Teach the Children Well
There are few things in life that truly rankle me. But this one. This one just took me out.
Let me back up for a second.
Hi, I’m Elaine. Generally described as calm, optimistic, and cheerful by my family, friends, and colleagues, I like to think of myself as largely unflappable and living with a twinkle in my eye. I am, however, sometimes mortifyingly earnest.
I belong to a community of about 35,000 where we still hold doors open for each other, say ‘hi’ unselfconsciously on the street, talk over the fence, know our neighbors, help people we don’t know, pick up trash on the street when we see it, and go to amateur baseball games on lazy summer evenings. You can’t go to the store without seeing at least five people you know.
Old-fashioned America. We like each other and are amazingly diverse and supportive of each other - just people trying to do the best they can to love their neighbor as they would want their neighbor to love them.
I’ve lived here all my life, which was not my intent. I wanted to be one of those sophisticated urbanites with posh apartments, regular tables at expensive establishments, and glitzy careers. Instead I am a wife, a mom, an aunt, a sister, and a daughter. I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I was saved from my college-induced romanticization of urban life by my best friend who became my husband and who said “You know, this is a great place to live.”
In my now over-30-year career I’ve worked as a landscape designer, a creative director for an ad agency, a freelance graphic designer, a preschool aide, a college instructor, a business owner, a medical office manager, a website user-interface testing manager, the director of marketing and recruitment for a parochial school, and a fundraiser. All at small businesses and nonprofits. The specialty that has emerged: Strategic Communications and Brand Development. And my most important job: Wife and mother.
I’ve had an average life in an average town with an average family and an average career.
When people discover that I am slightly obsessed with Twitter, with all of its virtual fisticuffs, epithets, sermonizing, and virtue-signaling, it often seems like a major disconnect to my friends and neighbors because that’s not how I live my life or interact with people in the real world. In fact, it’s the kind of thing I literally would cross the street to avoid.
But Twitter is a slow-motion wreck that leaves raw humanity exposed for what it really is - self absorbed, violent, reactionary, herd driven, exclusionary, unable to concentrate, and inconsistent. Which then, in the midst of all this ugliness, leaves us all feeling a little smug about our self perception that we are truly good and superior to the rest of humanity. “Thank God I’m not like those sinners over there.”
Oddly enough, that’s the very reason I’m on Twitter. To people watch. I’ve learned so much (‘not every thought is an important thought’ and ‘delete’ being two such skills), managed to stay relatively non combative, and gotten suckered along with the rest of you. I enjoy both the banter and the intellectual deep dives. I even like watching the brawls. A kind of football for the intellectually exhausted. It’s a paradise for both extroverts and introverts. There aren’t many places like it. Which is probably a good thing.
So how did a nice girl like me who is clearly dispositionally superior to all you idiot reactionaries get rankled today?
It started with this HuffPost article about a mom who is considering cutting her right-wing, Trump-loving in-laws out of her kids’ lives so they don’t become bigots. And this is where you came in.
There are few things in life truly rankle me. But this one. This one finally broke me. Plug your eyes, I’m gonna have to yell:
YOU CANNOT CHANGE THE WORLD BY RUNNING FROM IT.
(I’d put those little clappy hands in there between each word, but they are moral abominations and I am a conservative.)
Phew. My rankle angst is gone - but I should probably explain myself.
In my recent position in education, my colleagues and I have watched with ever-increasing alarm as parents attempt to ‘childproof the world.’ Following in the fearful footsteps of their pre-child selves, they run from cabinet to cabinet locking doors, putting up gates, protecting the corners, removing allergens until there is nothing left for a child to explore but empty space and pre-approved, safety enhanced, medically protected educational toys that would suck the soul out of a turtle.
As these children grow, parents increasingly intervene, attempting to control the world around their child - expecting all disruption, minor emotional challenge, and life intrusion to be removed and every whimper, stomach growl, and moment of insecurity to be addressed and rectified instantly.
For many of us, childhood was exploring the unexplored. Sharp-edged tin cans and pointy sticks. Skinned knees and drinking water from the hose. Dust and chores. Getting lost and finding your way back home, hoping your parents wouldn’t notice you’d worn out your last pair of high-water jeans they were hoping to make last until school started next year.
If you got in trouble at school, you expected to get in more trouble at home. If someone hurt your feelings, you learned to muddle through and figure it out. You learned to make a PB&J sandwich with a real knife and dirty hands if you were hungry and how to pick berries off the vines next to the road.
Sometimes you didn’t get invited to stuff. You might not be the most popular or the smartest kid. You became strong and tough and independent. This was not that long ago. Most of us know this world.
Today, childhood is becoming defined as a time when your parents cater to your every whim. Wait, not YOUR every whim. THEIR every whim. You dance, you look cute, you go to all the appropriate parties, you have all the right friends. Every minute of life is planned and protected. You are enrolled in activities, go to expensive indoor playgrounds, live a bubble-wrapped, discomfort-free existence where all the children are, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, above average.
