The Responsibility of Raising Little White Boys and Girls
Last week our nation took a day to remember and celebrate the life and impact of Martin Luther King Jr.
He is best remembered for his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech in which he disclosed that his dream was that "little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and girls as brothers and sisters." Much time has passed since King's voice rang out in a prophetic cry for justice and unity and although it is true we have made progress, I think we would all agree that we still have a long way to go.
Raising children who are free from prejudice, defenders of the oppressed and upholders of justice is a part of Ryan and my mission as parents. When I hear King's dream I feel a heavy responsibility as I look around my table and I see little hands painted with the color, our sinful world has designated to privilege.
You need to know that as I write these words I do so from such a humble place. I know the issue of racial injustice is a road filled with pain and misunderstanding, and I have wrestled with the Lord over these words because I feel so inadequate to add anything to the conversation. I sense God telling me that is why these words must be written though, because I know I'm not alone in my heavy feelings of longing and lostness. I know that there are other mothers out there who want to raise children who, as King said, "judge people not by the color of their skin, but the conduct of their character." but where do we even start; how do we walk this out in our motherhood journeys?
1. It starts with saying "something"
I believe so often in our ambitions of raising these little humans, when it comes to hard subjects, for fear of saying something wrong or offensive, we say nothing and that is the biggest mistake we can make.
In our silence on issues of prejudice and racism we send our children a message that speaks volumes.
Our silence tells them that this issue is uncomfortable and is best avoided.
Our silence tells them that differences are wrong and if differences are wrong then the way they know must be "right".
King said it so well, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
2. We acknowledge the fear
"I'm scared of people with black skin." When those words came out of our, then six year old, son's mouth, they knocked the wind out of my chest.
Where did this come from? How could he think such a thing? Where have we failed him as parents? Up until this point, Ryan and I thought we were being intentional about keeping racism out of our home and family. We had talked with our kids about how God purposely makes everyone unique and how differences make our world more beautiful.
My knee jerk reaction was to yell at my son and tell him to never say that again. To explain to him that he was wrong to feel that way and that he couldn't judge or fear people just because they look different than him.
I have found that it's never good to parent from a place of panic... never. So I let that moment pass and then later after I had talked with Ryan and prayed about it, I reopened that conversation with our son and asked him some more questions. Through talking and asking him questions we established that he wasn't scared of his friend and classmate who is black, just adults who have "really black skin."
As much as it made me uncomfortable to hear my son say these things, I knew that God wanted us to step into that discomfort with him. It was through this uncomfortable experience with our son that God taught us never to dismiss our kids when they come to us with something they believe or feel.
In that situation my initial reaction was to tell our son he couldn't feel that way, but that's not how humans work. No one can tell us not to feel what we are feeling. God convicted us that a place where feelings are not validated is a place void of compassion and understanding and what kind of hypocrites would we be if we preached a message of love, acceptance, and unity on a platform of indifference.
So we met our son where he was at, we listened to him, validated his feelings and through doing so God taught us an invaluable lesson.
Fear is not the problem, it's holding on to our fears and not allowing God to change our perspectives that leads to destructive places.
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear." 1 John 4:18
We fear things that are unknown to us, that is just our default as humans. That is why our son was not putting his friend in the same category as black adults because his friend was familiar to him and we were saddened to realize that our son had not been exposed to regular interactions with black people of all different ages. We realized that was on us and that is when we began to pray that God would give us opportunities to live out His love in a more diverse way.
We realized that it wasn't enough for us to simply tell our kids that everyone is welcome at God's table, but we had to show them the truth of that by setting out extra plates and extra chairs at our own table.
3. Find resources that open doors for conversations
The truth is our son's proclamation that day pushed us as his parents to hold up a mirror and see our own fears, prejudice, excuses, and ignorance. We realized that we had work to do in this area and if we were going to begin to open up our hearts and our homes to people of other races and cultures then it would mean humbling ourselves and becoming students. It would mean pushing through the uncomfortable, the embarrassing, and the awkward because those are inevitable as you journey from the unknown into the familiar.
We started to look for movies, books, podcasts, radio programs, etc. that would push us to grow in our understanding and passion of this topic and also open up conversations for us to talk about issues of racism and prejudice with our kids.
If we're watching something and we see prejudice, even if it's subtle and/or coming from an all around "good" character, we pause the movie and explain what just happened and why that wasn't right. Our kids need to know that prejudice can be a blind spot even with people that they may know and love so this is a great way to teach them that no one is off limits from thinking of themselves as better than others, but that no matter who it's coming from, it's never okay.
Recently we were listening to Adventures in Odyssey, a children's radio program by Focus on the Family and it was telling the story of the Jubilee Singers, a choir group that emerged out of Fisk University, the first institution to allow black people. On occasion we would pause the episode and talk to our kids about what was happening, for example Why did someone shoot through the window while they were having choir practice? Were they doing anything wrong? When the choir teacher lifted the students shirt to make sure he was okay why was he so shocked and saddened? (scars from being whipped while he was a slave). One of our sons made the connection that Nellie Olson whipped her horse on one episode of Little House on the Prairie and that led to us talking about slavery and how some white people treated black people worse than you would an animal because they did not believe black people had the same amount of worth as themselves which led to us talking about who is the giver of our worth and that all humans, no matter the color of our skin, are created in the image of God.
If you are looking for them you will find teachable moments are everywhere. We have found that when we resist the urge to let these moments pass and instead step into them, our kids are usually the ones who blaze the path for our conversations with their questions and curiosity.
4. Don't shelter your children from the dark because in doing so you stifle their ability to become the light.
I realize some people may think it's terrible to talk about terrible things like slavery with children so young, and obviously this is something that each family needs to walk out in a unique way, but I'm going to share my views on this and you can take them or leave them.
When we were in the adoption process of our oldest son, I had a child of a friend ask me questions about adoption and why we needed to adopt our son. I didn't go into detail, I just simply said that our son's first mommy and daddy couldn't take care of him and because our son couldn't walk he wasn't being taken care of in the way that he needed so God wanted us to be his family and love and care for him. I later found out that my friend was upset that I would share those truths with her son (who was the same age as our adoptive son was at the time) because "he didn't need to know that those terrible things exist."
I was heartbroken by this experience because I realized that my friend wanted to shelter her child from the reality of my child's life. I felt like she was choosing to keep her son protected in the privilege he had of being born into a loving family and in doing so rob him of the opportunity to gain compassion and understanding for my soon to be son.
I tend to approach the conversations we have with our kids through this lense. If I was the mother to a black son talking to my child about racism would not be an option I would get so why would I think it should be an option for me as I am raising kids who will be his friends?
Do I want my kids to know that darkness like racism, prejudice, sickness, and abuse exists in this world? No, but I believe that rather than sheltering them in our happy little white Christian bubble, the better approach is to hold their hand and safely walk with them into the dark places, teaching them that although darkness exists God tells us we have nothing to fear because He is with us.
"If I say, "surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." Psalm 140: 11-12
I want to raise kids who learn to bravely carry the burdens of others and that can't happen if we send them the message that the painful realities of others does not affect them.
To quote Dr. King one more time, "Only in the darkness can you see the stars."
May the truth that rings in the words of Dr. King's words resound in our families not just one day a year, but may they always echo in the heartbeats of our homes. For where perfect love lives there cannot be hate and where Jesus is present, there is no fear.