Toward the end of the school year, my son began talking about a student who visited his class for science twice a week named Freddie. The first time he mentioned Freddie, he said that Freddie had recently joined his science group. He said, “Mom, Freddie writes and talks like my sister. He has a teacher who sits with him all during class. Sometimes he has BIG tantrums!” I could tell by his tone that he felt that Freddie deserved some graciousness and love, but also that he didn’t understand why a kid his age was on a social and academic level of that of his three-year-old sister. I asked him, “Does Freddie like to do science as much as you do?” He said, “Oh, yes! He loves the projects!” I followed up, “Are you enjoying being with him?” “Yes,” he said enthusiastically, “He’s a part of our group!” I finished up with, “That’s great. Freddie learns differently than you, but he loves to learn just as much as you do. It’s important to always include new kids and make sure that they feel welcome. Freddie learns in a different way and might struggle with some of the typical first grade work, so its important to make sure that he is still comfortable and that everyone is kind to him.” “OK,” my biggest little one said.
The family is the first agent of socialization. In sociology, we talk about agents of socialization—social institutions that greatly influence us over the course of our lives, such as family, schooling, work, religious bodies, etc. The earliest and often most influential because of that early influence is the family. Our children learn from parents. They learn rather or not to say please and thank you either because we enforce the practice with punitive measures or because we ourselves say please and thank you in kindness to others. They learn to brush their teeth because we require it of them, or because they see us do it and join us in the practice each morning and evening in the intimate space of our bathrooms of our homes, where one would only do something like brush teeth with someone with whom they are tightly knit. They also learn how to respond to people who are different than us. Are we kind and inclusive with people who look different than us? Do they have a physical difference or disability? Are they too thick or too thin? Are they a different nationality or speak a different language? Are their clothes dirty? Is their car rusted out and old? Are they educated or uneducated? Are they progressive or conservative? The first agent of socialization is the family. Do we want our children to be kind and accepting and loving to other children and people, or cold and insensitive to differences? Will our children be helpful or hurtful? Are we helpful or hurtful?
As I was reading Sojourner Truth’s famous speech recently, I was reminded of this interaction with my oldest child and the crucial role that parents play in changing our society to be an inclusive, just and loving one. Exiting a life of slavery and entering a role as an activist, Sojourner Truth spoke to a group of women’s rights activists in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” resonates today regarding our continuing issues in this country with race, gender and poverty. She suggests that that she is not treated like a real citizen or “woman” by society because of her role as a former slave and because of her race.
Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth:
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, somebody whispers] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure-full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”
Her words foreshadow what social theorists in the 1990s began referring to as intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that suggests that social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, nationality should not be examined simply individually, but in the ways they mutually construct one another and how those layers of oppression interact. Patricia Hill Collins argues that very early on within families children are socialized into systems of power and hierarchy, making a transition to a life in a society of hierarchies based on social categories feel natural despite the fact that they are very much socially constructed. As we see these intersections of oppression in the lives and faces of our children’s classmates and friends, neighbors, colleagues, service people, etc., how can we speak to these, give them voice and teach our children to hear their stories, especially if our children function from a space of privilege?
As the most influential person in a child’s life, when parents are dismissive or unkind to people who are different for whatever reason, they are teaching their children, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, to participate in systems of hierarchy and oppression. Even in the seemingly most minor interactions with a salesperson or someone on the street to how I teach my children to interact and socialize with kids on the playground or at school, I find it to be my job to live what I learn and teach through the discipline of sociology. I want, I need to take this work home with me, to implement it. As an academic and a thoughtful parent, if I don’t use these tools at home, my writing and teaching make no sense. It is hard to be thoughtful each moment with children. It would be easier to put them in front of a screen or send them outside so I can finish my work. But this is my work. Molding minds to view life through a fresh lens, and so for me, as for all parents, my work in socialization with my children starts at home.