Monday, June 22, 2015

Why do All Those Kids Have Brown Skin?: Hard Questions from My Kids

“Mommy, why do all those kids have brown skin?”

I got this question from my 10-year-old when we were pulling up to a field trip at the Georgia Aquarium recently and my first reaction was just confusion. What in the world was she talking about? Then I realized that she was looking at a class of children from an inner city Atlanta school and I followed confusion with horror—am I somehow raising a racist kid? And then my mind finally rested on the most likely meaning of her question:

“Do you mean, ‘why are there no other races in that class?’”

“Yeah. My classes always have kids with light skin and brown skin. And Friana’s family is from India and Eliza’s family is from Vietnam. There are lots of colors. Why doesn’t that class have different races?”

So I took a deep breath and started to formulate an answer that was both accurate and age appropriate and possible to get out of my mouth during the time it took us to get into the parking deck and meet her class at the Aquarium.

I bet a lot of my mom friends have been in that same awkward, and yet incredibly important, moment of parenthood. When your kid asks you a question without an easy answer, or a short answer, or even an answer one could give to adults.

Why are there still all-Black elementary classes? Good grief. That just makes my heart heavy with the responsibility to get this one answer right.

I have been thinking about how to talk about race relations with my children a lot recently. We were in Baltimore about a week before the Freddie Gray death and subsequent riots and my daughter asked me about that. She saw me looking at pictures of the Orioles playing in an empty stadium and asked what was going on in that picture.

We had just driven by the stadium and pointed it out to the kids. We found Charm City to be lovely and gracious and everyone we met was so welcoming. To see parts of it burning and hurting was painful and sad. And my children, who have been taught that police are the good guys, were very confused by the violence.

We have toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston and seen the tiny shackles made for little children and listened to the stories of men and women sold on the auction block. I did not take pictures because it seemed too awful to have smiling white children posing for photographs where human beings were bought and sold for the wealth of others. My children know of our country’s history with slavery and are shocked when they realize that it happened in our home town, in our state, in our own family’s history.

It is shocking. Still. I don’t think we can ever let it cease to shock us.

When something like the shooting in Charleston, or Trayvon Martin, or the riots in Ferguson happen I am again confronted with the awful, “what in the world do I say about this to my children? What are they capable of understanding? What role do I, a Caucasian woman, play in healing this terrible wound?”

As usual, when I don’t know what to do in a parenting moment, I play back the advice of my mother. If we still lived in a world with “wise women,” my mother would be one. She has an innate ability to see the world from other people’s eyes and act with understanding and compassion. Honestly, it is convicting and inspiring all at once.

Mom says that when a child asks a hard question you answer honestly, without your own emotions getting in the way, and answer only the question asked. Then you wait for more questions.

I have some experience with this because Jay experienced the death of a parent at a young age. I have been asked various questions about “what happened to Daddy’s Daddy” and it is always hard. I have had to say, “yes, mommies and daddies can die, but it is not very common.” And, “yes it is very sad for Daddy that he doesn’t have a daddy anymore.” I answer the question they ask and wait for a follow up.

Thus far it has been solemn and heavy and difficult, but I can’t ignore their questions or gloss over the hardest parts or tell them that they don’t have to worry about their parents because I don’t know if that’s true. It wasn’t true in Jay’s life.

So while mulling over my sadness at yet more death and racial pain in our country I had this challenging thought: I cannot avoid the question of parental death because it is a real part of our lives and our history. And if I’m avoiding the hard parts of the questions my kids ask about race inequality (and they DO ask) I’m acting as though it’s not a part of my life and my history. And that makes me part of the problem.

So in the Aquarium parking lot I made myself say, “Well, honey, students come from the neighborhood around the school, and that neighborhood has mostly African-Americans.” And when she said, “Why? Why don’t people of other races live there?” I replied with, “our city was segregated for a long time and certain neighborhoods were Black and certain ones were White.”

And as the “whys” kept coming, I slowly outlined the concepts of changes to laws without changes to people’s hearts and perceived property values and social mobility all in short, halting sentences as best I could in a tiny amount of time. Clearly, I could not do this topic justice in the situation and possibly not even if I’d had all afternoon and a map and a timeline at my disposal (which I would have loved, by the way).

I don’t need to attack my kids with information about every frightening news story I hear, but can’t shy away from mentioning a church bombing in Birmingham or a protest downtown if it answers a relevant question.

I cannot fix our nation’s painful history. I cannot cause crazy people to choose murder victims by some other means than the color of their skin. But I can tell my children the truth about our ugly past, I can do my best to explain our racially murky present, and maybe I can raise adults who will be better equipped to create bridges in our society than we are.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How I Keep from Going Crazy all Summer (A Half-Assed Plan)

You count down the days. You may even have a paper chain or a calendar to cross off. You fill up water balloons and super-soakers to meet the bus. You plan a bar-b-cue at the neighborhood pool with popsicles and icees and it's like one big town-wide party for everyone with school-age kids.

