One of the preschools in my town has a collection of life-size dolls of different races. My town is embarrassingly white, and this particular preschool wants white kids to get used to being around Asians, Blacks, Latinos, and others — so they have these dolls. Because apparently Southern California doesn’t have actual people of color. And, apparently, it’s somehow good for kids to learn that people who look different are just like dolls: objects for amusement.
I have been laughing about these well-intentioned, oh-so-wrong dolls for a while now. This school also has a life-size doll in a wheelchair, and I think one on crutches. Because, you know, people of color are just like people with handicaps: passive objects for our enlightenment.
I think these dolls are pathetic, but I have to admit that I understand the impulse behind them. Sometimes I worry that almost all of Sophie’s friends are blonde-haired and blue-eyed and just like her — but that’s who lives in our beach town. I try not to get too excited when she plays with someone who is more diverse. My one friend in a wheelchair lives two hours away, and when I tell him, “I can’t wait for you to meet Sophie,” I am probably being just as bad as the preschool director who chose to buy a life-size doll in a wheelchair to go along with the life-size African-American plaything for the kids in that school.
Typically liberal, I celebrate diversity and feel guilty about celebrating diversity. Typically toddler, Sophie remains generally unaware of all this, I hope.
So I didn’t know what to tell her when we went to visit Other Sophie, who has Down Syndrome. I had met Other Sophie’s mom online, when the internet decided that our blogs share similar content, because both Sophies have birthdays in May. But before this visit, I had never actually met girlinapartyhat in person. Oddly, I enjoy the girlinapartyhat blog so much that I was sure I would enjoy meeting in real life. Their family vacations in San Diego every July, but our schedules never quite matched until this year, when we finally got to introduce the two Sophies to each other.
“This Other Sophie is a little bit older than you, but she likes to play with younger kids, and I really like her Mom,” I told my Sophie. I didn’t want to set up any expectations of weirdness, so that seemed enough of an introduction. And it was. The two girls hugged right away, then my Soph let the other Soph slather sunscreen all over her before they ran around the beach together. My Sophie was only sometimes confused by the affection of Other Sophie, but the same things I tell her about toddler friends (“Use your words, tell her if you don’t want her hugging you any more”) seemed to work fine. I guess “Use your words” is good advice for dealing with people of any age and ability.
The whole family was terrific, listening intently to every story that occurred to me (when I am tired, I blather), and generously admiring the way I was willing to show my very-pregnant belly to Other Sophie every time she asked. It is fabulous to be around kids who have no judgments of bodies, only fascination.
With impressive social tact, my Sophie waited until we left to ask why the Other Sophie was so short for an eight-year-0ld. I think she was struggling to understand how she could have felt so close to someone twice her age, maybe struggling to figure out what was different about Other Sophie.
“Well, when she was in her mommy’s tummy, one tiny part went missing,” I said, trying to put “chromosomal abnormality” into vocabulary that a four-year-old could understand. “So now it makes her short. Sometimes it makes it take longer for her to learn things. It also makes her love to hug, and it usually makes her incredibly cheerful.” I figured that was probably enough to tell her — the other health problems and developmental problems of Down Syndrome seemed too much to burden my Sophie with. My Sophie didn’t ask about Other Sophie’s scar, and so I didn’t need to tell her about multiple heart surgeries.
At the time, I’m not sure my Sophie even heard me, because she quickly had another question about seagulls and pistachio nuts, I think.
It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed that my Sophie had picked out the two shortest lego-people in her lego-collection, built them a rocketship, and was narrating a story. I think this is how many toddlers process new information, re-enacting dramas in order to absorb new ideas. I tried to write down exactly what Soph said about these short astronauts:
“They are like Sophie, the Other Sophie from the beach. When they were in their mommy’s tummy, they missed something, and now, even though they’re eight-year-olds, they’re not as big as an eight-year-old. And they really love to hug. And they’re very happy.”
Then, with a vroom, vroom, these Down-Syndrome astronauts took off to explore outer space.
Is it too much like the preschool-with-handicapped dolls to feel proud of Soph’s understanding of Down Syndrome?
I hope not, because my first impulse was to share this with Other Sophie’s mom, who just blogged about it too.