an ugly reality
how the real world is trying to invade my child's world
by tim lockwood
As parents, my wife and I are pretty protective of our child. She's our only child, and likely to remain that way. Maybe we're overprotective, at least of her childhood.
She's a bright child of five years old who reads well ahead of her classmates, and excels at gymnastics. She goes to Mass with her mom and me every Saturday evening, and to CCD the next morning. She has learned that God created everyone and everything. Occasionally when she talks about it, you can tell just how awed she is by the thought that anything she can name - bugs, sunshine, trees, her friends, her kitty-cats - were created by God, and that with everything she knows about manners, you should say thank you to God every now and then. It rained the other day while we were out riding around in our dusty old van, and she said, "The rain is giving the van a bath. Thank you, God!" She says her prayers every night, both Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer.
She's learned how to have empathy for people and other living things. I recall the first time (late 3, early 4, around there) she fully understood the concept of imagining how the other person feels, and imagining what it feels like to have the shoe on the other foot. She got really mad at us one time for a privilege we had revoked as a punishment for some infraction, and said, as many kids do when they're angry, "I hate you!"
"Whoa whoa whoa! No honey," we told her, "we don't say that to anyone, especially people we love, because words like that can really hurt. How would you feel if Mommy or I said that to you? That would be awful, wouldn't it?" She burst into sobs, which I wasn't expecting, because I had underestimated her ability to catch on that quickly at that age. I went on to explain that it's okay to be angry with people, and it's okay to say why you're angry, but hate is such an awful thing that I couldn't think of a really good use for the word. I also explained that Mommy and I would get angry at her, too, from time to time, but we would never ever stop loving her. She's been angry at Mommy and me on occasion since then, but she's never said the "H" word again.
For all that, she is still very much a five year old child. She still believes in Santa, and loves to socialize with her little friends. She has friends from school, but she also has friends from her old daycare, some of whom have migrated en masse to a new after-school program. Even though they all go to different schools now, they still come over to play and occasionally stay the night. They go to Monkey Joe's, they attend each others' birthday parties, they go trick-or-treating together. And as a result, us parents hang out quite a bit too, so we've sort of become friends somewhat vicariously through our kids.
Which is why I was more than a little surprised when our little one ran a particular fact-check by us this evening as we made a post-Monopoly-game run to Subway for dinner. She fact-checks a lot of things with us; either things she has heard directly, or things that she has inferred from facts she already has. It may be trivial, or it may be profound. She'll make a blanket statement out of the blue like "Most people like chili" to see if or how we'll correct or elaborate on that statement. We might say, "Well, lots of people like chili, I'm sure, but I don't know if most people like it." You never know what you're going to get when she fact-checks, or when she's going to fact-check, but it's usually going to be while we're riding in the van.
This particular fact-check took me by surprise: "People with peach-colored skin aren't supposed to get married to people with brown skin." What? Where did that come from?
Which is pretty much what we asked: "Where did you hear that?"
She says she heard it from one of the aforementioned friends formerly of the daycare and currently at the after-school program. A really sweet kid whom I'll refer to as Vance (not his real name, no need to embarrass the boy for something that's not his fault), who as it turns out, learned this "fact" from his dad. We've hung out with Vance's dad on several occasions, and he's never given any indication that this is what he thinks; but then, the subject's never come up before. And before any more stereotypes get hauled out, he's in his thirties, educated, upper-middle income, works in the IT field, and doesn't have a strong religious affiliation that I can detect.
We got it straightened out with her, of course, in no uncertain terms. Skin color, we explained, is the least important thing you could know about a person. When you get older and you want to marry someone, it's much more important how that person acts toward you and other people - whether he's nice or mean - and not what color his skin is.
The trip from our house to Subway took about five minutes, and by the time we walked through the front door of the establishment, the lesson was already over; at least this phase of it. I'm sure we'll have other discussions as she gets older, and I'm okay with that. And on one hand, I'm happy to lay some good groundwork in her upbringing early on regarding the topic of racism.
But on the other hand, it really pisses me off, you know? I'm not naive enough to believe that, just because we elected a man as President who happens to have brown skin, racism has suddenly disappeared. I knew we'd have to have this talk sooner or later. But come on, five years old? I thought, at the very least, we had surrounded ourselves with people who were on our wavelength regarding what they would teach their kids about skin color. I feel betrayed, and a little bit horrified.
It opens quite the Pandora's box. Vance is one of our daughter's best friends, and has been for quite a while. Do we now have to adjust the level of interaction between our family and Vance's family? And if so, how? Do we say anything to them about it? If so, what? Or do we continue on as though it never happened?
