By: Wendy Rhein
I’ve been struggling with writing this all day. I have drafted more first, second, and seventh paragraphs than I care to admit and trashed them all. The truth is, my kid and many other kids I know were hurting last week and it infuriates me.
Last week I heard and endured several painful stories about how children interact and label each other. In my own life, and in the lives of no less than three friends in just seven days, I find myself thinking much too much about how kids treat those they consider different.
In one case, an older child, along for a playdate with a little one, felt the need to tell my friend’s child that not only was she adopted, but that her birth parents couldn’t take care of her and she was ‘given up’ so she would have a better life.
And then again, a young girl adopted by a single mom who sometimes joins her precocious daughter for lunch at school. Last week the mom was dismayed that children at a shared lunch room repeatedly asked her daughter why she doesn’t have a daddy, why she looks different from her mom, and told her that her “real” mom didn’t want her so she came to live here. Those are some pretty heady ideas for five-year-olds to come up with on their own.
Then there is the young teenage daughter of two wonderful dads who came home from the bus stop when she should have been on the bus heading to school. Through the tears and blood smudges, she told her stay-at-home dad about the teasing she endures daily about her “queer dads” and how on that particular day she had had enough. She said she knew better than to go to school having beaten the crap out of another girl in their neighborhood. She knew that she, not the offensive and mean-spirited girl, would be the one suspended.
And finally in my own family. This past week my first grader was studying Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the boys in his class said that all King did was make white people and black people fight. He went on to say that King was just a troublemaker.
As a child of an African American father and Caucasian mother, Nathan sometimes questions his racial identity and I have left the label, if one is necessary, to come from him and not me. I tell him he is the best of both of us, that naming his color is not as important as remembering that he is more than white, more than black. He’s his own person.
I was so angry that this little 6 or 7-year-old child in my son’s public school classroom had that kind of power to cast doubt and darkness over the meaning of Dr. King’s work that I launched into an intensely personal and political conversation with Nathan. He learned what “racist” means, that even now people who will judge him, his brother, and many others by the color of their skin and not the content of their character; and we talked about the power of words to change the way people think. I was exhausted. We drifted in and out of different elements of the conversation for hours. I tried to balance his maturity and his age, what he was capable of absorbing and not wanting to scare him or worry him. He’s a thinker, a dweller, and he likes to have a lot of information once he latches on to a topic. But he is six. Just six!
After the lights were out for the night and the last tuck in and good night kisses were shared, he asked me if I knew people who thought that white people should stay with white people and black people with black people. I told him the truth, that yes, I have known those people. He was quiet for a little while. Then he said that if they had their way, we wouldn’t be a family. Not him, not Sam, not me. And that would be awful. Thank God they don’t, I told him.
I imagine that my friends whose stories I mentioned had similar, exhausting, and draining conversations with their kids this week. And I imagine that they all kissed their children goodnight, closed the bedroom doors, and then cried quietly for a while, trying to not wake our dearly loved children in rooms nearby. Hoping and praying that we said or did the right thing. And wondering how much therapy was going to cost us a few years down the road.
What amazes me is that we nontraditional families outnumber the traditional families with 2 parents of 2 genders and biological children. The tradition is no longer the norm. And yet these old ideas about what makes a family and the need to justify how we became a family and why our family is made up of a variety of colors and genders are playground and lunch room conversations among the under 10 set.
These ideas come from somewhere closer to home than a television show or movie. Some kids seem to need to separate “like me” and “others” into separate circles, and the like me circle is increasingly shrinking for those kids. I implore their parents and grandparents to open their own minds and circles so as to not close their children’s.