Being together a whole lot these days, due to a new virus that reached our country a few (or 6 months) ago, means there is much more time for conversation with our families. There has been no lack of topic, that is for sure. If there’s anything we can all agree on right now, it’s that 2020 has been a shock to us all. It has forced us to stay indoors, change our normal routines, and focus our energy into many, many, (and I’ll throw a third one in there just for parents) many different things in our homes all at once. One challenge parents have had is home-schooling while juggling working from home. And while I may not be a good home-school teacher, one thing I enjoy doing with my two sons is teaching them life lessons through story telling. In my wildest dreams, never would I have imagined we’d be discussing such heavy topics back to back within a three week span.
With the backdrop of the pandemic, my kids and I have already touched upon many interesting conversations of which were far from what I’d ever thought we’d talk about in their lifetime, let alone my own. Discussions ranging from how everyone’s level of fear is different to why the man we call our President is missing a moral compass to what if school does not re-open in a classroom setting, to the why’s and how’s of mask wearing, to why we can hang out with some people and not others for the time being. Now, enter an interesting observation regarding a homeless man, George Floyd’s murder by a police officer while 3 other officers looked on, and gay pride month. These topics have taken hold in our home and I’m here to share why I’m a fan of speaking openly with children about what goes on in our society.
First, let me start by saying one thing I am appreciative of from my upbringing, is my mother’s openness while we were growing up. It did wonders for me in my life, and I’ve chosen to apply that method to my child rearing. Sex, drugs, racism, and always accepting others for who they are were not topics my mom shied away from. Always openly discussing these things with us from a young age, made them not so taboo and contributed to my life and view of the world. I could give many examples of when her life advice guided me, but I will save that for another time. This time, I’d like to focus on the conversations I’ve had with my children in hoping that they have the same effect my mother’s openness had with me.
THE RACISM DISCUSSION
After seeing the video of George Floyd lose his life, I began to think about how to share this story with my kids. This would not be their first lesson in racism, not by a long shot. In fact, what is quite disturbing, is that we JUST had this discussion a few weeks ago about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor….and then along came another horrifickly tragic story.
A few weeks ago, I had come back from a run and we were all sitting around the table having a later dinner than usual. Since our dinners tend to be over in less than 5 minutes these days, I asked them to remain at the table. Having just returned from a run, Ahmaud was on my mind. I started by explaining that I had seen something upsetting on the news and felt they needed to learn about what happened. The starting point was we don’t really tend to think that we’re going to get hurt by someone when we’re outside excercising. I let them know that a black man was jogging and was killed by two white men simply for the color of his skin. The mens’ supposed “excuse” was that they thought he had stolen something, simply because he was black and running. My boys were shocked and horrified, which is what you would assume would be everyone’s reaction when a fellow human being is murdered so tragically.When I do these “teachings” I always ask them to think of things in the reverse. Could you imagine having to worry if you decided to go out for a jog because someone with a different skin color might not like you, assume you are a thief, and decide to hurt you? They listened intently and asked several questions.
My kids often ask “why?” when we have these talks. They cannot understand it, which is the point here. None of it makes sense. And that is just it. These are all senseless acts of violence. My response on this one was to the effect of: there are always going to be bad people in the world, but for every parent trying to raise good humans, my hope is always the good eggs will outnumber the bad. If more people are against the idea of racism, because it is such a ridiculous concept, the less and less these tragic acts will be able happen. This is obviously boiled down and may sound trite, but remember, I’m speaking to children, and I am trying to say things in a concrete manner that they will grasp – and hopefully recall in the future.
We went on to discuss Breonna Taylor and how she was sleeping when killed by the police shooting into her home in a case of mistaken identity and a no-knock- warrant. I shared how a similar scenario played out here at our home a few days after me and their dad had moved in. Two heavily armed police officers banged on our door and shouted to “Open Up!” I opened the door and they insisted I go get a man whose name I had never heard in my life. I let the officers know we had just moved in and there was no one here by that name. They poked their heads in through the screen door looking frantically for a man I suppose they thought I was hiding. I did not feel believed and my heart was racing. Moments later, my husband came walking down the hall and asked what was going on. He must not have fit their photo or description because it was only then that the two aggressively skeptical men backed off, asking us a few additional questions and leaving.