This sucks. People need to learn to keep their hate out of my family's life.
My life is an open book. A comic book, about a superhero with the amazing ability to make his nose hair grow. Oh, and someone's torn out the order form for the $2.99 X-ray specs.
ABOUT TIM LOCKWOOD
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11.2.09 @ 3:26p
Your daughter sounds like a delight, and the more parents guide their children to act with tolerance and love instead of fear and hatred, the better the world will be for our children's children. Thanks for sharing this.
candy green gustavson
11.2.09 @ 5:19p
I like this piece---it's honest and real. You reminded me of one of my sons at about 6. After riding the school bus for about two days, he came home full of swear words. I grilled him about where he had learned them, found out the kid's name, went over to the home--with my son in tow, told the dad and was astounded that the dad didn't care.
Soap, etc, never got rid of the words! I think it's better to just ignore these incidences. Your daughter loves you. You are the most important people in her world right now. When she gets older your values will prevail. My son is a great dad and husband today--like you!
11.3.09 @ 12:00a
Jael, she is absolutely without a doubt the prettiest, smartest, and most athletic child I've ever seen, and I say that without a hint of bias.
Candy, I think for the time being we've decided to let it go; not ignore it exactly, but not to make a large issue out of it. It wouldn't be fair to my daughter to deprive her of one of her best friends, and who knows? Maybe she can be a positive influence.
11.3.09 @ 8:22a
Such an amazing point of view. Society forgets that our children arrive innocent and pure, and only through our influences do they often change.
katherine (aka clevertitania)
11.25.09 @ 10:42a
I think your 'ignore it' plan is actually better than you think, as long as you make sure she keeps running this stuff by you too. Either she'll be an influence on the boy, or she'll just ignore his influence and the friendship will dissolve eventually. Plus, even if his parents find out, I somehow doubt they'd come over and complain that your daughter told their son people's skin color is irrelevant. You gotta have some serious racial attitude to pick a bone with someone for that reason.
11.25.09 @ 10:43a
If you really loved her, you wouldn't take her to Subway.
No, I'm kidding. I think the actual answer is to view it a) as a chance to teach her not to be racist and b) as something to watch out for, but not panic.
Of course, I have no kids, so any parenting advice I might give comes from straight out of my ass, possibly combined with watching my now-two-year-old niece month-to-month. That said, every opportunity like that is a teaching opportunity. At least that's how I'd choose to look at it.
How do you teach your kid not to judge by skin color unless you have an example to teach against? How do you teach your kids not to use swear words unless they know what those words are? It's the dichotomy that's necessary for growth. Sure you try to protect your kids, but too much of a cocoon and they'll never turn into that moth who wants to eat your linen. Or something.
11.25.09 @ 11:50a
I'm grateful she does these fact-checks with us. I'm well aware that in about seven or eight years, her mom and I will be totally stupid and uncool, so we're squeezing in as much influence as we can now before that day comes.
Adam, you make a good point, and I agree. I think my main objection was not about whether she was exposed to this nonsense, but more about the age at which it happened and the fact that it came from our "inner circle", so to speak. We can't shelter her forever and we never had any intentions of doing so, but it just seemed like five years old was too early. Of course, I just started breaking myself recently of thinking of her as "daddy's baby" too, so what do I know about too early?
11.25.09 @ 9:30p
Tim, I'm a little ahead of you on the parenting timeline, and I can assure you that the foundation you are laying for C is a good, solid one. We did pretty much the same with Katherine, and though we definitely went through the "my parents are too stupid to live" stage, she's nearly 20 now, and I am never embarrassed by her values, morals, and ethics. Her choice of shoes, maybe, but in the stuff that matters, she's been able to withstand a lot of peer pressure and negative influences without too much crap getting into her psyche.
You're doing well - keep up the good work!
11.26.09 @ 8:16a
This is a great piece and I think your daughter is very fortunate to have you! I think with such wonderful supportive parents and the fact that she feels free to fact check with you, she just might be that positive influence on the young boy. I can definitely understand how sad you must feel to be dealing with this issue at such an early age, however.
11.28.09 @ 10:32a
My Uncle Johnny once told me, when I was about 17, "I know we seem awfuly stupid now, but in a couple of years we'll get smarter."
He was right.
He also said, "There's so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us."
I think you're doing great on the parenting stuff. Just remember, "Do as I do, not as I say," is what she's gonna learn no matter how beatiful your speeches are.