I don’t have any stats to back this up, so based entirely on perception: there’s no such thing as the cookie cutter family. More frequently there are homes comprised of a single parent, or the mix from divorced and remarried parents. The family unit has gradually evolved beyond bloodlines and has expanded to include increasingly more people who were not raised in the same household, perhaps were even born in another country, and who do not align perfectly with our racial stereotypes.
As a society we have barely caught up in this realization. When we are faced with an example of our own biases, the thought is hardly available to us. A few years ago I hosted a happy hour event for fellow graduates of a leadership program I was involved in. Amid taking attendance, I asked a tall black man what his name was. His response caught me off guard – he had an Asian last name. Those around me chuckled quietly at my confusion, and not knowing what the gist was, I simply asked for his ID. Yup, he was right about his own name! Well for sure I was embarrassed by my own assumptions but thankfully he was forgiving of my blatant profiling. Ever since that moment I’ve tried to remember that the world is changing and very soon our old assumptions will fail us.
I have mixed nephews and nieces whose parents have told me how strangers have reacted to seeing them together. More often than not, Mom is asked if she is the babysitter. It makes me wonder how new parents will handle the development of their children’s identities. Since we are just entering the age where mixed race couples are accepted as part of the norm, how could parents with homogenous family backgrounds possibly understand what it means for their children to grow up in a mixed family?
A nephew of mine was raised in a rather dysfunctional household. Namely that the parents were young and unmarried, and so from an early age he was accustomed to living the double life of a child in separation. The stereotype of course would make you think this is a pitiful story, but in fact, he is so well-loved and accustomed to so much attention that he has said, point of fact, he’s had it easy.
I am coming upon that age where having children might well be something I will have to consider doing, with or without a partner of my own. I can’t predict the future, but I can think of several outcomes. No matter what happens, at least I know there’s no single ideal to live up to anymore.
It is an amazing thing to watch how a child reacts to a situation at hand, whether surrounded by strangers, having a toy snatched from their hands, or being handled by a non-parent. Knowing they have so little experience in life affords a rare opportunity to see a person at his or her most genuine. Whether they revel in the attention of new faces, resort to shoving, or cry like a banshee reveals so much more than the long overwhelming explanations of our behaviors gained from years of therapy and introspection. Since children are so honest without any pretense, we’re more likely to forgive them for being human than we are each other.
I see a bit of myself in my nephew’s reaction to large groups of unfamiliar people. I’m most comfortable with friends who know the intimate details of my life, and though I do enjoy the company of others who don’t know me so well I have found that this depends on the mood of the moment. During dinner last night, my nephew persisted in his night-long pledge to be a whiny brat and hardly strayed from his parents until he found himself in a fit of laughter: a group of us had found entertainment in the Michael Jackson Experience dance game for the Wii and he obviously caught a show. Clapping along, he lost himself in the music and found a similarly engaged companion in me. The rest of the evening passed with smiles and delight.
I was quite the opposite as a child apparently. I was an extreme extrovert, highly entertaining in my love of singing and dancing, and strangers became best friends in minutes. That’s me without the prejudices and insecurities that life has imposed on my personality.
These days I can hardly muster a friendly chit-chat unless forced out of courtesy, though I can’t say I’ve ever regretted complying. I recall a recent interaction with a woman at Sephora who was on a quick errand run for her go-to concealer. While the clerk went in search of the appropriate color, I suggested she try a brand I had just used, finding it surprisingly more effective than the one she was about to buy. She didn’t end up taking my advice, but we commiserated about the hardship of covering up those dark circles under our eyes. Best friends in minutes.
Have you had a similar experience with strangers in your life? Going out on a limb here but I think the world would be a more pleasant place if we talked to more strangers.