When I heard about the Breonna Taylor death, I shuttered. I imagined if those officers that had come to our home had just busted in and began shooting, assuming their person of interest was inside. But that didn’t happen. We were able to open the door, explain that who they were looking for didn’t live here, and keep both of our lives. Breonna did not receive the same chance.
A few weeks later came the George Floyd murder. Shortly thereafter, I came across a post on Facebook that shared all of the black lives taken for absolutely ludacris reasons. Not all of these murders that were listed in this post were by the police. Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin were killed by other men in their community, simply for the color of their skin. This post on Facebook was powerful because each name of the deceased had listed what they were doing when they were killed. I thought this was the perfect tool to use when speaking to my kids – once again – about racism. I had them sit on the couch and read to them what each person was doing when they were killed:sleeping, walking down the street, jogging, getting arrested. Naturally, they were outraged again, incredulous at the thought that people could be harmed when doing something like sleeping or walking back from a store.
The questions began from them about why and how bad police exist. I explained how bad people can sometimes get into positions of power. Think of this as a nasty recipe, like taking someone who wants to inflict pain and giving them a free pass to do it. How do we make sure this doesn’t happen with the police officers? I told them I don’t have the exact answer, but that people in the world are coming together and talking with organizations that are put into place to make change and they are all in discussions now to try to implement a checks and balances system. What should we do so bad apples don’t become police? How can the good police kick the bad ones out? I said this is exactly what is under the microscope in our country as we speak. People are protesting about this very thing you are both asking. They want change in our justice system and in police training and recruitment.
I have to say the overall sense and feeling one has during a discussion on social injustice with children, is a feeling of helplessness and sadness. How do we STOP this? To which I answered that it will take time, but the immediate things we can do as a country is help elect officials who will implement laws to protect the African American community, and we can ask for change of current practices and laws that are wrong from within a broken system. What they can do as kids to help is if/when they see someone else in trouble or hear someone say something against our black friends we stand up for them, just like we would in a bully situation. Because that is exactly what this is- a form of bullying.
We talked about protesting and what does it do, why do people do it? Awesomely,they had both recently had lessons in school on Martin Luther King Jr. so they were aware of those marches and Rosa Parks as well. I let them know they were witnessing history being made just like when those protests were happening with Martin Luther King Jr. When something sparks outrage across the country, and people take to the streets, it is from passion for what they believe in. That passions burns even hotter when what’s happening is fundamentally wrong. The point I tried to drive home- and I need to keep making sure it stays with them-is that it is important to be passionate about the things you believe in.
THE DRUG DISCUSSION
A few days ago we were coming home from an errand and had picked up some lunch from a drive-thru. They had finished their lunches in the car and we were approaching a traffic light where a homeless man often stands. I asked my son if he would give his full container of uneaten fries (he’s not a big fan of fries) to the man, who was likely very hungry. Then I frustratingly realized I might be unable to give the man the fries because the woman in the car in front of me was not pulling up to the stop light. My assumption was she must not have wanted to have her car near him so she kept an abnormal distance. This meant I would have to give him the fries when the light turned green and there was a huge group of cars that had gotten off the highway behind us. So I decided to call over to him out my window and told him I’d be handing him fries while driving. My kids were mortified I’m sure at their mom shouting out her car window in front of a bunch of other cars to a random man on the street corner. But it was the only way to get his attention and get the fries to him since the woman would not move her car up in front of me. The man cried out thanking us over and over saying he was so hungry. It was a good moment.
Since I had vocally expressed my frustration that the woman would not pull up naturally they asked why is that lady’s car so far from the man and the stoplight? I mentioned the only thing I could think was that she was avoiding eye contact or close contact with the homeless man because it’s awkward sometimes when someone is asking you for money and you’re sitting at a stoplight with nowhere to look but forward and nowhere to go.
