How to Nourish Empathy In Your Children
With This One Ancient Secret!!!
It's NOT What You Think!!!!!!!!!!
Katie Wanted Her Boys To Be Aware Of Their White Privilege...
You Won't Believe What Happened Next!
Is Your Toddler A Racist?
Tonight at Eleven!
9 Short Chapters
On Having No Idea How To Fix This
Bringing Up La Mère
Like every other pregnant woman in 2012, I read .
Swollen with hormones and idealism, I nodded with every turn of the page.
"Babe!" I'd call to Ryan from the other room. "Babe, we're NOT going to give the baby any snacks, and we ARE going to give the baby bleu cheese for lunch!" (Spelled it that way on purpose you guys. Just to show you how committed I was.)
I typed up a document with tips and highlights. I took the time to educate myself, read, think, and adopt a parenting style that really spoke to my values. I was going to be a GREAT MOM. I gave a shit. I was awesome.
(Fast forward 15 months.)
I found my copy of
"Mm hmm," Ryan replied.
Q: What had happened to all my big dreams for parenting?
A: They simply slid away in the chaos of new parenthood, the way you forget about your mosquito bite after you've fallen off a cliff.
After Chicken was born, I realized, both immediately and incrementally over a period of months and years, that attaining the French parenting ideal wasn't going to be as simple as putting on lipstick.
I couldn’t recall the capital of France, much less its parenting code, when I was trying to sleep more than 3 hours at a time. I didn’t give a flying coq au vin about snackless purity when my kid melted down at the zoo; I shoved a cheese stick in his mouth so fast it was smoking. I scorched that cheese stick.
French parenting in America means swimming upstream at all times.
One time, Chicken was sitting so nicely at the pizza place, coloring a placemat. I murmured through lipsticked lips, “Darling, thank you for sitting quietly at the table.” Just then, a herd of four-foot-tall savages in knee-length soccer jerseys stampeded past the table, screaming "FAAAAAAAAAAAARTS!!!!!" Chicken’s head whipped around and he stared up at me, eyes full of indignation, jaw dropped in an unmistakable j’accuse!
The quest for Frenchness, in America, is a never-ending slog.
I came to accept that you can’t parent in a vacuum, and I live at the cultural intersection of snacks and farts.
Thank God, that French book fell out of style.
Thank God, the news cycle moved on.
My newsfeed is chock-full of meditations on white privilege. There’s so much to read!
As a white parent, I have spent the last few months collecting information about how I can raise my sons to advocate for the fair treatment of all people, and particularly those whose voices are least likely to be heard: people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, people most vulnerable to hate speech, violence, and systemic exclusion.
How can I teach my kids to stand with them, against even the loudest cultural voices screaming that these people are the problem?
I’ve typed up a document with tips and highlights. I’m proud of myself for taking the time to educate myself, read, think, and adopt a parenting style that really speaks to my values. I am a GREAT MOM. I give a shit. I am awesome.
It all feels very familiar.
And of course, I know what comes next.
Behold, the Cycle
STAGE 1: THAT IS FUCKED UP
Read a bunch of news articles about the horror of [problem] – for this example we’ll say racism but it can be anything that horrifies you. Female circumcision. Dolphin hunting. Neck tattoos.
STAGE 2: I WILL FIX THIS
Commit sincerely and fanatically to banishing white privilege and unconscious racial bias from your child’s life.
STAGE 3: BALLS TO THE WALL
Hold nothing back. 24/7/365. Be proud of yourself for even, like, FINDING OUT about this problem. Buy a lot of books with brown people in them and read them with your most loving voice. Invent role-playing games for the 2-year-old with a black doll and a white doll. Wait to observe bias toward white doll, so you can wisely, gently, yet fearlessly shine a light on your toddler’s unconscious propagation of “the system,” and nourish the tender sapling of love and awareness that all parents must protect if we are to raise this generation in a world of respect and acceptance.
STAGE 4: ARE WE DONE YET?
Jesus, that was a lot of parenting. Be exhausted. Turn on Dora. Read the news. A teenage girl was just expelled from middle school for wearing golf shorts that exposed the controversial area of the body known in some circles as the “kneecap” and in other circles as the “slutbone.” That is so fucked up. I will fix this.
And you’re off! Again!
So here I am, at Stage 3: Balls to the Wall on Operation I Have A Dream. I’ve done all the prep – books borrowed, articles indexed. At the park I make a point of noticing children of other ethnicities, races, and backgrounds. I make a point, after we leave those children, of asking Chicken to observe how those children are different from him, and how they are the same.
I’m actively looking for teachable moments. And when I can’t find one, goddammit, I MAKE ONE.
Chicken: Where are we going now?
Me: To the store.
Chicken: Can we get bananas?
Me: Sure, babe.
Chicken: Can we eat one at the store?
Me: Well… not really. We are supposed to buy food before we eat it.
Chicken: Oh, but I don’t think anyone would mind?
