we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike

There’s a little boy who comes often to one of our favorite indoor play spaces. He is about Girl Powers’s age and has only one arm. He comes with his dad and grandpa usually, and does everything the other kids do – climbing, jumping, testing limits, being three – just minus a limb. We don’t know the family personally, but we cross paths with them occasionally.

A mom frequents the same place with her two girls. She’s shockingly tall, undeniably gorgeous and gets done up to the nines – hair, make-up, nails, bling, etc. – to watch her kids run around in circles. And by watch her kids I mean she usually doesn’t, oblivious as they take extra long turns on the coveted play equipment while littler ones wait helplessly.

I’ve made a point to bring up the one-armed boy with Girl Powers whenever an opportunity presents itself to talk about physical disabilities. He can do pretty much everything you can, I tell her, and there are some things that are probably harder for him. Maybe he was born that way or maybe he had a bad accident, but whatever the case his mind and heart are just like ours even though his body works differently.

Like Nemo’s lucky fin, she says.

(Thank you, Disney.)

And then I give myself a 21st Century Parenting Gold Star for Teaching Tolerance and go back to thinking about how SHORT that bombshell mom’s shorts were, wondering how much TV she let her kids watch while she styled her hair for an hour before leaving the house, and –

Well, SHIT.

Turns out I’m  a wee bit way better at modeling kindness toward those with big, obvious, glaring differences from us – physical, ethnic, socioeconomic, whatever – but that I pretty much suck at it when it comes to someone in my own community who looks just like me only taller with bigger boobs, better hair, a huge rock on her manicured finger and an awesome car.

Hang on a minute while I go throw away my gold star.

This discomfort is interesting. We educated and well-intentioned first-world parents aim high when it comes to producing sensitive, open-minded future citizens. As well we should. I loved the chapter about race in Nurtureshock, which debunks some popular myths about young children being color-blind (they are not) and the importance of talking openly about differences, not just sending them to an ethnically diverse preschool and assuming they’ll pop out quoting Ghandi on the other side. So of course part of my job will continue to be to welcome all kinds of observations and discussions about people around us – from the one-armed boy to the mentally ill train passenger to the colorfully costumed Hindu family having their photographs taken in the park.

BUT – being different or similar isn’t what entitles people to our kindness, right? They deserve our kindness and respect not because they look different or believe differently, but because we all happened to show up on the same piece of planet around the same time. I find it interesting and more than a little problematic that it’s easier for me to model tolerance and respect for those who are separated from us by a great divide of politically correct terminology and label-able otherness than it is for me to simply accept for who she is the mom in the supershort shorts.

So. What is parenting if not the opportunity to look in the mirror and be slightly horrified at what we see?

I think it’s easy to call yourself open-minded when you are surrounded by like-minded people. That way, the ideas you are theoretically open to (but are you really?) don’t have names and faces and cute kids and awesome taste in shoes. Recently I’ve been tested in this area, challenged not just to tolerate but to find real friendship with people who see the world in a fundamentally different way than I do. I fully admit that it’s easier to discuss politics or parenting philosophies with an old friend whose positions I know than it is to make new friends with someone from a radically different belief system. It’s also easier to practice kindness and acceptance when differences are of the “born this way” and not the “think this way” variety.

If all of this has created a little tension in me, it has also affirmed for me the belief that although what separates us is sometimes a thousand times more obvious, what we share is very often more important. Ultimately I want my kids to learn to withhold judgment long enough to find out what they have in common with someone, rather than keep their distance because of the way that person looks or thinks. It’s more than tolerance; it’s humility, humanity, common sense and the Golden Rule all rolled up in one. And it applies across the board, equally to those who are obviously disadvantaged and those who have merely chosen a different path in life…or a different outfit that morning.

It sounds so simple when I put it that way.

I note the obvious differences 
between each sort and type, 
but we are more alike, my friends 
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, 
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, 
than we are unalike.

:: Maya Angelou, “The Human Family” 


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