After stumbling into this new level of awareness, I started to ask myself why my kids are so well behaved. I am not a perfect mom. I don’t really do discipline well at all. I once tried to spank my youngest and I ended up laying on the floor, a giant wad of regret and tears…before I could even spank her. I just don’t have it in me to do much more than the oft-criticized “time out.” Am I just lucky? Is it just grace-filled happenstance that my kids did not prove true the commonplace that you will see your own childhood behavior revisited upon you in your children? These questions swirled in my head for days, before my youngest provided the answer.
As one component of my job, I teach argument and advocacy to elementary school students after school. Last week, I looked over and saw my youngest (who really struggles with academics) mentoring a young boy (one of the sharpest in the program) on constructive language. “How do you know all of this stuff?,” he asked. “I’ve been around this my whole life. It is all we do,” she replied. Ding! Ding! Ding! This was my light bulb moment! My kids are not extra eager to show respect, follow rules, or talk things out because they are amazing Superchildren. Nope, they do it because it is the only way they know.
This interaction, in addition to bringing me a new understanding of their behavioral choices, brought to mind discussions with other parents regarding the role of talk in their families. So often, I hear, “They are too young to talk about that,” “That is not an appropriate topic,” or “That is too political for them at this age.” My girls used to hear that too. Thankfully, they are too young to remember. I, being foolishly assured of my own open-mindedness since birth, used to be in the camp of parents who put off topics like racism, sexism, problems with our government, and violence for the later years, when they could, you know, “really understand.”
Then, something happened. It is something that I share often with my students in discussions of privilege. My 4 year old daughter (who is biracial) had an acute and aggressive interaction with a racist preschool teacher that was so harmful that the woman was fired. That incident changed my thinking about talking to kids, forever. It was the day I realized that neither my comfort nor my arbitrarily assigned age-appropriate designation were relevant to the lives my girls were leading. It was because of that incident that I stopped isolating my debate skills to use in competitions for self-edification or the approval of peers. On that day, I realized that everything I taught to students about debate, dialogue, and advocacy was near-meaningless when confined to academia. Having the tools to talk to others and really listen changes the way that children feel about themselves and others. It builds self-respect. It humanizes. It is uncomfortable. It is necessary, if for no other reason than to give children the confidence to put themselves in uncomfortable situations, to surround themselves with difference, and feel equipped to navigate the seemingly intractable without resorting to violence or isolation.
Most parents realize pretty quickly that children learn more from our behavior than from our instructions. If we want to create a world in which people talk to each other, like really talk with respect and honesty, then we have to model that. We cannot cordon off honest dialogue and critical thinking to “adult only spaces,” because that means we are not modeling the behavior for our kids and we are not giving them the respect they need to receive in order to establish a baseline of respect that they must demand for themselves throughout their lives.
In my home, there is no topic that is off-limits. Seriously. Because this issue of failure to talk is not just about what we do with one another as adults, it is about how we engage our children. Need to ask about sex? Ok, let’s do it. Want to ask what an “inappropriate” word means? No fake stories here. Do you feel like asking about school shootings? Yes, let’s have that conversation. There is only one guideline: a shared understanding that we will listen to one another and respond in a way that values one another as human beings, even if we disagree.
I think we really need to reframe the way that so many of us think about talking to kids and specifically when it comes to talking to them about uncomfortable subjects. Instead of thinking about it as ruining their childhood, we need to think about it as giving them the strength, tools and information to navigate their childhood. Because the reality is, these “adult” issues affect them. As parents, we hate that. We want to the world to be perfect. It is not. Our job is help our kids make sense of the real world, the one they actually live in, where bad things do happen. The way the scary parts/people/systems of this world interact with kids in particular demands several discussions that allow them to develop the proper lexicon to explain the way that these things impact them.
And, if the first thought that pops into your head is, “X issue doesn’t affect my kid so it can be off limits for now,” I encourage you to take a moment to be deeply introspective about what that says to your kids. I’ll be clear: What it says is that the topic is not relevant to their lives because it is someone else’s problem. If you make the decision to create that bubble around your child, please keep in mind that empathy is modeled before it is induced. It may be easier now, but when kids have a hard time seeing their classmates (or even their teachers) as worthy of respect and kindness later, remember that those walls were not built overnight.
How can children find the real beauty amidst the chaos of life, in God’s masterpiece, in a deep and genuine way, if they are not existing in the real world? God did not ask us to raise our children up in comforting lies. No, He asked us to please him through righteous lips that speak honestly (Proverbs 16:13).
Here is where I started. Whenever I am hesitant to talk to my children about something, I pause and ask myself the following questions:
Does my discomfort stem from my privilege? (It doesn’t affect me directly so, I can put it off or ignore it all together.)
Does my discomfort come from a lack of knowledge on the subject?
Is my discomfort born of fear?
If the answer to ANY of those questions is “yes,” then I know I must talk about it with my kids. Of course, from a place of respect for who they are, their cognitive capabilities, and their needs.
We cannot concoct a fairy tale world for our kids and then lament their inability to cope, to be resilient, to behave in ways that are both socially appropriate and kind, to listen to authority (or anyone for that matter), or to trust us to help them navigate their paths. The thing is, we should absolutely be uncomfortable talking about important topics. We should engage in reflection before certainty, and then more reflection.
We have to be willing to take the time think about our words, to have difficult discussions even if that means sacrificing some of the schedule, and to stop shutting our kids down in the name of our own comfort. Our kids are watching, listening, and reproducing our behaviors. When we shut them down, they learn it is ok to be shut down and to shut down others. When we refuse to talk about important subjects because they don’t matter yet or don’t affect us, they learn that the problems of others don’t matter until their comfort level is met. If we want kids to show respect and to embody self-respect, we have to remember that the foundation for that is how we communicate with them.