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Parenting in these Interesting Times is pretty awful sometimes.

It’s also incredible and brings me more hope than nearly anything else has in the last 3 years, though.

My husband and I have three kids. They’re 12, 9, and 8 years old and we’ve been open and honest with them since they were born. We’re both white, and we have worked to raise them with knowledge of their privilege as well as helping them understand anti-racism (instead of “colorblindness”), sexism, and homophobia since a very young age. White families especially need to teach our kids about these things because the wider culture isn’t going to do it for us. We’re “the norm” and it’s unacceptable for us to just let our kids grow up assuming that’s fine.

Our parenting goals have been to respect our kids as autonomous human beings while balancing that with their safety and others’ autonomy. In practice, this means that my kids don’t have to hug people they don’t want to hug, but they had to sit in carseats even if they threw a tantrum. They can choose when to use their screens or read or play outside, but they do have limits that they have to respect.

We aren’t perfect parents by any means. I struggled with undiagnosed, unmedicated postpartum anxiety when they were young and yelled more than I should have. We get frustrated because kids are frustrated and kids are FRUSTRATING! But our parenting priority is treating all kids like the autonomous human beings with fundamental rights that they are.

Which brings me to… today. The Interesting Times I mentioned above. The creeping tide of fascism. Our subculture of xenophobia and jingoism that got put into power by a long process of undemocratic and treasonous gerrymandering and the subjugation of democratic rights.

This is a toughie when you’re talking to sweet, innocent toddlers and preschoolers and idealistic elementary students and sarcastic but still idealistic middle schoolers and high schoolers who just realized their education was false and the democracy (and teachers and pastors and authority figures) they believed were wrong at best, or much worse – liars.


However, there are a few ways to make these discussions a bit more fruitful as a parent, aunt/uncle, or any other loving caregiver.

The first, and the most important for every single age group:

Welcome kids’ emotions and feelings and hold them together with the kids in a safe space. Kids who feel like strong emotions that are coded as negative are “bad” or otherwise unwelcome won’t be open with you. Tears and yelling and anger and hurt and grief are all completely normal and okay – and feeling them with you there for support will mean the kids will learn they don’t have to repress themselves.

For toddlers and preschoolers:

Use the Mr. Rogers method of looking for the helpers. Children at this age desperately need to feel safe with their caretakers. It’s incredibly easy to talk to kids this age about stuff like sex (make it simple, use the correct words for body parts, talk about consent, and discuss it pretty clinically), but discussing death and state-sanctioned kidnapping is REALLY SCARY.

A toddler or preschooler needs to know that they are safe and their parents have the power to keep them safe. Even if it’s not technically true these days (especially if you’re a person of color or an immigrant!), and even if it feels incredibly unfair to get to say “we’re citizens so we are safe” – keep kids’ hearts safe while you’re talking to them about the news. “The government is doing some things that harm these families and the kids and parents are being kept apart right now. This isn’t something that’s going to happen to you, and we and all the other adults we know are working hard to make this better for all the people in trouble. We’re giving money and we’re protesting and we’re making sure new people are put into the government. But it IS terrible, and we’re angry and sad about it. We love you, and we want these kids to have their parents back with them as soon as possible because they love their kids just as much as we love you.” 

For elementary students:

These kids can understand a lot more about the difficulty of pushing back against the government than younger kids can. My kids started learning about the Civil Rights Era in school, and by 2nd grade they were learning about Ruby Bridges being screamed at by white adults and MLK getting assassinated. This varies based on school system. My kids are in Chicago Public Schools where they don’t whitewash it as much as many places do, but I still had to do some “homework” with them about the way people teach this history and how it whitewashes MLK and erases the contributions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Speaking to kids about how we are working hard to improve the people in charge of our country by protesting, voting, donating, etc. is crucial, as is bringing kids to protests and letting them see you living out your ideals. Stand up to family members who are saying hurtful things, “Uncle John, I don’t feel comfortable with you saying that, especially in front of kids. Please be respectful of us.”

