I was walking down the street hand in hand with my sweetie on one of the first truly warm days of spring. We were on our way back from buying produce, a bag of vegetables weighing down my shoulder, talking about what we might cook. As we approached my house, two five-year-old boys playing on the sidewalk called out to us.
“Nice tits!” one yelled from his scooter, the one with the handlebars almost as tall as his head.
My teeth clenched.
“Nice ass!” his playmate called out.
I squeezed my sweetie’s hand tighter and walked a little faster. I could feel the weight of my brow furrowing. I’d never been cat-called by a five year old before; I wasn’t sure how to respond. These were kids I knew, kids I saw daily and talked to sometimes about their games or toys, their classes and sports teams. These kids had sweetly asked me “what are you doing?” every time I was out gardening last summer.
“Hey! Tits! Ass!” Even in their young voices, I could hear a sense of power in these words.
“Be respectful!” I called back as we approached. Truly persuasive words to a pair of five year olds, I’m sure. We were rounding the corner of my front walk, I was fumbling with the key at my door, hurrying for this moment to be over.
“Hey!” he yelled as I finally got the door open. “You have a big booty!”
“Be respectful!” I locked the door behind me, leaning into it to turn the deadbolt, hiding in my own house. The darkness of the indoors replaced the sunny sidewalk.
I remember spitting out the word, “Fuck!” I remember walking across the house, throwing my keys, throwing my purse, I remember feeling stupid and angry and powerless, I remember uttering a bitter “fucking bullshit” as I grabbed a cutting board and an eggplant. I pulled a knife out of the drawer, and it made hard sounds as it hit the board at the end of each forceful cut.
I thought about the glee I’d heard in their voices. They’d learned something new about how the world works, and they were testing it out. In the voices of these children I sensed a pride in having newly discovered that men were superior to women, and that this was a way in which that superiority is exerted. The eggplant was in pieces; there were tears in my eyes.
My sweetie touched my arm, gave me a long hug. I didn’t recover my good mood for the rest of the day.
Last summer I used to sit out on the porch, eating a snack or reading to the sound of the neighborhood kids playing up and down the sidewalk. They’d call out to me sometimes, the kids, and occasionally I’d sit down on the steps of our front walk and talk with them. What were they learning in school? What did they want to be when they grew up? Who were their best friends? They responded eagerly, competing for my attention.
Once one of the neighborhood girls picked up her scooter as we were talking. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “You can pick that all the way up by yourself? You’re so strong!” This launched the group into about six minutes of scooter-lifting demonstrations- one girl lifted it with just one arm, one boy carried it five feet before putting it back down (I’m being generous- before dropping it). Each time I told them “Wow! You’re so strong too!” “That must be hard!” “You must exercise so much!”
One afternoon I was chatting with a group of three neighborhood kids, and one girl handed me her doll. It had a magnetic tongue which would pop out to lick a magnetized ice cream cone. As the conversation continued I noticed this boy’s interest in the doll, so I encouraged him to pick it up. He cradled it in the crook of his arm. “Is this how you’ll hold your kids if you ever become a father someday?”
His older cousin rode past on a bicycle, ripped the doll out of his hands and thrust it back into the girl’s. “That’s not for you!” he said angrily. “Give that doll to her. I’ll give you an action figure. Play with the basketball.”
We forget sometimes, I think, those of us who aren’t around children often, or didn’t have this kind of childhood, how overt social messaging really is when you’re young. It’s not subtle. It’s grabbing a doll angrily out of a child’s hands, telling him it’s for girls only.
Maybe someday that little boy will have children, and maybe he will feel emotionally distant from them because he learned in a thousand tiny moments like this one that loving babies is for women. Maybe they will realize he feels this distance, and maybe it will hurt them.
Just a few weeks ago, I was leaving my house and passed a little boy and his older male relative, still a relatively young man himself.
“You’re a crybaby!” The man told the boy.
“Motherfucker!” the five year old yelled back.
“Crybaby!” the man shouted.
“Motherfucker!” The child’s curses replaced his tears.
Again, the social lessons we teach children aren’t subtle. Boys learn to replace feelings of sorrow with feelings of anger. Boys learn that to be sad, to cry, is shameful. Boys learn that to be angry is to be strong. And boys grow into men who teach these things to other boys.
Maybe someday this little boy will be in a romantic relationship with a woman. Maybe, as often happens with matters of the heart, things will end sadly for him- maybe she’ll reject him. But instead of feeling sorrow he’ll have taught himself to feel anger. He’ll believe without even remembering the specific moments when he learned it, that sadness is weak, and anger is manly. Maybe he’ll respond to her rejection with anger, with violence of word or action. Maybe he will hurt her.
When those two little boys yelled body parts toward me that spring day, I was furious, but I wasn’t angry at them. I was angry at a world that teaches them to treat us this way, that teaches them from such a young age. So this is when it starts, I remember thinking to myself. This is the age they learn it. Five years old. Now we know.
I felt angry and helpless because it was a reminder that however much I plan to imbue my own (future, hypothetical) children with values of respect toward people regardless of gender, I don’t get to raise the rest of the world. Other people’s children are learning that sex is a weapon before they even really know what sex is. Other people’s children are learning to put tight little boxes around acceptable lives, around acceptable toys, and to react forcefully when others fail to fit in those boxes. Other people’s children are learning the men have power over women, that men don’t feel tenderness or sorrow, only lust and anger. My kids may be raised on feminism, but other people’s children are still learning toxic masculinity, and there’s very little I can do about it.
I and my children will still be the minority in a world full of other people’s children.
I was cat-called a second time by my five year old neighbor recently. Walking home past his house, I heard him call out, “Hey sexy lady!”
“Be respectful,” I told him.
“Sexy lady! Sexy lady!” He followed me down the sidewalk. I wanted to say something short, easy to understand, not comprehensive but a start. With my own (theoretical, future) children or even my students I have the relationship to go into a deeper conversation, to trust that they won’t run away two sentences in. In other situations I have the time to space lessons out, to know when they’re in a mood to listen. With other people’s children you don’t have much of that power at all.
Suddenly I turned around; he had to stop short to keep from running into my legs.
“Do you know my name?” I asked him.
He looked up at me from waist height.
“What’s my name?” I demanded.
“I don’t know.” he stammered.
“Then what makes you think it’s okay to call me sexy lady?” I turned back around and walked into my house. Behind me, one of the neighborhood girls chided him for his behavior.