No more poster board projects your kid remembers at 10:37p.m. the night before it's due! No more mountains of papers requiring your signature that you sign away hoping that none of them gave over the deed to your house! No more convoluted list of "90s day" and "sports day" and "wear blue for whale/earth/clean-water-for-all day" because, God forbid, your kid wears green (unless it's St. Patrick's Day and then your kid had BETTER wear green or he will get PINCHED. And, also, make sure your kid knows that pinching is sometimes called assault and if he does so you will be called to come get him from school.)  Hooray for SUMMER!

And then you're slammed upside the head with the reality that your kids no longer have an exhausting 8 hours of school to attend that will mellow them into normal(ish) people and you are solely responsible for finding SOMETHING, for Pete's sake, ANYthing to do all day long.

For two months. Two WHOLE months. That's the same amount of time you spent feeding the little buggers every 2 hours at the beginning of their lives and you knew at the time it would NEVER END and you would always be tired. And it did end, but you were right about the tired part.

How can summer be so much fun and also make you want to send your kids to boarding school?

As the daughter of teachers and, eventually, as a teacher myself, I have spent my entire life counting down the days to summer. By the time I quit teaching, I had school age children myself and so the counting has never stopped.

When summer finally came during my teaching years, I wanted to lie in bed until 10 and then do all the household projects that I never had time to do for the other 10 months of the year. And I did do that for the first several years.

But then I had kids and they kept waking up at 6:30 and expecting to be "fed" and asking "what are we going to do today?" That's when I realized that I had to actually come up with something to do today.

During school, kids don't have much free time and they are, therefore, obsessed with the "plan" for each day. I found myself rather exasperatedly yelling "the PLAN is to finish your laundry, make a grocery list, and pick up the dry cleaning! What do you people want from me?"

Clearly, they wanted a plan and I did not really want to make one all that much.

Which is unfortunate. There are the weeks when the kids have various day camps or we go on vacation for a couple of weeks and there will be some time spending the night at grandparent's houses, but the rest of the days are up to me and I need to make the all-important plan.

Here is where, if you want some really cute craft ideas or an adorable calendar, you should go to Pinterest. There are wonderful tutorials on all sorts of crafts and creative games. You will not find that here, because my plan is not like that. My plan is half-assed and it goes like this:

I make a check-list. Each kid has to complete their check-list every day. That's it. That's the whole plan.

Each kid's check-list has the following items:

  • School Time
  • Clean Something
  • Go Outside
  • Read Something
  • Creative Time
  • Help the Family Team
  • See Someone Else
  • Make Your Bed
  • Exercise

And I don't even tell them what the specific activities are. Bwa-ah-ah! It is evil parenting genius.

See, I don't like being told what to do even if I am the one making the assignment. So if I plan our weeks out hour by hour I am just as likely to rebel against our detailed plans as the children are. I don't like to be pinned down to one particularly activity or itinerary days and weeks ahead of time. I am fully aware of how immature that is, but so what, you're not the boss of me and I don't care what you think!

So I made a check list. If we go swimming with some friends at the YMCA pool we can check off Outside, See Someone, AND Exercise! If a kid can't think of anything to do they can clean something. I get to vasssilate between Benevolent Dictator and Best Mom Ever and the children stop asking me what we're doing next.

I say it's reading time--I'm the Benevolent Dictator!
We take a surprise trip to get frozen yogurt--Best Mom Ever!

Really, the children just want to know that there are some rules and some sense of direction when there is no school. I do actually buy workbooks for them to work through and make them do the work regularly enough that they know how and when to do them during School Time. I give them cleaning tasks they can accomplish without me--laundry, sweeping, dishes, etc.

Creative time means we spend some time making art or music of some sort. I have a craft box that I put on the kitchen table and tell them to go nuts. Or we have a dance party. It depends on whether or not I want to sweep the kitchen again.

I have found that if I try to implement too strict of a schedule that it falls apart because there are so many odd days--visits with friends or trips to see family or a late night out all mess up any plan I may have. My creativity also peters out as the summer wears on and our activities become a lot less exciting--what was Water Olympics in June becomes "getting hosed down before you're let inside the house" by the end of July.

So the checklists work for us--some structure, but a LOT of freedom. And if for some reason, I don't make them wipe down a bathroom, they are just happy they didn't have to clean (Benevolent Dictator strikes again).

Happy Summer!

Sally the Benevolent Dictator (aka Best Mom Ever)