By Lisa J. Keating
The week of September 28 to October 2, 2015 is Ally Week, a sponsored campaign by Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). www.glsen.org/allyweek
According to their website, “Ally Week is an opportunity for students to engage in a national conversation about the meaning of allyship. Ally Week is for everyone: straight and cisgender allies to LGBT youth are encouraged to learn about what actions they can take to support their LGBT peers, while LGBT youth can learn about how to support one another’s overlapping, intersecting identities” For our family, Ally Week has a special meaning since our daughter is transgender.
I’m known at Stella’s school as the Ally Coach, or maybe to some “that mom who is always around school.” I facilitate a program that teaches students how to be allies. When I was growing up, I didn’t have healthy conflict resolution skills or relationship building tools. I was a shy, insecure kid with a deep seeded passion for justice. The adults I knew didn’t teach me how to advocate for myself. Mostly I was told a version of the sentiment that life sucks and you just make the most of it. That inner voice we try to reclaim as adults (that grows into a whisper) was LOUD and prevalent as a child. Unfortunately, we adults do a spectacular job of conditioning kids to shut that voice off.
Imagine if we took a step back and automatically believed that kids knew what they were talking about? Listen, I am the first to admit that my child can ramble on like the best of them, especially about Pokemon. What I’m talking about is curbing the instinct to constantly correct kids or use every ever-loving-moment as a “teaching moment”. How annoyed would you be if your boss or spouse constantly invalidated your perceptions because they were different from theirs? I catch myself doing this to my kid a lot.
I find myself in tit-for-tats with Stella frequently. I end up wondering if it’s because I think I am providing a useful or alternative perspective or do I need to prove my adult knowledge? Whenever I come up against this dilemma I refer back to my own childhood. It is a rich resource lending insights to what would have been helpful to me growing up. You know those “what if?” questions.
A person’s ability to articulate situations and circumstances in 4th grade vastly differ from a 34 year old. Just because that 10 year old may describe a situation in incomplete and esoteric sentences doesn’t make it less real or frustrating. When I am asking a string of clarifying question to get to the root of what’s going on for Stella it doesn’t take long for her to give up because I don’t get it. She’ll shut down and tell me to never mind, “I’m fine.” (Gut check!)
This is when I get to take a different approach. What I am doing is not working or helping. Most importantly, I am not living Stella’s experiences. As caring adults, we can sympathize and empathize but we truly do not know what is going on internally for any one other than ourselves. (Boy is that an ego blow as a parent!) There is a false perspective in the parenting world that we know what’s best for our child. Personally, I am finding this to be more and more false the longer I practice parenting. Maria Montessori said, “Children are human beings whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibility of their future.”
As I reflect on the purpose of Ally Week and what I can do; I’m choosing to focus on fostering the practice of listening to that inner voice in children. Let’s explore the significance of this skill. That little voice is our internal compass, who’s primary job is to keep us from harm. Sometimes that harm is physical and more times than not it’s trying to keep us from emotional harm. Frenemies is a part of our vernacular for a reason.
Picture how different middle schools and high schools could be if children were conditioned to listen to that voice? Would there be the same level of bullying, intimidation, harassment, drug abuse, self-harm or sexual assault?
What if students grew-up with the practice of taking action by listening to that inner voice? Whether that is standing up for themselves or another student. Learning to be an ally, as early as possible, is an invaluable life skill. Think about all the times you’ve thought about what you instincts were telling after ignoring them. How many obstacles could you have avoided by following that little voice?
Join me this week in being an ally! Engage with your community. Talk about how you can improve it, be in service and contribute to a safer, more inclusive environment for everyone.
5 Tips to Foster Allyship:
1. Introduce books with characters rich in diversity (gender, race, expression, identity).
2. Engage your child or students in conversations that encourage empathy. “How would you feel if (blank)?” or “What would you do if (blank)?”
3. Encourage the kids in your life to pay attention to that inner voice. Ask them questions
like, “What is it telling you?” Or “What do you think the solution is?”
4. Empower kids to be a part of a solution. Don’t just give them suggestions or orders to execute. When children get to shape their world, it organically breeds leadership.
5. Most importantly, BE the example. Whatever you want children to learn or be, keep in mind that they are watching you like a hawk! As Mahatma Gandhi brilliantly said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”