My younger son asked if I always give this man money. I replied that no, I don’t always give him money, but I do sometimes give him drinks or something I think might help him in that moment if I have it. They asked why everyone doesn’t just give all the homeless people money and food all the time? This was a question requiring multiple layers of answers and there was no way I could tackle that with a soundbite they’d remember without their eyes glazing over. Instead the conversation segued into drug addiction. I explained that sometimes there are people that are on the streets due to drug addiction and they may be using money given to them for that, which defeats the purpose of helping them. This is often one of the reasons why people choose not to give money. We talked about how others are veterans who have fought in wars and have fallen on hard times, and how everyone likely has a different story. That it is important to give if you can in that moment, but you should not feel guilty if you can’t do it. Only do what you can. As long as you’re having the thought to want to help someone, you’re in favor of humanity. Perhaps this woman at the stoplight was feeling just that- guilty and awkward and so she kept her distance. We’ll never know.
My almost 11 year old son asked me the other day to tell him about all of the dangerous drugs so he knows them by name and knows not to do them. I was stunned by the question, but really thankful for another opportunity for open dialogue on a topic every parent worries about. If you can believe it, already in his 5th grade experience he has learned of a fellow 5th grader vaping marijuana. I didn’t go into the drug explanation at that particular time, instead we focused on cigarettes and vaping in that talk many months ago. Now that he was coming to me with questions about drugs specifically, I chose to tell him the story of Jon Bon Jovi’s daughter having an opiate addiction and how this is an epidemic in our country. We talked about how that starts- an injury, a broken bone, a doctor prescribing pain killers, and the person becoming addicted. These are not “bad” people, I say, this is a widely used drug given out by doctors and is highly addictive for any human being that uses them for pain. See son, it happened to Bon Jovi’s daughter, it can happen to anyone. For those wondering, I did list a few other drug names and mentioned these are the drugs that have killed many musicians and actors that we have loved over the years.
These questions ensued: why are CVS and Walgreens called “drug stores”? And why can a doctor or hospital give you drugs but other drugs are bad? These are where the conversations go and I love that the wheels in their heads are turning. This is what I want from my children-critical thinking.
THE GAY PRIDE DISCUSSION
We were running to my youngest son’s first grade closure car parade (that sounds surreal doesn’t it?) and as we were hastily getting into the car, I had not had time to pull myself together emotionally. Seconds ago, I had been in a meeting for work reflecting on the sadness and unrest in our country regarding George Floyd as well as recognition of the LGBTQ community being that it is Gay Pride month. It was a call with moments of silence, gratefulness from black colleagues in appreciation of our company’s solidarity with them, moments of emotion, and it was extremely moving. My sons looked at me and asked why I was crying. I paused for a second thinking about how to tell them the reason delicately, but then remembered we had already had many conversations on this topic.
I’m crying because a woman I work with shared on a company wide video call that she has been hiding who she is her whole life and would like to start leading an authentic life. She was afraid of people knowing she was gay, and has decided she’s not going to be afraid anymore because she’s been motivated recently as the mother of a brown-skinned son. She wants to set the example to make sure he knows to be proud of who he is. It made me feel sad for her that she had to feel afraid all those years, but also happy for her that she was so brave and doing what’s best in the interest of guiding her son.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that call. Furthermore, I shared with the kids that I was emotional because some people wait until very late in life to come out as gay because they feel scared or ashamed and when they do, it’s like a weight has been lifted and they can be the real version of themselves. That is why we always support our friends and peers who are gay, I say, they are simply fellow human beings who have had to fight and suffer just to be able to love who they want to love.
On our drive to my son’s teacher’s house, my kids and I have an awesome dialogue and I end up loving this day. When I try to cover my tears, I remind myself that I should not feel shame in showing my sons my tears. It’s not often they’ve seen their mom cry and I want for them to feel empowered to cry openly as boys, teens, and as men. I try to remember that crying often makes us feel better as humans; it is a release, which is a good thing. It is an emotion and an expression that is there for a reason. In this moment, this is a learning for me as a mother, that I should no longer try to hide my tears in moments like these, when the world is crying, protesting, in need of leadership, in financial turmoil, in a health crisis, and trying to come together for change.
I would have never believed you if you said I’d be talking about drugs, racism, a pandemic, and gay rights all within the span of a few weeks to my children. But here we are. All I can hope is that each time we revisit these topics they are that much better for it.