Star Belly Sneeches
Teaching our children to be kind and empowered in an era of school shootings, racism, and #metoo
My daughter was emotional as I read her a Dr. Seuss* story before bed.
“That’s not very nice!” she said tearfully.
The Star Belly Sneeches had found something about themselves that made them feel “better than” and were being awful about it, and my daughter clearly understood something about this already.
In their endless quest to be “better than”, some flaunted their starry bellies. Those who did not have star bellies sought to be more like the others. They wanted to be invited to parties. Someone else saw an opportunity to capitalize on that desire, so after a few rounds of robotic stupidity in which everyone, star belly or not, was taken advantage of by a capitalist without a conscience, they all wound up broke af and chillin’ on the beach together…
Moral of the story…
Anyway, yeah… My kid is seven years old. We live in this small town where everyone likes to think we’re protected from this stuff, where fresh air and clean water keep young kids from going nuts, but you never know who’s gonna be unhappy, and you never know who’s gonna be a creep, and one person’s paradise is another’s hell.
Angels aren’t the only ones walking among us, so in the midst of trying to provide an idyllic yet realistic and practical childhood (Montessori in lieu of Waldorf), we also have to teach our daughter how to find the fine line between what we’ve learned with #metoo on how to defend ourselves, and not pissing off the kid who might turn around and shoot her in school one day because of it. We want her to enjoy the bloom and glitter of this beautiful world; we also want her to identify and address unacceptable behavior and help protect people who’ve found themselves in uncomfortable circumstances, and we want her to be able to do so with courage, empathy, and compassion.
Make no mistake, like most parents we’d rather avoid all this if we could. To that end, we tried homeschooling, but she’s an independent, social child and frankly? I’m not Soulemama. I need a minute.
Homeschooling did not work for us like we thought it might, and while I look fondly upon photographs of yore — milk-drunk infant, fat baby thighs, chubby toddler cheeks, the threenager, that first day of kindergarten — I welcome my daughter’s growth changes even as I’m terrified by them. Those years I wore her around my core, we functioned pretty synergistically. Now, it’s as if weekly, I wake up to find all her pants are too short and she’s learned a new mood. And she goes to school, running off to her friends as she throws a “bye, mom!” over her shoulder.
I get all the privilege, I absolutely do (we’re teaching her about that, too). I sent her to a tiny little charter school in our really white little California mountain town where my wife and I, daily, wonder how we arrived here after decades of living in places like New York and Paris.
She loves her school, so much so that summer vacation is a disappointment for her (we live where others vacation, so camping, hiking, and daily visits to pristine, serene alpine lakes and rivers aren’t the stuff of summer memories, but every day “what should we do now” activities). She is a sponge, the classes are small, the teachers kind, progressive and attentive. The school practices and promotes nonviolence. They do felting projects and cooking classes. There’s even a German lady who wears wool socks and Birkenstocks. It’s as charter school as charter schools get.
Recently, one of her sweet little friends was caught in the middle of a horrible custody battle. The girl’s father claimed the mother was insane. The mother held a case involving awful details of the kind that left two women fighting over how to tell our daughter to keep a distance from the father since he got full custody and now hangs out at the playground. How much does my seven-year-old need to know? And what is proper, self-protective behavior that also empowers?
There’s no telling where we’ll be by the time she’s a teenager, though, or what her education will be like by then, or the condition of the world. Sometimes my hope, my belief in love, truth and justice, it waivers; when change is so clearly needed but hasn’t happened, when I turn my computer on for the morning and there’s been yet another school shooting, my faith collapses a bit, absolutely. There are other days, however, days when we win a little, when progress has been made, when our daughters cry over the injustice suffered by Dr. Seuss characters. Those are seeds; we need to save them, and we need to plant them, and we need to share them with our friends.
Things come home, that’s for sure; when they do, the opportunity to become a better person arrives, and each one of those opportunities is monumental. My wife and I are learning to become parents with every moment, too, realizing how crucial it all is, and how thankfully resilient children can be if our mistakes are caught and acknowledged in time (much more so than many adults, who get stuck in worse feedback loops, who have lived much longer with unresolved trauma and who have to work much harder to forgive).
I realize, too, that my parenting views, and my vantage point, are so different from many others. It’s a unique situation, to be sure, but we are fully intersectional in our thinking, so we also are aware in what ways we have been afforded privilege.
So, when my daughter teared up over Dr. Seuss, I knew we were on the right path. She already had some sort of understanding that treating people as “others” is hurtful and unkind; she saw absolutely no reasoning behind this kind of behavior. In my seven-year-old’s mind, we are all worthy of love and respect.
The fact of the matter, and this is something my daughter already clearly understands, is that some of us have stars on our bellies, and some of us have stars in our eyes. All of us are stardust. Some people have taken advantage of or discriminated against others, and some people have been hurt and damaged deeply by that. And more and more every day, more of us, no matter in what unique and beautiful ways we sparkle, are being taken advantage of by capitalist opportunists without consciences. And the sad fact is that instead of being hateful we could all be chillin’ together on the beach, soaking up the sun and admiring our reflected radiance.
I believe in a collective consciousness, and I dream of a collective conscience; its truths are simple, for the highest good of all, with room for all of us to twinkle and shine. There are so, so, so many maybes, though, and so much work to do. So for now, we teach our girl to walk softly, but not without a big stick, because we still have a long, long way to go.
(Yes, I know, Dr. Seuss was racist. There’s also this particular manner of thinking. We’re working with all of it right now. Kind of proving my point, Dr. Seuss has been an American standard for generations, but my generation is the first to really speak out on it — in fact, I wasn’t even aware of it myself until a few years ago, and I hadn’t read Dr. Seuss for many years until becoming a parent. Our own library actually looks more like the one Liz Phipps Soeiro suggests than the one Melania Trump shipped out, and eventually, yes, we will sit down with our daughter and we will talk about this, too. Believe me, it’s on the list.)