theorangeinkblot

Looking at life through orange colored glasses…

Defining Success when it Comes to our Children

Kids around the country are headed back to school and it won’t be long before they bring home their first graded assignment or progress report.  As a parent, it is difficult to not to set expectations or benchmarks for our children to reach in school.  We all want our kids to do well, work hard, and be successful.   Sometimes though, I worry about the things that parents say to their children when they don’t meet the goals or expectations we have set for them.

This past June, the mom of a 5th grader at my daughters’ school told me she was disappointed in her daughter for receiving a “low” math grade.  On a grading scale from 1 to 4 with 4 being the highest, her daughter had received a 3.  I asked the mom why she was disappointed and she answered that because math was her daughter’s best subject she expected her to get 4’s.  On top of that, upon seeing the report card, she said to her daughter, “I’m not mad at you, but I am disappointed in you.”

This is not the first parent I have heard say this to their child and it makes me cringe every time.   Sometimes it is about grades, sometimes it is about sports or something else that their child is involved with.  The comment might take the form of, “if my child had just put a little more effort into what they were doing, they could have made varsity.”  I want to ask these parents, how exactly has your child disappointed you?  Is it because it was enough for your child to be having fun and enjoying the experience of playing on a team without feeling the need to be the best?  By not immediately understanding the material that was presented to them in class?  By not putting 100% of their effort into everything they do every single day?   Because they are not perfect?

In my opinion, we send our kids a very dangerous message when we tell them that by not meeting our expectations of them that they have disappointed us.  We may think that we are motivating them to do better or pushing them to reach their “full” potential.  I fear that instead we are telling them that our being NOT disappointed in them is dependent on them reaching expectations that are fully unrealistic.  That their worth is dependent on us being able to brag to our neighbor at the bus stop that our child received the highest of grades.  That our love for them is in any way conditional.  I don’t want my children to feel that just because they are good at something it means that they have to be perfect at it.

Through these comments we also teach them that it is not enough to learn for learning’s sake-  That playing just because it is fun is not reason enough.  

I think that as parents we need to ask ourselves-  What kind of child am I trying to raise?  Is it my goal to raise a child who always gets A’s in the subject areas she is strongest in?  A child who makes the travel soccer team?   A child who needs to be constantly striving for perfection?  A child who is doing things only to please her parents?

This summer, my daughter signed up for a drawing class.  By the third class in she had decided that she really wasn’t enjoying it.  At all.  There were only three classes remaining.  I thought about telling her that she had to stick it out because she shouldn’t be a quitter, that she should finish what she started, that she had made a commitment and she should always honor her commitments.  I felt disappointed that the class hadn’t worked out because I had hoped it would be a really positive experience for her.  But on the car ride home, when she asked me if I was mad at her or disappointed in her that she had dropped out of the class I told her no.  I told her I was proud of her.  I was proud of her for trying something new and then recognizing that it was not a good fit.  I was proud of her for vocalizing that she wanted to remove herself from an environment that was not positive for her.  This was not a failed art class.  This was a successful setting of boundaries- of not being willing to be unhappy simply for the sake of feeling like she had to do her best.

How many of us stick with things that make us miserable because we feel like we have a responsibility to do so.  How many of us stay at jobs that we hate longer than we should; in relationships that are unhealthy because we made a commitment.  How many of us wish that we had the courage to just walk away from things in our life that our making us unhappy.  

There are plenty of things that we have no control over.  Obviously, my kids have to go to school.  I want them to do well.  But more than I want them to do well, I want them to be happy.  I want them to not spend time worrying about whether or not they are disappointing me but to take notice of the things they are really interested in so they can discover what they feel passionate about.  It’s entirely possible that what they like the best will not be what they get the highest grades in and I don’t want them to believe for one second that they cannot pursue passions because they have not met certain standards or that they have to excel in an area simply because it comes easily to them.  

I want my children to set their own goals and choose their own definition of success.  My goal for them is only that they be happy and well adjusted.  I want them to feel loved unconditionally and to know that the grades they receive on a test or a report card are in no way a definition of who they are as a person.  I want them to be proud of themselves based on the expectations and goals that they set for themselves- not because they have met a standard I have set for them.

Reflections on BronyCon 2014

Getting into the spirit.

My six year old and I getting into the spirit.

