Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cultural Conditioning: Watching Kids at Play



It’s refreshing to watch children play. For one thing, I am reminded what it was like to be totally free to express myself in every way I could think of, without the fear of being shamed. It is balm to the soul to remember that freedom is still inside of me somewhere. Albeit small and silent.

The other reason I love watching my children express their imaginations, is that it reminds me of the filter my cultural upbringing has instilled in me. The filter through which I view the world. For example, my first encounter with filters was when I realized most people didn't walk around as angry as I was.

When I was younger I was angry all the time. Instead of rose-colored glasses, mine were gray and sometimes black. As a result I was an embittered and impossible child. (Sorry, Mom.) And I thought this was how everyone saw the world. It wasn't until after years of therapy and meds that I discovered, most people can and do enjoy life! How odd.

This is to say, we aren't aware of our filters until they are pointed out to us. Typically, children have had much less exposure to cultural norms and expectations. So they aren't restricted in their play the way adults can be.  As kids become more aware of cultural rituals and rules, it is curious to see how they mix and match the ideas, sometimes following the rules sometimes making up their own. This is the game I play with myself as I watch them, trying to notice my own indoctrination through their obvious lack of it.

Which brings me to an anecdote from our annual family vacation. I am not “out” as poly to my family and many of my friends. My mother is a pastor and I live in a hoity-toity part of the Bible Belt. It’s not fair that my young children should be ostracized for choices they didn't make if it’s within my control. My children are young and do not yet have direct knowledge of my relationships outside the home.

On vacation we’re all sitting around in the living room of a rented space, watching my two children (boy and girl) and my brother’s two kids (also a boy and a girl) play. My daughter (the oldest) decides they should all “get married”. A relatively routine game for children, still navigating the complicated ocean of relationships. What girl didn't plan out her wedding day at least a few hundred times.? (Sigh. Also, cultural conditioning.)

But in the kids’ imaginary game, who’s going to marry whom? Well, we wouldn't want any feelings to be hurt. So, my daughter decides (with absolutely no input from me) that they will all get married together. She will marry both boys, in one ceremony. And her girl cousin will marry both boys in another. (I’m also loving the female patriarch implied here!)

What was incredible to me was how all of the other kids went along with this idea without batting an eye. Makes perfect sense, we all want to live together and be happy, so we’ll get married the way our grown-ups do. Of course the ceremonies were elaborate (and expensive!) And she got to walk her two “men” down the aisle.  Flowers, veils … we spared no expense.

Fortunately for me, no one noticed this social faux pas. Except my husband, who bore holes into me with his eyes from across the room.

Another glaringly obvious “rule” of the game was that only the girls could marry boys. Girls marrying girls, or boys with boys, wasn't suggested. An example of mixing and matching the rules, and also, I think, far too little exposure to gay culture (not by choice, by circumstance).

The "rules" of culture are not always so straight forward. Sometimes you don't even realize what you're doing until you meet someone (usually from a far away land) who does it differently. And, on occasion, cultural "rules" can be a positive thing, like positive peer pressure. But more importantly, it's being aware of the conditioning that makes a difference. This is what allows us to change course, should the time ever come when it's needed. And it allows us to be compassionate and tolerant of others, especially others with different cultural conditioning.

A challenge for all of us: be more aware of your conditioning as we move through our day.