Make yourself available to questions the kids have even if they’re scary or upsetting to you. If you can’t answer questions because of your own anxiety or similar mental health struggles, find a trusted adult who can help them. (In my family, my anxiety acts up severely about school shootings, so I refer the kids to my husband when they want to have those discussions.)  Ensure the kids feel like their concerns are important.

Helping kids have something to do to help will help them feel secure AND help them learn activism. Kids can:

  • Make protest signs
  • Help look up charities for your donations
  • Write letters to elected officials
  • Help you call elected officials (call your favorite “family values” politician and tell them your 5th grader has something to say and enjoy the guilt trip!)
  • Look up youtube videos about stepping in when people are being bullied. Non-violent conflict resolution is a great keyword here.

For middle and high school students:

These kids are learning sarcasm and humor and often need reminding that empathy and love and friendship is not uncool. They can do everything the elementary kids can, and they need the same reassurance that little kids need, but they can also start to make their own choices about when to step in. They need to practice how to stand up for people with marginalized identities, how and when to go to an authority figure, and how to stand up to their friends.

You’re not going to be able to teach all of these things but you’re going to be their soft place to land while they practice living out their values. You’ll give them ideas, support them, sometimes maybe march angrily into the principal’s office if they’re treated poorly by authority figures – and you’ll answer their tough questions. Practicing telling the truth when they’re little is so crucial because 1) you’ll have more practice and will feel less awkward and 2) they’ll trust you to tell them the truth and they’ll know you won’t laugh at them for whatever they ask.


The big takeaway to all of this? Teaching kids about difficult topics doesn’t have to be a miserable slog. Kids are smart, interesting, invested human beings who want to make their world a better place. Help them figure out how to do it by giving them ways to take ownership of the world they live in, and help them understand that parents all over the world want nothing more than to protect their babies and children. We can all help, but pretending nothing is going on is going to do kids a major disservice in the long run.

 

Leah Chibe is originally from northern Michigan but has been living on the south side of Chicago for 15 years with her husband and, eventually, kids/dogs/a biergarten in the backyard. She is currently in seminary working to become a Lutheran chaplain. She can be reached at @LeahChibe on Twitter.

Moderator Note from Captain Awkward: 

Could we keep the discussion on this thread for parents of kids under 18, by parents of kids under 18 today? If you don’t have the problem of trying to explain world events to kids right now, cool! This is not your catch-all drive-by politics-feelings-thread. Thank you.

There’s a really interesting conversation about narcissism that popped up in a comment thread yesterday that made me think harder about the “Don’t offer diagnoses for people based on letters or internet comments” rule we have here and I’d like to expand on it.

At length.

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Behind a cut for the casual fatphobia, racism, and misogyny of entitled white folks of a certain age. Update: People are sharing some of the specific slurs and types of comments their bigoted relatives say and asking how to challenge those things esp. in the comments, so I would counsel POC and other marginalized folks especially to be careful before clicking – y’all already know this stuff and maybe you don’t need it in your eyes while we white folks sort out our bullshit.

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Content note: After the jump I mention Rape Threats Dudes Have Sent Me for saying what I think about creepy dudes.

Dear Captain,

Over the past several years I’ve drifted to the periphery of a friend group where one member is a sexist creep. I immediately found him slimy and pushy and off-putting upon meeting him, but gave him the benefit of the doubt because he’s my friend’s brother — and then learned that he’s heavily into PUA bullshit and was pretty much being awful on purpose. It was a few years into my friendship his sister that he started hanging out with everyone, and as he’s spent more time with the group, I’ve spent much less. (Not just because of him, but he’s definitely one reason.) There’s only one friend I’ve explicitly discussed this with, and he’s sympathetic when we talk privately, but I don’t get the sense Mr. Plumed Fedora experiences much pushback at all from anyone in the group — including me, which is also something I’m really struggling with — when he casually complains about “feminazis,” creeps on every woman he encounters, etc.

