My son has had a little problem lately with stealing. It started out with small things; he’d sneak into his sister’s room and take the Lego toys he gave her for Christmas. In his mind, he gave them to her (ie: when I told him to pick something out at the store for his sister he pointed at them) and therefore they belonged to him as much as her. We figured gift giving was just a developmental challenge he wasn’t totally equipped for yet.
A few weeks later, he came home with a new pair of mittens. They were the cheap kind that cost probably a dollar or two, so when he said that someone in class had a birthday party and this was the favor for everyone, I believed him. The following week, he came home with a brand new pair of electric blue Nikes in his backpack claiming that his best friend had given them to him. A phone call later, it turned out this wasn’t true, and the shoes had somehow found their way into my son’s bag at the end of the day while his unwitting friend put on his snow boots. An email to the teacher that night revealed that he had stolen the shoes and the mittens story wasn’t true either. Knowing that he’s only five, we didn’t sound the alarm bells just yet, and his teacher came up with a plan that if a friend actually gave him anything at school he was to ask the teachers if it was okay and she would send a note home; otherwise, his backpack should have no new items in it at the end of the day.
A few days later, he came home from the after school daycare center he attends twice a week with a little Lego figure. Again he had a very cogent argument for how he ended up with it: his friend simply gave it to him. My husband walked him back to the daycare to return the item since our son hadn’t followed protocol asking the teacher if he could keep it. Later that night, the teacher called to say that our son had offered to put the Lego man away in his friend’s backpack, and slipped it into his own instead.
At this point, we just kept telling him we loved him and reinforcing that stealing made us and his friends sad. We told him that just because he wanted something didn’t make it right to take it, and we asked him how he would feel if someone did that to him. Standard stuff. I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have lots of toys at home. This is clearly about something else, especially with the lying that accompanies the initial transgression.
Then the other day at pick up, his teacher asked me to have a seat on the bench outside the school. The three of us sat down and his teacher asked him to tell me what happened at the end of the day. With a sheepishly innocent look on his face, he told her he didn’t know what she was talking about. She then reminded him that one of his really good friends in class was very upset at the end of the day because his new Lego watch was missing from his cubby. The teacher asked everyone to check their bags, and our son refused. When she “helped” him, she found the watch in his bag.
Since a pattern is clearly emerging, I spoke with the school social worker the following day who agrees that this isn’t a simple case of “I want that thing and my parents won’t get it for me so I’m going to take it.” She thinks he’s working out some other need, and obviously we don’t know what that is–and neither probably does our son know what that is. We have some working theories of course, and the social worker thinks we’re on the right track. There’s the normal younger sibling stuff of watching his older sister get privileges that he’s simply too young for, and she received some toys at the holidays that are geared for an older age bracket. That’s all normal jealousy stuff. Then in addition to that, our daughter got a Christmas gift from her birth-grandmother, something that was difficult for our son in the absence of any word from his birth-family. The social worker also brought up the fact that he didn’t join our family until after he turned one; she mentioned he might be working out some issues over the confusion about those broken attachments that he developed during that first year. We’re looking into some therapists, and in the mean time, we’re going to try to reinforce his identity with positive reinforcement and extra attention.
After talking to friends and doing some quick Google searches, we know this is all somewhat normal developmental behavior for a kid dealing with some significant issues that he’s not old enough to cope with alone. At the same time, I can’t help but being worried about how his actions will be interpreted in this homogenous suburban environment. Because of his impulsive inclinations and inability to stay still for more than thirty seconds at a time, I’ve already had a candid conversation with his teacher about him being thought of as just another brown boy with behavior issues. What might be seen as cheekiness and exuberance in other little boys can easily be seen as annoying and distracting in my son simply because of the color of his skin and the kinkiness of his hair. And now that he’s stealing, I worry about the adults and older kids in his school who think he is merely fulfilling another Latino stereotype.
As I’ve written about before, racial issues are really about how others interpret us–just like that saying that homophobia is really only a problem for the straight people who suffer from it–and I wonder how long it will be until my kids really start to realize that no matter how they behave they will always face the stereotypes, judgments, and misunderstandings that people have of the way they look. Without the negative interactions that occur because of the way that others interpret those who occupy the space outside the dominant racial group, people of color could stay forever in what William Cross calls the pre-encounter stage of racial identity development, a stage where an individual is virtually unaware of his/her own race and may even identify more closely with the dominant group. My kids have mostly moved beyond this level even at their young ages, both because of some racially charged incidents in preschool and also because my husband and I have tried to stay ahead of the curve by speaking about how others may be unkind to our family simply because of the ways we are different. For the past two years, I’ve taken our daughter to an African American History show in Boston where they dramatize all aspects of black history, including lynchings, slavery, and segregation. Last month, her first grade teacher even led the class through a modified version of Jane Eliot’s “Blue Eyes” activity in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. My kids are consistently exposed to activities, conversations, and media that shows them the good and the difficult aspects of their racial history and identity, but that’s only because of careful, thoughtful, and deliberate choices by me, my husband, and my kids’ teachers. Even with all of this exposure, neither of my kids is old enough to really understand the truly evil side of racism in this country’s history and its present condition, but they do have an awareness of it, and they have the vocabulary and tools to begin to really internalize it when they’re old enough, hopefully in a healthy way.
But for now we can’t really draw the clear connections without confusing them and stunting their positive identity development. We can’t tell our son that if he continues to steal that he will simply reinforce the negative stereotypes that people have of his race and doors of opportunity will close to him even though he’s so young. We can’t tell our daughter that one of the reasons she needs to work so hard on her spelling is to combat the stereotype that she is less intelligent than her peers because of the color of her skin. And so we continue to walk the tightrope of educating our children in an age-appropriate way about the realities of growing up as a person of color in this country, forever wondering if there is a safety net below us for that inevitable moment when we will misstep and fall.