When my oldest child, Hot Shot, was 3, her active vocabulary included the word “stereotype.”
“No one can have two moms,” her little friend told her. They were sitting side by side on 3-year-old sized toilets at preschool, overheard by their teacher in the next room.
“No,” said Hot Shot, certain as a statistician. “That’s just a stereotype.”
Her teacher was surprised, but we weren’t. My partner and I had been schooling her in such things for years. Deconstructing her picture books with feminist, anti-racist critical analysis. If pressed she probably could have given a brief overview of the three major phases of the civil rights movement, a short lecture on the use of Mitzrayim rather than Egypt at the Passover table, and a comparative critique of her five favorite authors.
She was, after all, our first child.
Now is it me, or does the parenting get a little more lax on children two and three? Our second, Moon Boy, now 3-and-a-half, is exactly the age Hot Shot was when she made her toilet-seat stereotype remark, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve taught him anything. Seriously: he doesn’t even know his shapes.
There’s just so much more to do. So many more potty-times to oversee. Conflicts to negotiate. Spills to wipe up. I mean, how’s a mom supposed to get in a decent geometry lesson when she has to bear witness to all these tantrums. But I try. When I can. I cut out shapes occasionally and scare up a couple of Q-tips for them to dab on the glue with. I read them lots of books, Moon Boy on one knee and 2-year-old Ankle Biter on the other. And I always include the author and illustrator after the title. Hoping it might sink in.
“Dog and Bear,” I read, “By Laura Vaccaro Seeger.”
“Why Vaccawo Seegoo?” Moon Boy asks.
“Because that’s who wrote the story and drew the pictures,” I answer every time. I continue reading and remember back to how 3-year-old Hot Shot used to suggest, “let’s go to the library and look for something by Molly Bang.”
And then I remind myself that, in fact, a 3 year old doesn’t need to give lectures on comparative literature, systematic oppression, or Reconstructionist Judaism. He doesn’t even need to recognize a trapezoid or the letter “G.” And look what he does do: he dances a mean hip hop, he knows the difference between a tuba and a trombone, and he lights the candles every third Shabbat with a proud face and a perfectly pitched blessing. He’s a pretty neat little guy. I’m a reasonably capable mom. And the rest will follow. Right?
So a few weeks ago Hot Shot (now 7) unearthed a roll of posters, still unpacked from our move to Columbus last summer. She pulled out a few that had been in her room back in Portland, Maine and hung them excitedly (if crooked) above her bed. Then she called the boys over for a family meeting and showed them their choices.
Hot Shot: Do you want Martin Luther King or Barack O-Momma? (Moon Boy’s nickname for the Commander in Chief.)
Moon Boy: I want the Queen.
Hot Shot: There is no queen.
Moon Boy: Okay. Then I want the king.
Hot Shot: (Gives him the MLK poster and announces … ) This is Martin Luther King Junior.
Moon Boy: (turns to me) Is he the one who wrote the story and drew the pictures?
It was a perfect moment for redemption. For checking a few things off the everything-I-haven’t-taught-you-which-is-everything list. But Hot Shot was taking the lead so beautifully. And Moon Boy looked so proud with his King in hand. So I took a breath and let it go.
“Well,” I said. “He did like to tell stories.”