My 3-year-old daughter already knows the difference between dairy and meat. She saw our delight the first time she asked us if a meal was chalavi (dairy) or besari (meat) and now she can even choose the right silverware. She doesn’t yet understand all the details–but she knows there’s a difference. Yesterday we even went to the next level and discussed pareve (neither dairy nor meat), too.
Through these recent conversations, I’ve realized how much about our world must seem completely arbitrary to her, with names and categories she has to just accept–and she’s slowly learning to do so. No pajamas during the day–but no dresses at night. Why?
We brush our teeth and our hair but not our feet. Cereal for breakfast but never for dinner. Chicken for dinner but never for breakfast. Omelets for either. Why? Why? Why? It’s all equally confusing.
Soon kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) will be ingrained in her, like other cultural facts. Meat versus dairy will be categories for her, as will Shabbat versus the rest of the week, and clothes versus pajamas. This is fine with me. This is how our culture does things. One day, though, my daughter will suddenly realize the assumptions she’s making.
First, she’ll discover that other people–even other Jews–don’t necessarily keep kosher. Maybe, like it was for me, it won’t be until college that she realizes how deep some of her assumptions run, when her Catholic roommate will tell her that not only is it weird to think of “opposites” for food, but if she did, the opposite of milk would be “orange juice” and the opposite of meat would be “vegetables.” For me, it wasn’t until that very moment in college that it suddenly dawned on me that this was not universally acknowledged. I began to wonder what other givens were not necessarily so. Late into the night in that small dorm room, I took a confused step further: how one can even know that there is an assumption being made without also being presented with a contrasting view?
Now, as a parent, I ask these questions all the time. Which aspects of our culture do I not want my children to automatically accept? What should I teach them now so that later, they don’t have to unlearn universalities?
Assumptions about gender seem like an obvious place to begin. I recently noticed that my daughter’s usually sensitive daycare accidentally talked about “firemen” instead of “firefighters.” But even for all the attention I pay to making sure that my daughter sees men and women cook and work and clean and care for children and take out the trash, I was surprised at how early on she was able to distinguish men from women; she told me months ago that the girls in her class were her friends but not the boys, and that purple and pink are for girls.
Despite her generalizations, however, I think we’re doing pretty well on this front. But we may not be doing as well, in other areas, like issues of race. The daycare my daughter attends is very racially diverse, but we have few family friends of color, and I’m sure she notices that. And while we know a few families that might be considered less traditional–single parent families, LGBT families–most are of a “typical” structure, with a mommy and a daddy and some kids.
One solution to this problem is the wide universe of books, which can demonstrate alternative possibilities right in our own living room. So we try and read books that show different kinds of kids and families and cultures. Through my daughter’s experience, I’ve come to see how many arbitrary choices our culture makes; why do we eat potato chips, but not tomato chips? Why do we bring balloons to birthday parties? Why do I think traveling in a plane is exciting but not traveling in a cab (which she thought was the highlight of a long trip to Israel this summer)?
Tomato chips aside, what really scares me are the assumptions that we’re not aware of that actually do matter; the kind of assumptions that are problematic because we accept them as givens. Parenting helps me notice these as I am forced to try to explain to my daughter why someone is sleeping on the ground outside, or why we are bringing boxes of food to the synagogue on Yom Kippur.
“But why do some people not have food?” she asks.
Yes, why? Injustice, poverty, inequality are things we somehow learn to overlook and accept. Only once we realize that things don’t have to be this way can we take a step back to address them. Children challenge our assumptions, but soon learn to accept things because they are just so (“Well, breastmilk is pareve, actually… ”). But I hope that my daughter learns to question, and push boundaries and challenge assumptions about the things that we as a society have learned to accept.
Because every so often, a young person comes along and finds a better way, a more sound assumption–and makes a small change.