I just returned from my first ever fan convention- BronyCon 2014.  I spent the weekend posting pictures to my Facebook Account which garnered many likes but prompted the frequent question- What is a Brony?  The term “Brony” was coined a few years ago to represent the adult (many of them male) fans of the newest generation of My Little Pony– Friendship Is Magic.  The word “Bro” was mashed with “Pony” and the term “Brony” was born.   Since it’s inception, the Brony community has expanded to include the entire fandom of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FIM) and BronyCon- the convention for these fans is a family friendly event with a little something for everyone.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not technically a Brony.  My husband and I attended the convention with our two daughters (ages 11 and 6) after they begged, pleaded, and nagged us endlessly about going.  That said, I have seen episodes of MLP:FIM and am supportive of my kids watching it because it emphasizes the values of friendship (friendship always wins!!), kindness, inclusiveness, and teamwork.

For the most part, the staff, panelists, and Bronies themselves seemed to promote these values too.  Attendees enthusiastically supported each other during the open mic event, chatted amiably with each other while waiting for sessions to begin and participants in costume were very generous about allowing people, especially kids, to have their pictures taken with them.

The Brony fandom is diverse and the convention sessions reflected that diversity.  There were sessions on making MLP themed plushies and pony ears and creating Cos Play costumes on a shoestring budget.  There were panel Q& A’s with show producers, voice actors, and episode directors.  We especially enjoyed “Are You Smarter than a 5th Season Producer?” where fans lined up to try to stump the people who write, act, and produce for the show by asking MLP:FIM trivia questions.  There were psychology based sessions about bullying, fandom and gender, and creating comprehensive psychological profiles of the ponies.  And specifically for the under 12 crowd were sessions such as “Pinkie Pie Party Games,” and “20 questions with Big Macintosh,” and a children’s sing-a-long.

We met Bronies as young as 3 years old and there were some in their fifties and sixties.  Bronies, it appears, come in every shape and size, and represent a variety of races and nationalities. They walk on two legs and roll in wheel chairs.  They choose costumes without regard to preconceived notion of gender.  All of this diversity was embraced and celebrated within the walls of the Baltimore Convention Center.  While waiting on line to enter various sessions Bronies would fist bump – I mean hoof bump – each other while chanting “fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.”  All that really mattered was that everyone was having a good time.

No matter where an attendee came from, how old they were, what they looked like, or who they felt was the best pony (Pinkie Pie is a definite fan favorite) everyone seemed to feel validated as an individual.  I especially appreciated that questions to panelists asked by children were taken just as seriously as the questions posed by the adults.  And I loved watching children turn to the adult Brony next to them and ask, “Who is your favorite pony?” and then get a valid reply.  Who would have thought that My Little Pony could be the great equalizer?

I was touched by one of the questions I heard asked at one of the sessions I attended.  Leading the session was a panel of four psychologists from different colleges researching the psychology of fandoms and the Brony fandom in particular.  A young man stood at the microphone and asked the panel – so many people judge Bronies (and other fandom members) in a negative way.  How can we convince people that we have a positive message to share?   I immediately thought of something I had overheard that morning while crammed in our hotel elevator.  A man staying in the hotel was commenting in a negative way about a boy they had seen dressed as a unicorn as if this was some kind of unspeakable tragedy.  When the elevator door opened and they exited, they past a gentleman wearing a cape.  The man from the elevator turned around and gestured to his family to look at the costumed gentleman while they rolled their eyes and snickered.  I feel like the young man who was asking the question at the convention session was echoing a larger question looming in today’s society which is- How do we get people to approach each other with curiosity instead of judgement?  How do we convince people that ‘different’ is not the same as ‘deviant.’  One of the panelists commented that the Brony fandom was the most social and inclusive fandoms she had studied and that she hoped that as the fandom grew and became more well known people would become more receptive to hearing the message of MLP: FIM. I agree but would add that people who participate in fringe cultures, fandoms, or who hold strong opinions outside the mainstream culture are hugely important in expanding the definition of what is considered okay or acceptable by mainstream society.  The more people push boundaries, question the norm, and express themselves however they are comfortable doing so, the more inclusive society becomes.  As we continue to push and stretch boundaries more and more people move from being considered outsiders to being accepted as ‘normal.’   Eventually, those people who are narrow minded and judgmental will find themselves on the outside looking in.

Ultimately, BronyCon was a fun and educational experience for me and my family.  I would love to hear from any Bronies who might be out there reading this.  Were you at the convention?  Do you think that the Brony fandom is more inclusive and diverse than other fandoms?  Anyone thinking that they just might have to check out MLP:FIM when Season 5 eventually airs?