Me: (lightbulb!) WHAT AN EXCELLENT POINT, CHICKEN! Nobody would really care if we did eat bananas in the store. Because we are white, it’s very unlikely that anyone would ever accuse us of stealing bananas.
have you ever noticed
that some bananas are yellow
and others are green?
Me: I want you to remember that not all people get the same privilege of the benefit of the doubt. You are a kind, smart, honest, wonderful little boy, and luckily, when people look at you, that’s what they see.
Chicken: Yeah, I’m pretty good.
Me: You are! But so is a little boy who has brown skin, right? He’s probably all the same things you are – smart, funny, curious, kind. But some people might look at a little boy with brown skin and think, “Oh, he’s a troublemaker.”
Chicken: Why’s he a troublemaker?
Me: He isn’t! Or, I mean, he probably is, but so are you, right? But people look at you and see “nice boy,” and people might look at him and see “uh oh.” People look at you and choose to see certain qualities that they EXPECT according to their own biases toward white people. It’s called bias. Bias. Can you say bias?
Chicken: I just want a banana.
If you’re reading that thinking, oh my God stop Katie stop stop stop you are the actual worst, this is ridiculous, don’t worry – I say the same thing in my head the entire time. And yet (!) I keep talking. #iwillfixthis #ballstothewall
I can feel Stage 4 – Are We Done Yet? – lurking around the corner.
I'm Ready To Be Awesome Now
What’s hard for me is that I’m desperate to model activism and stand up for victims of bias.
I just can’t find any at toddler gymnastics. I’m eager to prove my loyalty to the cause, but trapped in a world where dang it, nobody screams racial slurs at each other anymore.
Man, does anyone know where I can find like a racist grocery store shopper yelling at a black woman so I can stand up for her real quick and put this thing to bed?
... And They Lived Happily Ever...
Wait... I'm Getting An Update...
AND THAT’S the problem with parenting the news cycle: a news cycle begins with the intention of ending fast and neat, two things that parenting has never been, not once in the history of news, or parents.
In the process of writing this post, literally just a moment ago, I became aware of the fact that I applied the same problem-solution, beginning-middle-end mentality toward teaching my children about social activism, justice, kindness, civil rights.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a parent might do this. I’m the mom of 2 young boys, a mean, lean(ish) machine programmed to efficiently recognize, diagnose, and neutralize the falling domino chain of daily problems ranging from “he took my sharky light spinner” to “I’m scared of the dark now.” Parenting is a foxhole in which you are the triage team and you have to just stop the bleeding and get the fucking lunch on the table.
More, when the mainstream news media packages these human stories for our consumption, the storytellers reveal their bias toward simplicity, clarity, and a traditional 5-act structure. Tell me the last time you saw a news story that did not cast its characters in binary shades of good and evil, right and wrong, French moms versus American. Have you lately seen a news cycle that did not begin with transgression and attempt to end, neatly, with justice? When justice eludes, we stop listening to the story, and then the news stops telling the story, and then we move on to a simpler, newer tale. Closure is critical.
Example: I didn’t get mad when Ferguson happened. I thought, “that’s terrible,” in the absent way that you do when there’s a plague on the other side of the world and your life is like super busy right then. And my life was super busy right then; Michael Brown was shot the day before Buster turned 2 months old.
And Robin Williams hung himself two days later. I wept for Robin Williams.
Now I have all kinds of questions.
Did I mourn Robin Williams over Michael Brown because I felt I knew Williams, had grown up with him?
Did I choose a celebrity over a kid because it was easier to mourn an adult than a child?
Or because even though I loved Robin Williams, he was always too large to be real, and his death was a sad abstraction?
Because Michael Brown was real, and his death unbearably so?
Or because it was easy to see, early on, that Williams’ untimely death at least made narrative sense, and Brown’s would force me to think about good people doing ugly things, church ladies calling young boys “thugs” without thinking about the implications?
The endless messy loose-ended truth is that while there are steps parents can take to teach their children how to call out injustice, there is no SOLUTION. I repeat. NO SOLUTION.
Parents are off-script, in the wild here, and we are doing our damnedest to come up with a formula, a procedure that guarantees elimination of racism in our budding children. We are freaking out. We are buying books and reading blogs and trying to find the prescription. I don’t have it. Sorry.
Oh wow, did you just read 2,000 words on your smartphone in the hopes of getting the answers? Shit, my bad.
Or, actually, your bad.
Are You Sure You Want to Move
To The Trash?
This isn’t teething. There is no final eruption that relieves every day’s throb and ache.
The box next to “don’t be racist,” will never, ever get checked. Not for any of us. Or maybe it gets checked, but then the next day a new box appears next to a new item: “still don’t be racist today either.”
But before we talk about slavery and misogyny, violence and privilege, we can start at the beginning, with basic humanity.
I don’t have to indoctrinate my children with a nonstop fact barrage to increase their awareness of the global wrongs that need righting. That won’t work.
