In the animal kingdom, ladybugs eat caterpillars. Alligators attack flamingos. Cats fight dogs.
But when these unfriendly duos come together to adorn little kids’ feet, they become best buds. Just because they don’t naturally go together doesn’t mean they can’t be friends.
These mismatched animal socks teach kids to embrace their differences, and those of their peers. By wearing mismatched socks, decidedly not a societal norm, kids are also being taught that it’s cool to stand out by breaking the mold.
This is the mission behind PalsSocks, which just went on the market in September. The catchphrase is cleverly, “defeeting the norm.”
Its founders wanted their love for quirky footwear to have a greater purpose.
Hannah Lavon, a 32-year-old living in Brooklyn, began a side business with a college friend, Ashley Connors, designing and selling playful novelty items. Their most popular were their Vs. mittens, also shaped like animals. The idea was similar – to wear a different animal on each hand – but the message was darker: Your hands were enemies.
The mittens went mainstream when actress Anne Hathaway was photographed wearing the Wolf Vs. Sheep pair in 2012. They quickly sold out. They then expanded to socks, a year-round product.
But Lavon felt like she should be doing something with more meaning. She wanted to use her small business to create positive change, to inspire, and to maybe, in a small way, make the world better. People weren’t buying the socks for the concept, she thought, they were buying them because of how they looked. So she decided to rebrand. Instead of focusing on how the animals didn’t get along, she flipped it, to show how they could. And she made her target demographic young kids.
She imagines kids wearing them saying: ” ‘Yea, my socks don’t match and it’s cool because we like to try new things, we’re all about new experiences and making friends with people.’ It’s a whole broader thing that kids can get behind,” Lavon said. “I think it’s really important to talk to kids about it. Their minds are still open.”
Research has shown these types of messages resonate with young kids. In 2014, psychologist Krista Aronson studied how showing children picture books depicting interracial friends made them more likely to have friends from different racial groups.
“Why do books depicting positive cross-race interaction work?” Aronson wrote in School Library Journal. “Because when we see someone like us doing something with someone different from us, we become more open to doing it ourselves. Psychologists call this vicarious contact. It can ease children’s anxiety about interacting across difference because they have seen that it’s really fun. It also expands their thinking about the group they belong to. After reading, children think, ‘People like me play with people who are different from me’.”
It’s also important to take full advantage of those early years in teaching children to be racially accepting, said Derald Wing Sue, a psychology and education professor at Columbia Teachers College and author of “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence.”
Research shows that children begin to notice racial differences around the age of 3 or 4, Sue said, and around 5 or 6 they begin absorbing cultural cues and openly associating negative qualities with physical features and differences. Around the age of 10, those explicit biases become implicit, or subconscious, and are much more difficult to admit and address.
“It’s important to intervene between the ages of three and six and expose children to differences and talk about them,” Sue said. “In this way you are helping to immunize them” against societal racism.
Beyond welcoming their peers’ racial diversity, teaching kids that they should celebrate their own differences is an integral lesson in early childhood development.
In March, actress Angelina Jolie shared with the young audience at the The Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards that she felt “out of place” growing up. But then she discovered that being “different is good.”
“So, don’t fit in. Don’t sit still. Don’t ever try to do less than you are,” she said. “When somebody tells you you’re different, smile and hold your head up high and be proud.”
And wear mismatched socks.
Sydney Trent contributed to this report.
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