Sex & Relationships

The Upsetting Reason My Young Yoga Students Think I Should Be Married

The seeds of inevitable sexism are planted young.

Photo Credit: Woodley Wonder Works / Flickr

If you're wondering why the fight for gay marriage was such an uphill battle, or why rape culture is still an epidemic, or why Trump's attitude toward women is apparently acceptable to so many Americans, look to the stories we're telling our children. The seeds of inevitable sexism and the "hetero-normative agenda" (the belief that heterosexuality is the only true sexual orientation) are planted young. Kids are fed the "boy-gets-girl-and-then-they-get-married" agenda from the second someone sings that obnoxious rhyme about K-I-S-S-I-N-G where "first comes love, then comes marriage."

The TV tells kids Barbie needs a new wedding dress to bedazzle Ken, movies remind them that girls dream of boys rescuing them and boys plot to "get the girl." Some highly touted children's books are even teaching 5- and 6-year-old boys how to "get a girlfriend," as Nicole Tompkins-Hughes wrote in a December 2015 article in The Mary Sue. At a school book fair, Tompkins-Hughes did a double-take when she saw a dating manual written by and marketed to 5-year-olds, which kindergarten teachers were encouraging classes to read.

“[The book] won an award from the company that decides what books are put in front of our children at their public school book fairs,” Tompkins-Hughes wrote, lamenting the fact that someone is selling a dating manual for kindergartners and that the book perpetuates the old, damaging, boy-gets-girl narrative. The article goes on to discuss how the plot of the Peanuts movie plants the same ideas in kids’ minds.

Kids are sponges, and normalizing particular ways of being and relating between genders over other ways of being and relating to those genders is exactly what leads to homophobia, sexism, misogyny, rape culture and hatred in general. These kinds of narratives teach kids what normal means: boy-meets-girl; boy-woos-girl; boy-is-the-subject, girl-is the-object; while boy-meets-boy and girl-meets-girl stories are odd.

While teaching yoga to elementary schoolers in Portland, Oregon, a city that is reputed to be one of the most liberal places in America, I recently had my own encounters with the early impacts of gender/sexuality socialization/normalization of certain behaviors on kids. It could be that the age range of the kids I taught is a time when mommy and daddy are like gods, so whatever their parents do is normal and everything else is strange. Even so, these youngsters’ thinking was pretty darn heteronormative for being Portlanders in 2016.

One of my smallest kid yoga classes had just five students and took place in a library on top of a giant floor rug depicting the globe. After I finished answering the question “what’s a warrior?” (The answer I usually give is “A person who protects others,”) Johnny raised his hand.

“Are you married?” he asked.

“Nope.”

His eyes bulged. “Why not?”

“I don’t want to be married.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Yep.”

“Ooooo!” he teased.

I laughed, and took a deep breath.

“Well, I actually call him my partner, not boyfriend. We’ve been together for eight years and we live together, so even though we’re not married, he is my family.”

Another little girl in the class chimed in.

“Why don’t you just get married?”

She wasn’t asking, so much as commanding. I remained matter-of-fact about it, though I was laughing a little on the inside at their air of disapproval.

“We just don’t want to. Marriage is great for some people, and other people just don’t choose it.”

At this point I was starting to feel like I was at Thanksgiving with my 93-year-old Irish Catholic grandma, and I was ready to be done with the interrogation, so I said:

“Okay, everybody, let’s reach our arms up to the sky and fill up our bellies with air.”

Their fingers lifted toward the ceiling.

“Imagine you’re standing underneath an apple tree and there’s a yummy apple right above where your fingers are: can you reach it?”

All 10 arms stretched a little higher.

“You live together and you’re not married?” gasped a third child, her hands collapsing to her hips. Apparently she’d been quietly contemplating this outlandish notion.

“Yep,” I said. “Now everybody fold yourself in half, let all our air out, bend your legs just a little, and see if you can touch the floor!”

Everybody folded.

“Not being married is stupid!” I looked up to see a red-faced Johnny shouting at the top of his lungs.

As if out of a movie, the librarian, who was behind a desk at the far end of the room, cast a scornful glare at me over the rim of her glasses.

I could no longer hold back my laughter.

“Wow! Strong feelings about that,” I chuckled. “I’m actually really happy with my life. Okay, enough about me, you guys. Let’s pretend we’re puppies and hop back into downward dog! Wiggle those puppy tails and step out your puppy paws!”

“But why don’t you get married?” Johnny insisted. This kid would not let it go.

“Well, there are lots of reasons,” I answered, thinking to myself how this probably was not the time or place to educate the little ones about my personal qualms with heteronormativity, gender inequality or the long history of oppression that precedes modern-day marriage.

So I just went with, “Well, getting married is expensive for one thing, but the main reason is we just don’t want to.”

“Ah. Money,” Johnny nodded. Now that was something he could understand.

By the end of the semester, this bit had played out in all five of my classes, and it always went about the same. I am always honest with my students about my marital status if they ask. The kids are probably just used to the grownups in their lives being hitched. That’s what mommy and daddy did, so why wouldn’t everybody else? But I was pretty surprised that at this point in history, in one of the liberal bastions of the planet, little kids appear generally bewildered by the notion of a 27-year-old woman shacking up with her partner. The audacity of it all!

In another yoga class for kids that took place in a school cafeteria, I asked students to take turns sharing something big or small that they were looking forward to. Most of the children said something like, “The summer,” which at the time was fast approaching, or “Seeing my mommy.”

Then, little 6-year-old Natalye said, “Well, I’m not so much looking forward to it, but my mommy’s friend Susan is marrying her other friend Jane. I like weddings, but this one’s yucky!”

“Why’s that?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Girls aren’t supposed to marry girls! I think if they kiss I might puke.”

This prompted giggles from the rest of the class.

I have had relationships with both men and women and am a proud supporter of equal marriage rights, so I felt I had to say something.

“Hmm. Well, do you think Susan and Jane love each other?” I asked.

Natalye thought about this for a long few seconds, and all eyes in the room were on her.

“Yes,” she said, quietly.

“Well then, why is it yucky if they get married?”

“I don’t know.”

“Love is love, and that’s a good thing always. At least that’s what I think,” I told her. I could see the little wheels turning in her head.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she said.

I moved on. Kids are smart. In my experience, generally, if they’re given permission to think about something for themselves, they will come to a pretty tolerant conclusion. I was surprised by the encounter, though, because it seemed that while Natalye’s parents were accepting enough of gay marriage to take their children to a lesbian wedding, somewhere along the road she’d picked up some homophobic behavior.

If I’m noticing these patterns in my kid yoga classes in Portland, Oregon, I can only imagine what it’s like in other parts of the country. I feel for the struggle of parents who want to educate their kids about tolerance and dispel the more harmful impacts of heteronormativity, because that way of thinking creeps at kids from all angles. I commend parents and teachers who take the time to talk through these issues with kids in a gentle, patient way.

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.