Just a few of the really creative costumes we saw over the weekend.

Just a few of the really creative costumes we saw over the weekend.

 

Just Stop Talking

Just Stop Talking

A Poem

Maybe we should just stop talking- after all, we disagree.

Should I even listen if you don’t agree with me?

When you say those things that go against what I’ve been taught,

It makes me feel these feelings: anger, sadness, and distraught.

 

When feeling these emotions there’s a strong need to defend

my position (which is right) so that you can comprehend.

After all, I must be right-otherwise that means I’m wrong.

How could that be true when my feelings are SO strong.

 

And yet you are the one who thinks you’re clearly in the know.

It seems there’s nothing left to do but argue to and fro.

It doesn’t really matter WHY you’ve come to hold your view-

though if you were to share that I might think of things anew.

 

If you haven’t shared it’s probably ’cause I haven’t asked.

But if I asked that question I might find myself off task.

The task, of course, at hand is to convince you that I’m right

(and make you feel quite foolish that you haven’t seen the light).

 

This might make you angry- you may even think it’s rude

which explains your coming at me with a pissy attitude.

Now you’re storming off because you say, “Enough’s enough!”

I can’t understand why you must leave in such a huff.

 

I was only pointing out the errors in your thoughts.

People are so touchy when they’re not calling the shots.

Patches of Sunlight on the Kitchen Floor

(Note to subscribers: My apologies for the rough draft that was inadvertently sent out earlier.  Hopefully, this will make more sense.)

I’m just going to say it.  There is no shortage of rude and thoughtless behavior in this world.  Recently, a classmate of my eleven year old daughter handed out invitations to her birthday party at school.  My daughter was not invited, but this did not stop the party host from asking my daughter to give an invitation to our neighbor on her behalf.  My daughter was understandably incredulous.  She said to me, “It’s one thing to not be invited to the birthday party of someone I thought was my friend– it’s another thing altogether for that person to ask me to help her hand out her invitations.  That’s rude, right?”

Yes, that’s rude.  Maybe even mean, depending on how much thought my daughter’s classmate put into her request.  But considering the frequent poor behavior I have seen from some of the adults that I interact with on a regular basis, I am not surprised.   This year, in my role as an executive board member of the PTA of my daughter’s school, I have found myself witness to many interactions in which it is obvious that the person speaking has either not thought about how their words or actions will affect the person they are speaking with, or worse, that they know exactly the impact their words or actions will have and choose to stay the course, regardless.  Some people were merely clueless and appeared to have no malicious intent.  Others were so sure they were “right” that they willingly threw everyone around them under the proverbial bus just to prove their point.  Others still, were quite willing to look the other way in the face of decisions with ethical implications for dozens of families because their family would not be directly impacted.

I worry that people are becoming increasingly self-serving.  There is a “What’s in it for me?” mentality that is casting a dark shadow over society, leaving me searching for pockets of hope, like my cat looks for patches of sunlight on the kitchen floor by which to warm himself.

Yesterday, I found one of those patches of sunlight.  About five years ago, before I had even met her, my friend, “N,” received a kidney donation from a stranger- a living donor, named “A,” who saved her life.  N has mentioned A to me several times – particularly to say how grateful she is to A for giving her the chance to watch her children grow up  and to marvel at how selfless an act it was for A to donate her kidney to someone she didn’t even know.  N and A have kept in touch through Facebook and when N found out that A was going to be in town this week, she asked A if she would be interested in meeting some of the friends that she is grateful to still have time with on this earth.  Then, she asked me if I would be interested in meeting A along with some of her other friends at lunch.  It was there that we got to hear the story of the transplant from A’s point of view.

A, 21 years old at the time, was sitting with her mother watching the news when she saw N on the screen making a plea for help.  N was in her early 30’s, the mother of two small children.  N’s husband, was serving overseas in the military.  N needed a kidney- as soon as possible.  When N’s blood type was mentioned, A turned to her mother and said, “I have that blood type.  I could give this woman one of my kidneys.”  A wrote down the phone number on the screen and called the next day.  She said it was one of the easiest decisions she has ever made.

It’s hard to say what was more meaningful to me- to know that N wanted me to be one of the people that A got to meet, or to know that there are selfless people out there, like A, who hear a stranger’s plea for help and respond in the most courageous way.