Recently an opportunity came up to maybe spend more time with the group and I was kind of excited about it but… I truly loathe this guy and resent the amount of time I’ve already spent with him. Is there a good way to say “Your brother/friend is a misogynist and I don’t want to be around him, no offense”? Should I suck it up? Continue fading out? Finally learn to stop avoiding conflict?

Thanks,
M’lady Nay

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Content note: There are mentions of suicide later in this post and also some very US-specific political stuff.

I promise not to turn this blog into an all politics, all US health-care policy all the time site, but this couldn’t be more important or personal to me. I could not in good conscience neglect the platform that this site and this community has given me to speak. Thank you for reading.

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So, you said something racist. Or, someone told you that you said something racist.

Or, someone you really like & admire said or did something racist, or is getting told on for saying something racist.

And now you feel uncomfortable. You feel guilty, maybe, or ashamed. Whatever it is, it’s weird and you don’t like it.

What I need you to do when this happens is stop, drop, and be quiet for a minute. You are not Racism Columbo, your job is not to interrogate the situation for whether it is actually, “objectively” racist. Your job is not to find the motive, to drill down to whether it was intended to be racist. Your job is not to revert to High School Debate Club mode and split hairs looking for plausible deniability. Your job is not to defend your fave from the racist stuff they said!

Your first job is to shut the fuck up for a second. If you have to say something, say “I’m sorry.” Then stop talking. Definitely stop typing in that little social media window. Stop. Don’t. Make. It. Worse. Honestly, if most people just stopped there, the world would start becoming a marginally better place almost instantly.

Important: Engaging with white people about race is an incredibly high-stakes and potentially exhausting activity for a person of color to take on. (Women, think of the last time you tried to sincerely engage with a sexist dude who mansplained your world to you. Did you need a drink/seventeen naps afterward? Did you feel like you’d been trapped in a horrible alternate reality with no way out? Yeah.) So if someone is willing to actually talk with you about this, chances are it is an investment having a better relationship with you, not a drive-by insult-fest or attack designed to tear you down and make you feel terrible and hate yourself. They are talking to you about it because they want you to get it and to stop doing the hurtful thing so that they can keep working with/hanging out with you. The people who hate your guts or think you’re a lost cause will just avoid you. There are worse things you could do than just listen without interrupting. 

Step 2, after that initial encounter, instead of trying to justify or excavate why whatever it is isn’t racist or isn’t “really” racist or wasn’t meant to be racist or isn’t usually racist or is racist only on Tuesdays, think about why it is or could plausibly be racist. (Think about this quietly, inside your head.) Why might someone see it that way? What context or history are you missing? How might your action look to someone who doesn’t know about your pure heart and good intentions, somebody who experiences the same “mistakes” and “slip-ups” over and over again from white people? And what are the relative stakes & consequences here if you’re wrong? The saying about misogyny goes: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.” Welp, white people are worried about being unfairly called racist and feeling weird about it. People of color are worried about dying (in medical situations, at the hands of police, from environmental racism, etc. etc. etc.)

The history of racism is complex enough and insidious enough that chances are:

  1. Yep, race is a factor affecting that “fun” or “simple” thing you’re discussing. That one, too.
  2.  It’s just possible that we white folks have some rill big knowledge gaps about it.
  3. Automatically discounting someone’s lived experience or point of view just because we’re momentarily uncomfortable is a crappy thing to do and we should stop it.

There are steps after that. Reading. Listening. Self-reflection. Finding ways to do the work of dismantling racism. Here is one organization that is doing work. Here is another. This one, too. (Don’t take my word for it or get distracted by whether any of these are the Perfect One. Do research and find something that works for you.)

For today, here are your steps if you should make a mistake and say or do something racist:

  1. AT MINIMUM, DON’T MAKE IT WORSE. This almost certainly means saying “I’m sorry” followed by a period of listening and quiet reflection.
  2. During that quiet time, think about what it would mean to accept, at face value, someone else’s insight on what is or might be racist. What do you lose when you say to yourself hey, wait a second, I’m the one who screwed up, so maybe I’m not the expert here?