Before the Twitter mob has convulsions, I want to make clear this is not the experience of everyone. Many families struggle. Some have absentee parents who do not invest in the emotional care and feeding of their children. Children and parents also suffer in violent households and with horrible neglect.
There are so many others who are, despite the current, doing the right thing. I am talking about prevailing aspirational culture. Aspirational culture is that which we desire to have, not what we actually do have.
That is exactly what was happening with this mother. So, in the most genteel and calm way I could, I noted that it was a good example of trying to childproof the world instead of trying to worldproof the child. But the whole article is such a flagrant demonstration of this destructive idea that it almost physically hurts.
A fellow Twitter user responded with a very reasonable question: “I think it’s probably fine that she doesn’t want her kids to be bigots or think that tolerating bigotry is ok. There are a lot of other ways in the world to branch out, right?”
It was then that I realized that my undoubtedly irritating and earnest response was far too complex for Twitter and tangled up in a larger issue that he probably didn’t care that much about.
But the answer is actually a resounding ‘No, there isn’t.’
There is no safer or more effective way to teach your children to not be bigots or to tolerate bigotry than within a safe family relationship. That is how we learn. When we walk away, when we avoid and control, we simply massage our own bigotry. Bigotry generally occurs when we make assumptions about a group of people based on negative experience with people who have commonalities.
By blocking crucial relationships, you are sending unintentional messages that do profound harm to your children, to our society, and to yourself. There are so many reasons why this is a horrible idea that I almost don’t know where to start.
First of all, you are teaching them that ideas are static and bad ideas are irredeemable. What that does is completely ignore the fact that fear, experience, and perspective can all impact us in ways that tend to cause us to develop bad ideas. But those ideas can change and grow and become more complex as we learn from others.
Second, you are teaching them conditional love. Conditional love is perhaps the most selfish and destructive force in our world. Unconditional love changes and heals. Conditional love calcifies and destroys. What kind of person teaches their children, through behavior, that ‘if you say or believe something different than I do, you are unworthy of this family?’
Third, you are teaching your children that someday they can cut you out of their lives because they don’t like your politics and there is nothing you can do to change that. From a purely selfish point of view that seems short sighted. And by the way: Your children WILL disagree with you on politics. If they don’t, they’re probably lying to you. Know why? Because their experience is different.
Finally, children need to learn to push back on ideas in diplomatic and steady ways that will not damage relationships. When I was about 12 years old, I accompanied my very kind and inclusive grandmother to the store. In the course of that trip, she said something that I interpreted as at best bigoted and at worst racist.
I was completely taken aback. Later, in the car, I asked her why she’d said that. We talked about it a long time, discussing it and asking questions of each other. I finally said: “Grammie, I think what you said is really racist and it made me uncomfortable,” and then proceeded to tell her why.
She was silent for the rest of the way home. When we got out of the car she gave me a big hug, told me that she loved that we could talk like that. We then went in and made dinner.
When I was 28, she was taking care of my newborn son and she said she wanted to tell me something. “You know when you called me out for what I said?” she asked. To be honest I barely remembered. “I just want you to know that I’ve thought about that many times over the years and I’m really proud of you. I have been much more careful to examine things I learned as a child. Now that you’re a mother, you understand.”
That is why we want to worldproof our children. We want them to have the strength to respectfully question when they need to, respectfully comply when it’s right, and to critically evaluate information and behavior based on the values they have been taught. My parents deserve incredible kudos for that moment. They worldproofed me. It takes work and they did not shirk it.
Worldproofing your child is using moments and situations where something is wrong or incorrect to teach them to understand consequences, build empathy, create dialogue, and maintain important and loving relationships. We change the world from within these relationships, not by breaking them. You can’t do this with a schedule or a seminar or a box you can check off on a college application. You MUST invest the time. The energy. The focus.
You must sit down with your children in conversation after conversation after conversation and worldproof them. “When grandma said this, how did you feel about it?” “What do you think grandpa meant by this?” “How can we learn to do things differently in our family?” “Why do you think grandpa and grandma think this way?” “What is a kind way we could say something that would help grandma and grandpa see it from another perspective?” “What is important for you?” “What can we learn from all of this?”
I watch a lot of The Andy Griffith Show and am struck by how much of this approach we have lost in today’s aspirational culture. Did some things need to change? Yes, in many, many ways. But we have oddly exchanged a set of brittle and inflexible ideas for another set of even more oppressive brittle and inconsistent ideas. We can do better.
Teach your children to do right by practicing it, not by avoiding it. Encourage the struggle. Give them a front row seat to the messy, complicated, tough world we live in. And teach them to be strong and resilient, gentle and compassionate, unselfish, committed to learning. The kind of person the world needs in order to become healthier.
Then you will have truly set them free.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.