I do have to let my children see me apologize, sincerely, when I am wrong. I do have to be aware of my own bias and be honest about it. Humility will be important.
I don’t have to seek out play dates with children of color for the sole purpose of increasing my child’s “diversity exposure.” That won’t work and it will be gross.
I do have to make play dates with the kids my kid enjoys, even if I’m worried about my own social fumblings when meeting a new parent who doesn’t fit in with our current squad. Courage will be important.
I don’t have to keep talking at them in the car until they seriously, literally, fall asleep. I can personally testify that shit doesn’t work.
I can take my hands off the throttle for a minute. I can ask them what they’re thinking about. (Bananas, natch.) I can show them what listening looks like. Listening will be important.
I can read them their favorite book about a mouse who finds an apple without finding a way to be like, “you know who Squeaky the Mouse really reminds me of? A man named Martin Luther King, Junior. He had an apple, too. Only his was a dream.” That won't work.
this moose really reminds me
of a man
who stood up for justice
who would not eat muffins
because of the caste system
I can show them that even though they are small, penniless, utterly without clout, that my children - their dreams and favorite stories – matter. That they are small, and they matter. That every person matters. Respect will be important.
So much more important than how impressively and publicly we demonstrated our commitment to the news cycle’s latest parenting crusade.
Or Maybe a Gerund?
I went balls to the wall with French parenting and snacking and table manners.
I did it with gay rights and gay marriage and homophobia and love is love.
I did it with Syrian refugees and xenophobia and humanitarian aid and our responsibility as breathing heart-owning brothers and sisters to give and give and give and keep giving.
I did it with misogyny, sexual violence, rape culture, and Brock Fucking Turner.
Each time the world fell in love briefly, comprehensively, with another story, another tale of good and evil, I fell right along with it. I do not regret those fraught, fevered trysts with Frontline, though they embarrass me when I remember the breathless wonder with which I admired my own ability to feel, deeply, and call myself to action.
I thought, in my zeal, love doesn’t mean shit if it’s not a verb. DO something!
But love can’t always be a verb.
Sometimes love has to sit down and noun for awhile, exist as an object that can be held and shelved, a tool that can wait for you, something that belongs to you, works for you.
Love’s not always useful when it’s a squirming action, slippery and uncooperative, something with a pulse that devours to survive.
Chew Chew Chew
I want to talk to my two able-bodied white sons about their health, their whiteness and maleness without accusing them - after all, they didn't choose their ethnicity, gender, or health.
But their innocence doesn't change the facts of life: they have won the fucking lottery. When strangers look at them they will assume they are smart, kind, capable, and law-abiding. When knocking on the door of a professor's office, they will appear diligent. When waiting in line at the ATM, they will not be anything to worry about.
I want to say:
"If life is a video game, you're playing on the easiest setting. You'll still have to work, but if you look around you'll see that women, people of color, people who are visibly disabled, they are playing the game of life on a harder setting. They have less armor, fewer weapons, fewer allies. They have to work harder and they will fail more. Not because they're not as capable as you are, but because their path is harder than yours.
You need to be aware of this disparity.
You need to know that some people might be too quick to congratulate themselves for being white male employees promoted by white male managers who are not mean men but have never questioned why they feel so much more confident in Tom's ability than in Tracy's, or Tadashi's, or Talib's.
I'm asking you to question your own comfort and confidence. I'm asking you to stay open, every day, to recognizing your own bias, to seeing victims of bias, and to using your white male voice, which people will stop and listen to, to speak up for people that much of the world ignores and silences."
But in the moments I paused to put these thoughts together, the world has already shouted "all lives matter," a hundred times and "woman card," a hundred times more, and that's a lot easier to remember, even if it is harder to understand, and not at all what I said. The quest to defend complexity, ideas you have to chew on until you're tired and then keep chewing, is a never-ending slog.
It's hard to keep your kid from eating crackers when the whole world eats crackers. It's hard to teach your kid to sit quietly at the table when all the other kids are tearing through the restaurant like coked-up chipmunks at the nut shop.
It's hard to ask your kid to recognize that the world as he sees it is sometimes very wrong.
The World Is Good
Except When It's Not
It's Not Always Easy To Tell
I murmured through lipsticked lips at the pizza restaurant, “Darling, thank you for sitting quietly at the table.” Just then, a herd of four-foot-tall savages in knee-length polyester soccer jerseys stampeded past the table, screaming "FAAAAAAAAAAAARTS!!!!!"
My instructions are not consistent with reality. He can see and hear the breathing, screaming evidence that I am wrong. He must think I'm blind, deaf, and dumb.
He must wonder why I have such strong feelings about bananas.
He must wonder what we're going to be picking up at the library next week. Books about environmental stewardship? Strong women? Capable Latinos? Irishmen with honor?
Me, I'm thinking about the long game.
I'm hoping that someday he will understand why I flailed and floundered, talked so damn much in the car, spent hours reading and writing in search of solutions.
I was just... trying.