So what does this have to do with my frustration with people who don’t think before they speak or with the people who look the other way because THEY will not be directly affected?  None of us are perfect and it takes a very special 21-year old to make the decision that A made.  It would be unrealistic to think that we will all operate at that that level of selflessness.  Be we can look at how A put the need of a young mother above her own as an example of how we can all be a little more thoughtful and deliberate in our daily lives.

For example, before blasting someone else’s opinion in a self-righteous, ‘reply-to-all’ email, regardless of how right you believe yourself to be and no matter how strongly you feel that the person who expressed the dissenting opinion needs to be proved wrong, consider contacting only that person and asking them to explain their opinion in more depth and then share your concerns.  Or, when given the opportunity to preemptively correct a situation that will likely cause dozens of families emotional distress, even if your family is unaffected, be thankful for the opportunity to spare the suffering of others.

By inviting me to meet A at lunch yesterday, N gave me a beautiful gift.  I was reminded that we are all deeply connected and that we all have the ability to make each other’s lives better.  If nothing else, we can strive to not make peoples’ lives worse by speaking or acting without first thinking of the consequences.  Whether our acts of loving kindness are small or life saving, they all make a difference.  They are all pockets of hope creating patches of sunlight on the kitchen floor.

 

 

Does Nothing Last Forever?

Those folks who know me know what a great year my younger daughter had in kindergarten last year.  And, they know what a great year I had as a regular volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten class.  As the year drew to a close I became increasingly sad.  I wasn’t ready for the year to end.  How was I going to say goodbye to kindergarten?

I asked my daughter’s teacher how he dealt with the end of each school year and he replied, “Nothing lasts forever.”

I get where he was coming from.  It’s true, kindergarten couldn’t last forever and time inevitably marches onward whether or not we are ready to fall in line.  Something fell flat with me about that response though.  It seemed so….permanent.  High School had ended, and college and graduate school after that.  But even though they ended they lived on- through memories and lessons learned, sure, but most importantly through the continued relationships with people who were and still are important to me.

Last year, I was privileged to spend time with 24 amazing kindergarten students who reminded me that that the world is a curious place that we should never stop exploring.  They reminded me too, that a little bit of kindness goes a long way.  Their smiles and hugs brightened my days.  That they wanted to share their stories, jokes, and secrets left my heart feeling like it could burst from all the love I felt for those children.  To just walk away from all of that with a “nothing lasts forever” seemed impossible.

It turns out I didn’t have to worry.  I am still a volunteer at my daughter’s school and I see the kids from her class last year all the time.  I still get hugs when I pass them in the hallway; they wave wildly at me from across the cafeteria; they still pull me aside to tell me a joke or a story or a secret.

When you think about it, it’s not necessarily the experiences that we have that are  important but the people that we share those experiences with.  Relationships based on shared experiences connect us on a human level and allow us to understand each other better.  These places where our lives intersect with one another’s- where our paths cross, whether for an hour, a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime, are opportunities to learn from each other, to accomplish together, to support one other, and to recognize that we are all greater than the sum of our parts.

I guess we could just have these experiences, form these connections, and then just part ways never to speak to each other again.  Sometimes, we don’t have a choice.  People pass away or for reasons we are never privy to just decide to not be part of our lives.  Even then I wouldn’t say that nothing lasts forever.  Once someone has found their way into my heart they stay there forever right along with the things I learned from them and the ways that I changed because of them.

I suppose the ‘nothing lasts forever’ people have their reasons for being that way.  Maybe for some folks it’s just too hard to look forward and backwards at the same time.  Maybe it’s an ‘out of sight out of mind’ kind of thing.  Whatever their reasons I have no choice but to respect how they feel.

However, I am not a ‘nothing lasts forever’ person.  I am a ‘keep people forever’ person.  If you are someone I call a friend or someone with whom I have shared a meaningful experience or conversation; if you are someone who has showed me or members of my family kindness or have inspired me to be a better person then I’m going to keep you forever.  And if I can’t keep you as a fixture- as someone who wants to be an active part of my life in some way then I will keep you in my heart- forever.  That’s just who I am.

In my opinion, a more accurate statement would be that that nothing stays exactly the same forever.  Kids grow up, friends move away, jobs end, people die.  Things do change and we have no choice but to change with them.  But we do get to choose the people that we keep for as long as we want to keep them.  When we are especially lucky, those people choose to keep us too and those relationships are tremendously special.  It doesn’t matter if we see those people every day, once a year, or communicate with them only through letters, emails, or social media.  The important thing is that we find ways to stay connected and keep the conversations going.  The love and support that I feel from my friends who are hundreds or thousands of miles away is no less powerful than the love and support of my friends who live in my neighborhood- even if I haven’t physically laid eyes on them in years.