Baby steps, friends.

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and just love it! Your answers and the community here are both awesome. So thanks. My question is really tough and I’m afraid your answer is going to be “there is no actual compromise possible here.” But I’m going to try.

My husband and I were both raised as extremely religious Catholics. When we were dating (courting??) we both agreed that we wanted to have lots of kids, like a dozen, and homeschool them all. Over eight years of marriage, we’ve both changed a lot. We’re both a lot more liberal and our kids are going to public school. After the third kid, we both agreed that we no longer wanted to have any more kids. But, being Catholic, there are only two allowed solutions: NFP (natural family planning, also known as Vatican Roulette), and total abstinence. We did that for a miserable year and a half and then, predictably, got pregnant with our fourth.

I cannot describe how horrible this has all been to me. Four kids is A LOT OF KIDS, especially given that the oldest is only seven. I loathe being pregnant with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. All of them have been high needs. I haven’t slept well since 2009. My husband is exhausted too; he cried like a baby when he found out we were having the fourth and I believe he is still depressed about it four months after she was born.

And I no longer see any point to this punishingly difficult lifestyle since I am no longer Catholic. Between kid 3 and kid 4, I did a lot of studying and am now entirely agnostic. My husband was really upset by my deconversion and mostly prefers not to talk about it at all. He’s become a lot more skeptical about his faith, but he does think it’s true and it worries him to think I might be going to hell. Meanwhile I now think that birth control is definitely the greatest thing since indoor plumbing.

Our birth control method now, given that NFP so obviously does not work, is abstinence. Every couple of weeks my husband can’t stand it anymore so we have non-PIV sex. Only there is zero communication about this. I think his perspective is that, if he’s got to “sin,” at least he’s not going to make it worse by premeditating it. The problem is that it’s obvious both of us want to take it further and I know from experience how hard it is to think clearly when you’re horny. I am terrified that sooner or later we’re going to get pregnant again. I cannot, CANNOT go through pregnancy again; I get the shakes just thinking about it. Meanwhile our sex life is completely screwed up from the NFP and then the whatever-this-is we’re doing now, so that neither of us is really enjoying it that much and we both kinda feel like roommates. It sucks and the thought of doing this till menopause is awful.

I want to go on birth control. He doesn’t even want to discuss it. He told me some time ago that if I did go on birth control, he’d continue to feel obligated to never have sex again because contracepted sex is a sin. I don’t want to do something unilaterally if it truly would upset him, but on the other hand I feel like his religion will make it impossible for him ever to agree to it, even if he WERE okay with it, because that would implicate him in the “sin.” So I can’t find out how he really feels about it. And then there’s the money issue … we don’t have insurance and all the really effective birth control methods are pretty expensive. With his cooperation we could easily save up the money for it in a couple of months, but since I’m a full-time carer for the kids, I don’t have much in the way of my own separate money. And it’s not like a couple thousand dollars are sitting around in the bank right now for me to just take and use … even if I would feel okay unilaterally spending that amount of money, given that normally all major purchases have to be okayed by both of us. And I have almost no one in my life who isn’t fanatically Catholic, certainly no one I could call on to drive me home from getting my tubes tied.

What, dear Captain, would you do? Can you help me come up with a script for “seriously, we need to actually TALK about what we’re doing and your Catholic guilt and denial are not helping”? I have been quietly waiting for the past two years or so for him to come around, but he hasn’t, and I feel our disastrous fourth pregnancy is my fault for agreeing to rely on the broken fire escape that is NFP instead of going behind his back and somehow getting an IUD. Yet I still hesitate to make such a big decision unilaterally; I’m equally scared to tell him (and face his hurt feelings) or not tell him (and have a big whopping secret looming over my head). And of course there are the practical issues.

Thanks for reading my lengthy novel,

Offred (Just Kidding) (Mostly)

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