When I was a little girl- and I mean little, like five- I had a great uncle who asked me, without fail, when I was getting married. It was the first thing he said when he saw me, every time. As an adult, I understand that this was meant to be an icebreaker. It was intended to be an affectionate, jocular opener from someone who loved me, but didn’t really know me well. He wanted to relate to me, and this was what he had at his disposal. It’s very clear to me, in my middle age, that he loved me and cared about me, and wanted the best for me always. I’m fortunate to have had him and many others like him in my life, and I dearly wish he could have met my husband and children. That’s the benefit of perspective, and of years. But the conclusion I drew, as a child, from the question “when are you getting married” was that my value as a person was second to my value as a wife. If that seems like a strange thing for an 8 or a 9 year old to be thinking, it should be. It was also the only conclusion I could draw from being asked that question over and over.
I thought he was an artifact of a previous time, but my friends with daughters tell me that their daughters get this question REGULARLY. They are hearing it, not from Eccentric Uncle Johnny (May he rest in peace), but from strangers, from acquaintances, and from the parents of their school friends. They get it often enough to adopt it themselves, and start discussing their marital prospects with the other kindergarten and first grade girls they know. It’s as though we’ve reverted to feudal times. When you had met everyone you were ever going to know by the time you were old enough to dress yourself, it made sense to have a canny eye for your prospects from an early age. HEY, KIDS! Make sure you pick a husband early- you want to have a male heir to ensure your financial stability after the Black Death carries off all the marriageable men, ok? DON’T MISS YOUR CHANCE. You don’t want to be an old maid like your sister… she’s 9 and all the good ones are taken.
Maybe sometimes this question is funny or cute or ironic, but if young girls get asked it often enough, it’s going to warp them. Side note- Has anyone ever asked your son who he’s going to marry? Mine get asked what they’re going to be when they grow up, not about their marital prospects. I mean, I can see how I might benefit from arranging marriages for them right now, at ages 7 and 3. I have exactly zero goats on hand, and a couple of dowries would fix that right up- but no one has ever asked them what they thought of it.
I propose a new rule: Now that we live in a global culture where we are likely to go on meeting new people until we die of very old age, anyone whose grade level in school is numbered in single digits is too young to be asked about their romantic prospects. Let’s try some alternatives. The best part is that these apply equally to all children, so you can save time not having to ask yourself if the question is appropriate for the gender of the child you’re addressing.
Conversation Starters For Children That Are not Inquiries Into Their Marital Prospects: A surprisingly necessary collection of ideas.
- Do you have a favorite book?
- Don’t you just love ice cream?
- Are you looking forward to Halloween/Saturday/Arbor Day/Whatever?
- Would you like me to teach you a card game?
- Have you ever played Cat’s Cradle?
- What kind of math are you learning in school now?
- Tell me about what you like to do.
- I want to tell you a story about your mom/dad when she/he was little.
- Can I show you a photo of me when I was your age? Look what we wore then!
- Are there any songs you like to sing?
- Have you ever tried to kiss your elbow?
- Is there a science fair at your school this year?
- Do you like pizza?
- Are you having a good week?
- Do you have a favorite toy?
- Who do you like to play with at recess? What do you like about him/her?
- It makes me feel happy when you smile. What makes you feel happy?
- Is there a place you’ve never been that you would really like to visit?
- If you were going to build an invention, what would it be?
- Tell me a story.
- Have you ever had a silly dream?
- Do you know any funny jokes?
- Do you have a pet at home?/Tell me about your pet!
- Do you think it would be fun to be invisible?
- What should we do if the zombies come? (This one gets a surprising amount of mileage around here.)
When we ask little kids the same questions over and over again, regardless of the subject of that question, they will conclude that this is the subject we value. Also, things are going to get awkward after they actually get married and we are officially out of things to talk about, because we taught them to start all conversations with, “Do you know who you’re going to marry?”
Showing interest in others is an essential skill. Knowing how to strike up a conversation with someone you’d like to know better is something more. The ability to get to know people will add a wealth to our kids’ lives. This isn’t a wealth of money, but of perspective and connection and understanding. It’s something I want for my kids, and I want to model that behavior for them. It’s something that takes practice, though, so stockpiling useful openings will improve our own skills and our kids’ skills. I like it. I think it’s worth the risk of being Eccentric Aunt Meghan Who Asks The Oddest Questions And Knows A Lot About Me. Have you got a good one for my toolbox? Lay it on me! I can’t wait to hear them.