In the words of John Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”

Things may change but that does not mean they disappear.   The experiences we share, the connections we make, the conversations we have, the friendships we forge, the love we give and receive- all these things inspire and change us.  They shape who we are, who we become, they help to create the legacies we leave behind- forever.

Feelings of Gratitude (Sing to the Tune of Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett)

Feelings of Gratitude (Sing to the Tune of Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett)

I sat down for a moment last week

to try and reflect on my year.

Food on my table, I’m healthy and able

Surrounded by those I hold dear.

I sometimes ponder the meaning of life.

Does anyone know why we are here?

Life goes by fast so let go of your past

And just hold your family near.

It’s feelings of gratitude that change your attitude

Light up your face with a smile.

You can’t feel hateful if you’re feeling grateful

So make counting blessings part of your lifestyle.

Serve others selflessly and you will have

Warm and fuzzy feelings inside.

Be mindful of living a life that is giving

And keep your mind and heart open wide.

If it all ended- you were gone tomorrow

What legacy would you leave behind?

Love one another. We’re sisters and brothers.

Bear in mind we’re all intertwined.

It’s feelings of gratitude that change your attitude,

Light up your face with a smile.

You can’t be insightful if you’re feeling spiteful-

So make counting  blessings part of your lifestyle.

What Kind Of Legacy Do You Want To Leave?

When I was a senior in high school I auditioned for a lead role in our school musical.  I didn’t get it.  I auditioned for solos in choirs that were awarded to other people and applied for leadership opportunities that I didn’t get.  I must have lamented about my bad luck to my parents because I remember them saying to me once, “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you it has bigger plans for you.”

I carried that with me for a while, wondering when my “big moment” would arrive.  But as life went on I came to realize that my most rewarding moments were the little ones.  Thoughtful gestures, small acts of kindness, being there for my friends, volunteer opportunities, making somebody smile- it was in these moments that I felt happiest with myself and most connected to my community.

I decided that the universe wasn’t telling me it had something bigger in store- it was telling me that the legacy we leave is not in our grand gestures or public performances but in how we live our small moments every day.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the legacy I want to leave behind when I am eventually gone.  What do I want people to remember about me?  The answer to this question puts everything into perspective for me, clarifies my values, and helps me focus my energy each day on the things that really matter.  If I want to be remembered as being a devoted and loving mother, wife, sister, and daughter then my first priority should be my family.  If I want to be remembered as being a positive person then I need to put myself out there every day in a positive way.  If I want to be remembered as being kind and thoughtful then I should deliberately choose kind words and be mindful of the feelings of others.

That’s not to say that anyone should say or do nice things solely because they want people to think highly of them- but if we think about the kind of legacy we want to leave behind it can help us focus on the values and priorities that are most important to us and help us to not get distracted by life’s minor inconveniences or dragged into other people’s negative drama.

Instead of waiting around for our big moment to shine, why not make every small moment count?  Put yourself out there in a positive way, be kind and thoughtful whenever possible, get to a place of peace and forgiveness as quickly as possible.  Being open minded is good- being empathetic is better.  Try to go 24 hours saying only positive things.  If you have nothing positive to say choose to say nothing.  Make somebody smile.  Express gratitude.  Go out of your way to find a silver lining.  After a while, those silver linings just start jumping out at you.  Create a living legacy of kindess, positivity, and gratitude that others will want to emulate.

We only get one life. We don’t get to choose everything that happens to us in that life but we do get to choose the kind of legacy we want to create now and leave behind when that life comes to a close.  In thinking about how we want to be remembered perhaps we can better choose how we decide to live.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

For those who have been following my blog you know that last year was my declared, “Year of Meryl.”  It was a year of self-reflection and following my heart and attempting to choose happiness every day (and being mostly successful).  It was a great year filled with reading, writing, and volunteering.  I discovered new talents, made new friends, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and how I want to approach life going forward.  Over my next four or five blog entries I want to share with you what I got out of my year starting with my most recent ‘aha’ moment.

