The other day, I took my children to a birthday party for their friend, Lucas, who was turning 3 years old. Lucas's mom is Korean and his dad is Japanese. While spending some quality time with my potty-learning daughter in the bathroom, she and I got into a conversation about "eyes."
Daughter: "I like Lucas's mommy. She's the one with the different eyes."
Me: "What do you mean 'different eyes'?''as I glanced over at the bathroom mirror and saw my own Asian reflection.
Daughter: "You know, the same eyes like Luke's Daddy."
Me: "Oh, you mean the same eyes like ME, too?"
Daughter: "No, Mommy. You don't have the same eyes."
Me: "Yes, I do! We are Asian. I am Asian, Lucas's dad is Asian, and Lucas's mom is Asian. We have the same eyes."
Daughter: "Nooo. No you don't. His dad's eyes are like this (she pulls upward at the corner of her eyes), and his mom's eyes are like this (she pulls straight outward at the corner of her eyes), and your eyes are like this (she pulls just a little tiny tug at the corner). See, you don't have the same eyes!" Now, I wasn't sure if it was the scent of being in the bathroom too long or if it was all of my childhood fears coming at me, but I felt sick. Uh uh! Did my kid just do the eye-pull thing?? Did she just spark my worst memories of playground children taunting me by imitating my eyes? Did she just throw me back to when I was 6 years old in church and had to endure a little girl staring at me and copying my eyes -- in the same way my own daughter was doing?
Or, was she just doing what 3-year olds do -- observing and copying? Truth is, she was right. She didn't obnoxiously pull at her eyes, she quite accurately did copy the eye slants of the Korean mother, the Japanese father, and me. She didn't all of a sudden bust into ching-chong calls or a monologue about the coolness of karate or an interview of whether or not I liked math/science/or the violin (insert your own commentary about how childhood taunts stay with you well into your 30s).
Needless to say, my biracial children did not inherit my Asian eyes. They have large brown eyes that are wide and round like saucers. When we are out, most people are surprised to know they are my biological children -- they have curly/wavy hair and dark skin like my Puerto Rican husband. I have straight hair and light brown skin.
I didn't really get into the eye-thing with her. I mean, truth be told, I would typically ask an older child to "use your words instead of your hands" to describe a physical characteristic or go into an age appropriate lesson about what imitating means. But, what do you do with a 3-year old who's world IS about communicating with gestures. The easiest way for her to get her point across was with her hands.
My 3-year old's tendency to describe everything isn't bound solely to race. While on vacation in Maine, where I was already feeling so self-conscious being the only family of color that we had seen all day, the same daughter was talking to an couple of older women. When the older women left, my daughter ran up to me and yelled, "Mommy! Those really old ladies are nice. And old. Like, really old!" Yes, they heard her. I froze. And, then I emphasized the "nice" part with "They seemed like really nice ladies. That's so nice that they were talking to you! Wow, aren't they so NICE?" all the while waving at the ladies as they got into their car. I know - overkill.
I think one of the biggest challenges as a parent is walking that fine line between going with a child's observation and correcting racial/social mis-steps. It's kind of like the situation I've written about before when she decided to name everything on the street -- that car is red, that bird is small, that dog is big, etc. When we passed a man on the street, she said, "That man is Black." My response was "Yes, he is."
I'm sure we'll get into the eye-thing a bit later with my kids. For the most part, they won't be subjected to it as a personal observation of their own physical features. But, it'll surface somewhere in a picture, on the internet, or as a misstep from one of their favorite stars (again....). They'll need to know what it means, how it affects their Mom's side of the family, and how it can be hurtful.
For now, we're walking the line of observation as we prepare to cross the line of education.