In 2018, I wrote an article called How I’ve started Engaging My Children about Race. I was about two years into my journey of intentional awareness of the systemic racial oppression that exists in our world today and the need for restorative justice. My intent was to write a follow-up article on specific ways to combat racism, but I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to keep going. I was wrong to not keep writing and continue this important conversation. But I am hopeful that the world is finally ready to have these conversations. I’m hopeful that other people like me will start listening more intently and humbly to our friends of color.
We have a long way to go, and it can feel overwhelming to know where to start. But the one place (and in my opinion, the most important place) all mothers can start is at home.
Use Stories as a Launching Pad for Intentional Conversations
For the past two years, I’ve used movies and books as launching pads to have discussions with my kids. We discuss characters who are not what they seem, like Prince Hanz from Frozen or Mother Gothel from Tangled. And we talk about characters who are misunderstood like Shrek or who change dramatically based on circumstances or life choices, like Anakin Skywalker, or Maui from Moana, or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. These discussions lead to learning about complex issues and the nuance that exists in humanity, relationships, tragedy, disappointment, etc.
Life is full of nuance. It’s easy to accept nuance in a story, but in real life, it makes us uncomfortable. We like things orderly, neat, with very clear sides, and no room for grey areas: people are either good or bad; governments are either corrupt or benevolent; a political party is either right or wrong. We prefer to have two mutually exclusive options. This is called binary thinking.
Binary thinking is an obstacle to justice.
Let me give you an example. Binary thinking is what often happens when young kids fight over a toy. One is not getting what they want, so they say, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore.” We try to help them understand how their friend feels. Once the child is calm they are able to acknowledge that finding a way to work together or taking turns is the fairest way to play with this particularly desirable toy. And they are then able to realize that their friend was not in the wrong after all, they just wanted the same thing.
Let me give you a grown-up example. The common comeback, “all lives matter” in response to the phrase, “black lives matter,” oversimplifies the issue so that one does not have to engage with it. Though the phrase is a cry for justice, the response can be used as a means of avoiding the issues altogether by labeling it as incorrect or insufficient (well, actually ALL lives matter).
This is how binary thinking works. It uses labels in order to disregard. Binary thinking soothes our conscience from the possibility that we might be perpetuating oppressive systems and worse, it enables oppression by allowing it to continue unnoticed.
Getting Comfortable with Nuance
With the first example, our goal is to help our children put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This helps them to get comfortable with nuance and have compassion. Unchallenged, the focus is on themselves and their desires. Uncorrected, binary thinking puts them at risk of losing a friend.
If binary thinking works by tempting us to disregard the individual, then getting to know people and their stories is the only way to combat it.
One of the things I love about stories is we get to see what’s going on in someone’s heart. It trains children to look deeper than what we can see on the surface. People are hard to peg. And when we really get to know them, we can start to understand why they might think the way they do, and hopefully be able to disagree respectfully.
My job as a mother is to help my kids to be comfortable when things aren’t simple. My goal is to train them to have open minds, to seek to understand before drawing conclusions, to give the benefit of the doubt and be charitable, to be humble enough to admit they might not know and brave enough to find out. Fictional stories are a launching pad into equipping them to reject binary thinking and get comfortable with nuance.
Instincts of Justice
But I also believe it’s important to be honest with my children about what’s going on in real life. A few weeks ago, my friend Mike Kelsey was interviewed about recent events and talked about raising up the next generation with instincts of justice. I have thought a lot about what that means. If I want to raise my children with instincts of justice, it will require exposing them to the hard realities facing our world, like racism.
I can choose to present them with an oversimplified version of the world in an effort to protect their innocence. But if I shelter them from knowing about the suffering so many people face, they’ll never develop the kind of compassion needed to pursue justice. So I talk about it at a level that they can understand. I model it for them with my own life by advocating for the suffering, being a voice for the voiceless, by taking them with me to vote, by having diverse friendships, by listening to people and learning from people who think differently than me, by participating in peaceful protests, etc.
If we are to raise children to have an instinct to do the work of justice, then we have to teach them both what justice is AND what injustice is. They need to be able to spot injustice in the real world so they can take a stand against it. In a recent post, Mike challenged parents with this: “Speaking up for and intervening on behalf of the mistreated and oppressed should be a NORMAL WAY OF LIFE for them.”
So, if my black friends have to have “the talk” with their kids, then I will absolutely have a talk with my kids too, and I’ll keep having it until the work is done.