Back in June I came across this quote from a Leonard Cohen song (which I’m sure comes from another quote somewhere else):

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

This quote had a profound impact on me.  I am somewhat of a perfectionist and have extremely high expectations of myself.  Nobody likes to make mistakes but if I feel like I’ve messed up I have a history of being especially hard on myself and while I am a master at forgiving others I have a hard time forgiving myself of even the smallest mistakes.

In thinking about the above quote I have decided to be more accepting of my flaws.  It is okay to not be perfect.  I can work towards being a better person every day while simultaneously giving myself permission to screw up and then forgiving myself when I do.  I think there is a tendency for many people to want to just cover up those things that are considered to be “wrong” with us.  They are the “cracks” in our psyche that bring us back to those dark places, bad memories, or low self-esteem moments- those voices in our heads that tell us we are not good enough or smart enough or attractive enough or successful enough that keep us from trying again.  It is the fear of saying the wrong thing that keeps us from saying anything at all.  There is an instinct to want to just plaster over those cracks, pretend they don’t exist, put on a neutral face and go about our day without actually experiencing anything lest it remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.  After all, if we don’t let anybody in then we don’t have to acknowledge how those people make us feel.  If we don’t put ourselves out there than we can’t mess up or be rejected.

I don’t think this does us any good.  We cannot have a full human experience of our own without opening ourselves up to the experiences of others.  It limits our capacity for compassion to pretend that others are not suffering just because it makes us feel uncomfortable.   Resenting the good fortune of others makes it much more difficult to be grateful for the blessings in our own lives and less likely to want to share those blessings with others.

I have truly come to believe that our greatest vulnerabilities can be our greatest source of strength.  We can’t avoid having those cracks.  There is no such thing as perfection.   Those imperfections, when we acknowledge them and forgive them in ourselves are our greatest chance to be able to better love and forgive each other.  They can be platforms from which to grow and learn and heal the world if we are willing to use them as a springboard for better understanding ourselves and others.  If we are willing to acknowledge our cracks and let light in we have a chance to become light ourselves.

I Wish I Ate Hay (Sing to the Tune of “Stay” by Rihanna)

The tragic story of a rooster in love with a cow who is looking for greener pastures…

All along it was a heifer

A bovid mammal with no feathers

I perched on a rock, said, “Crow me something,”

She said, “All you cocks think you are so kosher.”

Day after day after day after day you moo.

Couldn’t care less about my cock a doodle doos.

I know you don’t feel the same about me

but something in the way you moo.

Makes me feel like I can’t roost w/o you.

You help me greet each day.

I wish I ate hay.

I think that you are quite amazing

Sometimes I just sit and watch you grazing.

Day after day after day after day you moo.

Couldn’t care less about my cock a doodle doos.

I know you don’t feel the same about me.

but something in the way you moo.

Makes me feel like I can’t roost w/o you

You help me greet each day.

I wish I ate hay.

Oooh, oooh, oooh you’re waiting for a bull.

Oooh, ooooh, oooh but I’m ready and able.

True a hen can lay an egg but you make milk that’s used for cheese and butter.

And I’ve come to realize that for this rooster that there can be no udder.

I know you don’t feel the same about me but something in the way you moo.

Makes me feel like I can’t roost w/o you

You help me greet each day

I wish I ate hay

I wish I ate hay.

They Have to Be Carefully Taught

A lot has been written and said in the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin.  I have been reading and listening to a lot of it- voices from all sides weighing in on why the jury made the right or wrong decision; network analysis of the trial; interviews with a jury member; blog entries; the presidential address, etc.  I have heard people blame “bad” Florida laws and say that the killing of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with race.  I have been listening, and reading, and thinking but have remained decidedly quiet on the topic.

Now, I’m ready to share what I’ve been thinking about.  I want to say too that what I am sharing is merely my opinion, my thoughts – not specifically about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but about race in general and why so many people are so uncomfortable talking about it, especially in mixed company.  I want to raise the issue of how we talk (or don’t talk) to our children about race and how dangerous our silence is.  You are welcome to agree or respectfully disagree with me and maybe we can even have a productive, honest conversation about a very important subject matter that is not going away any time soon.

This past week I have been reading, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, the 2009 non-fiction book written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  Especially in light of everything that is being written and said about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman I found myself fascinated by Chapter three, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  The authors cite a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family which found, “that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, 45% said they’d never, or almost never, discussed race issues with their children.”  However, when broken down by race, the number of white parents who said that they “never, or almost never” talked about race with their kids was 75%- almost three times the number of nonwhite parents who answered the question the same way (pgs.51-52).

