Who Will Think of the Children?

Even on the best of days, parenting can be hard, and even when you’ve been as intentional as possible, things slip through the cracks and some are more humorous than others.

My wife put the oldest to bed, and comes out after handling the evening’s salvo of deep thoughts and questions in which they talked about Black History Month and some famous African Americans.

Her: Did you know that you are part African-American?
Him <mind blown>: WHAAA?
Her: your dad’s grandpa’s grandpa might have been a slave
Him: <still in shock> Can I…can I tell my teacher?
Her: She probably knows.
Him: Okay. I didn’t know if it was, like, a secret.

And in that moment, I couldn’t help but laugh. We’ve spent lots of time talking about equality and what it means to be black or brown, especially because my children are light enough they could pass for white in many situations, but I guess we never made the connection to being African-American. Whoops.

In the current political climate, I frequently second guess how should I raise my children. As the son of a former Civics/Government teacher, who grew up watching Ollie North on the TV for hours at a time, I find myself doing the same to my children, but how can I help them make sense of the world in ways they can process? And beyond, what I can tell them, what can I show them in how I live? What voices, spoken or unspoken, are they hearing from me as they learn to interact with the world?

In the middle of the protests over Freddie Gray’s death, I spent quite a bit of time watching the coverage. My son was 5 at the time and asked about why everyone was mad. I was able to explain the situation: A man, who had not committed a crime, ran because he was scared of the police, and when they caught him, they threw him in the back of the van but didn’t buckle him in and he got hurt and died. Kept it to bare facts. “I thought the police were supposed to help people?”, he asked. “They are,” I responded, “and most of the time they do, but not always.” “Oh.” His attention span was done and he was off to play again.

A friend of a friend on Facebook saw the same protests and made a point to say (and this is as close to a quote as I can remember), “I don’t want to be a racist, but when I see them acting this way, if I ever go to Baltimore and see a group of black people hanging out on a corner, I’m going to be scared.” He has children a little older than mine. What does he teach them when they ask about the same incident, or do they pick up on this as they watch him live? Can a person who feels this way teach a child to be truly accepting of others when he is willing to submit to his own fears even as he acknowledges the wrongness of them?

Maybe I was wrong in my approach, but I keep coming back to a solemn charge from my pastor: It is your primary responsibility as a parent to prepare your child to live in a world that you will not inhabit. There will always be a struggle between letting my kid be a kid vs inoculating him against things he will undoubtedly face. Or maybe he’s light-skinned enough to pull some privilege on his own, and in that case, how can I teach him to use that to advocate for others? Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his son in Between the World and Me:

(After learning that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, would go free…)
“…I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, and that this is your world, that this is your body and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

When does sheltering become harmful? How much freedom is too much? Am I preparing him to live or preparing him to expect protection?At the least, I am committed to skipping the euphemisms, even if it makes his questions more difficult to answer and his sorrow deeper, perhaps.

This Black History Month, we are able to talk about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (who I hear is being recognized more and more), but it has been important to put these in context. MLK is important because he stood in opposition to the forces that believed blacks were inferior, not for simply having a dream of an idyllic America. Harriet Tubman matters because she refused to accept that men and women should be in bondage. And in our house, it gives context to talk about Barbara Johns, a member of our family, and her Uncle Vernon, who also saw fit to kick against the goads of inequality, that my children will see the value of standing in opposition to forces that seek to do harm to themselves or others.

Our current troubles with race and ethnicity are not new and will not go away before we leave this Earth, and even though we may get tired of the fight, it is imperative that we train our children to be fighters too, because their time will come.

How are you influencing your children or the young minds in your circles of influence?

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This is an extension of an adult education class at First Alliance Church in Lexington, KY. It will run for 8 total weeks discussing issues of race and the church in American society. If you’re local, come see us! This space will be used to expound upon some of the questions brought up by the class.

Follow the series: Week One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight