moon Boy was off, three quarters of the way up the two story staircase, jumping down step by step.  My daughter would never have gone that far away from me, I told Sister Feminist.

She leaned in, ready to hear me say it. But I didn’t. I told her how I looked around at all the white people in the lobby there, expecting them to be staring up at my wayward little black son who wasn’t minding his mother and might just up and rob a bank any minute now.  (Because I have seen this look before.) But that’s not how they were looking at him today.

They were smiling. Looking up the stairway at my boy and out-right cooing. “How darling,” they were saying.  “How precious!” And I thought, for a wild second, how horribly judgmental I had been, casting these innocent folks as Klansmen or something. And then I looked up at my son and saw again what they were seeing. There he was jumping down the steps, wearing his favorite lavender tank top with the flower print, lime green shorts, sandals, Afro grown out to about a quarter inch, those enormous chocolate pie eyes, and lashes longer than this post. And I realized that where I saw my son; those people saw a beautiful little girlchild. I watched Moon Boy jump a few steps and let my eyes blur and then refocus on him as if I thought he were a girl. And sure enough, she looked different.  Softer. Fuzzy even. With each jump her little smile shown with delight, pleasure, pride.  Not cunning disobedience. Not impish glee. She was captivating. Harmless. Gentle.

It was the gentleness that struck me. How all of these people were gathered at the bottom of the steps watching her jump down and all the while they were seeing gentle. And I was seeing gentle. And I was suddenly convinced that there was a lot more gentle there than I knew. This was my boy. My biting boy. My pinching boy. My hitting boy. My boy who has been known to ram sticks through the walls of our rented apartment. Here he was, being received as gentle, and suddenly I believed it anew. Because with all those people looking up at him seeing gentle, I told Sister Feminist, the gentle just seemed to dance right out of him. As if it had been there all along and even I hadn’t seen it.

As the years have passed I’ve continued to look for the gentle. And it’s there. It’s beautiful and tender and cuddly. But then so very quickly (what happens?) it’s all smashing, bashing, and headlocks again. I can’t deny it. They still wear flowered tanks, but they’d rather play tackle than tag. And where my daughter begs to stay home and do art, my sons cannot sleep at night if they haven’t run, or swam, or climbed for at least half the day.

So when I saw Sister Feminist on a recent visit back to Maine, and when I leaned over and let her new twin boys grab hold of my fingers with their gentle little hands, I said, quietly so no one else could hear:

“I’m starting to think that maybe…”

“Oh, Liz!” she kvelled.  “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years!”


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