The chapter also discusses another study, conducted in 2006 by a doctoral student named Birgitte Vittrup from the University of Texas who specifically recruited Caucasian families with children ages 5-7, to research whether or not watching children’s videos with multicultural story lines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes.  One group in the study was not given any videos to watch but was asked to raise the issue of “racial equality” with their children for five consecutive nights.  Five of the families in this group left the study altogether.  Two of the families told Vittrup that they did not want to point out skin color to their children (pages 48-49).  The reasons that the other families dropped out of the study were not provided but there is an underlying assumption that their reasons were similar to the other families who withdrew.

I have been thinking about these studies.  I was surprised by the statistics and the anecdotes in this chapter.  Could it be that parents are worried that talking to their kids openly and honestly about race, that by bringing up the subject of skin color, it could cause their children to become racist? To me, the idea that by not talking to our children about race they will not notice or think about race (whether positively or negatively) echoes the largely non-proven argument that by talking to kids about sex and birth control they will be more promiscuous.     As a Caucasian parent, I thought I was having the right kinds of conversations about race with my children.  We talk frequently about everyone being equal despite race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.  I tell them to not judge a book by its cover, and that skin color should not be criteria used to choose friends.  We have talked about the Civil Rights movement and slavery and about brave people of all backgrounds who fight for equality.  All this is okay- I don’t think they are bad things to talk about.  But I am realizing that it is not enough.

I have believed for a long time that children have to be carefully taught to hate.  But it is not enough to simply refrain from using derogatory terms or sing the praises of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think that for some Caucasians talking about race forces us to admit that we are not where we thought we were on this issue.  That we don’t know as much as we should know and that we are not doing as much as we should be doing to move our nation forward.  There is a discomfort in acknowledging that there is a disproportionate percentage of minorities who are socio-economically disadvantaged and that our criminal justice system works largely in favor of light skinned people with financial means.  Most people do not like to think of themselves as racist in anyway.  But I will be the first to admit that my being a progressive and open minded person does not mean that I do not have work to do.  I have been one of those Caucasian moms who sit around a table with other Caucasian moms and talks about how lovely it is that our children are “blind” to the skin color of their classmates.  As if “color blindness” is really the ideal or as if we actually have any idea as to what is actually going on inside our children’s heads.

I was reminded of this a few nights ago while reading to my daughter.  We were reading the story of a Jewish family many years ago living in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia.  There is a picture in the book of a little boy entering his school house and the question posed to me by my five year old was not, “why aren’t there any girls?” but instead, “why is everybody white?”  (So much for color blind.)  I was surprised that she asked this question, but I was excited too because it gave me an opportunity to raise the issue of race in a different way than I had in the past.  I started out by talking about how some countries, some cities, some towns, are more diverse than others and that there are places in the world where the majority of the people have similar skin tones.  Then, I took it a step further.  We talked about how sometimes people don’t get to choose where they live.  For centuries, Jews were pushed into little geographic areas because the rest of the population didn’t want to live among them because they were different.  I told her that this still happens today with lots of groups of people, sometimes based on skin color, for the same reason.  We discussed how sometimes people are afraid or uncomfortable around people who look differently from themselves, or have different religious beliefs.  I asked her to share with me what she already knew about this kind of thing.  My five year old daughter told me that she knew that there was a time in our country that it was against the law for people of different skin colors to be friends or marry each other and that it wasn’t right.  Then she said that she knew there will still places around the world where people did not have equal rights and that this wasn’t right either.  She also told me that she was glad we lived in a town where everybody did not look the same.

This conversation still may not have been perfect but it was definitely a step in the right direction.  I learned that my child is thinking about these issues and that she is observing everything that is going on around her.  She is trying to make sense of the world and figure out how she fits in.  We have to do more than just not teach our children to hate.  We have to take advantage of teachable moments, we have to let our children hear us speaking out in the face of injustice, we need to answer their questions as honestly and thoughtfully as we can and we need to ask them how they feel about these issues.

We also have to ask ourselves why we do not want to talk about this.  What is making us uncomfortable?  What is holding us back?  We have to ask ourselves what our silence tells our children- what permission are we giving them to not care if we give the impression that we don’t care.

There’s more to be said- so I’m going to end this by saying, to be continued.  I need to regroup and think some more about all of it first.  In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.  We need to be talking about this if we hope to make any progress at all.

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