From Social Justice

Raising Bilingual Kids

Raising Our Children to Be Bilingual

0

We never questioned whether or not we would raise our children to be bilingual while living in the United States.

Raising Bilingual Kids

My husband is from Ecuador and I am from Texas. If I could help my children speak Spanish without my Texas twang (I speak Spanish with a heavy Texan accent), I would do so. When my first son was born, my husband spoke only Spanish to both of us. I spoke English to everyone, because frankly as a sleep-deprived mother, I was lucky if I could spit out a complete sentence in my native tongue. In order to further instill Spanish in an English dominant society, we also placed our children in a Spanish immersion preschool. Thus, my children’s bilingualism wasn’t an issue for us. In the rest of the country, however, dual language and multi-lingualism aren’t without controversy.

image

Our current place of residence, Texas, has a particularly complex and dark history with speakers of foreign languages. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most schools punished students for speaking any language but English. As a result, many non-native English speakers taught their children to speak English in order to save them from the horrible maltreatment they faced while in school. Other immigrant parents emphasized English as a way to demonstrate their loyalty to their chosen country. While attitudes toward bilingualism and multi-lingualism have changed, remnants of the discrimination against non-native English speakers remain in our country. My neighbor, who ironically has a sign written in German on his back fence, also has a bumper sticker that says, “Welcome to America. Now either speak English or leave.”

Raising Bilingual Kids

In 2005, a Kansas school suspended a 16-year-old boy for speaking Spanish in the hall between classes (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/08/AR2005120802122.html). In Hempstead, Tx., a principal announced over the intercom that students were now banned from speaking Spanish in school (http://www.texasobserver.org/hempstead-habla-espanol/).

Fortunately, this type of xenophobia, while still present, is no longer the rule. In fact, a number of cities in Texas and around the country have instituted dual language schools. In Austin alone, we have dual language schools pairing English with Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Many English-only speaking parents transfer their children into these schools as a way to secure their children’s fluency in a foreign language. Still, opinions abound on the best way to educate our multi-lingual society.

In our own immediate family, we have received mostly support over our decision to raise our children in a bilingual household. A few people have wondered if the two different languages would confuse our children. Fortunately, a lot of research demonstrates the benefits of knowing more than one language. Studies show a marked improvement in cognitive abilities, situational awareness and, later in life, a delayed onset of dementia in bilingual individuals (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0).

I hope that my children will benefit cognitively from their language skills, and I am also glad that they will have the ability to travel to another region of the world and speak to the people like a native speaker.

In my opinion, the greatest advantage we have given our children is to bridge some of the gaps between foreign and native populations and to reduce their likelihood of viewing people as the “other.” After all, language is communication and to be able to understand another population reduces our isolation from that population. In testament to this fact, Israel has a few public schools that teach in both Hebrew and Arabic languages (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/in-some-israeli-schools-its-arabic-in-first-period-and-hebrew-in-second/275300/). Students in these schools not only benefit from the educational advantages of bilingualism, they also become more accepting of other cultures as well. I also hope that my children become more open-minded and compassionate through their bilingualism. The only thing I worry about their bilingualism in an English dominant society is that they will lose it.

Teaching our kids tolerance and respect for all people.

Holiday Notes From a Muslim Mom

0

Muslim women are oftentimes easy to spot. We wear a scarf around our heads as an open declaration of faith. Based on cultural preference, this head-covering varies from vibrantly colored wraps to longer, flowing styles. Not all Muslim women choose to carry such an obvious banner of religious identity, but a lot do.

Teaching our kids tolerance and respect for all people.

This, fortunately and unfortunately, has put us in a sort of spotlight. Don’t worry though, if you spot us you can rest assured we’re generally harmless, sleep deprived and pretty approachable. We may seem a little grouchy in the morning before the coffee has kicked in and sometimes very disheveled trying to haul two or more squirmy toddlers into a quiet library for story-time. Feel free to stop us on our tracks to say hello. We love the holiday season as much as the next hot chocolate addict. There are worse things you can do (and have been done) to Muslim women in the recent months. Be a proactive element in strengthening the ties of community love and humanity. Let’s teach our children how to keep those bridges of harmony and love intact as these ideals are attacked on a daily basis.

News anchors, presidential candidates, and several other spokespeople with a platform from which to eject words to larger audiences have been feeding a very evil image of the average Muslim person. As false as it may be, the waves of fear mongering have swept across the globe and unsettled everyone’s sense of safety and security.

After a monstrous attack or fatal atrocity occurs, my phone begins buzzing. Fellow moms, Muslims and not, share information about the events as they are leaked by media sources. We exchange feelings of sorrow that the world is in such chaos. That there are people out there hurting others, individually or en mass. We weep for families who are waiting for news, we pray for survivors.

Our hearts squeeze together, wondering how we can raise children in such a scary world. A world that can hurt innocent people senselessly and create dangerous rifts between people who are of different faiths, cultures, and races.

We begin conversations with our children. There are some people who say some mean things about Muslims. You can always talk to us about it. There are other kids who may be going through the same thing. It can be a little hurtful and scary if you get teased about what you believe. Don’t worry, we continue to explain, they’re only confused. People who make judgement calls on large groups of people can do very dangerous things. The important thing is to continue to have a good and pure heart. Look for the people who have kind and open hearts, too. Always smile, and be positive. Don’t doubt who you are or be ashamed. Throughout history, even grown ups have made really big mistakes about other people. A time came when Native Americans were stripped of their land and dehumanized. There are African Americans to this day who are treated unjustly. From Catholics to Japanese Americans – there has always been a time when a group of people were seen as scary when they really weren’t. Don’t worry, we remind them again, there are still good people. Be a good person so when someone mean comes across you, your goodness can create a light that may draw them closer to knowing who you really are.

There are a number of holidays that are being celebrated around this time of year. A nice list that my children learned about in school and a few they didn’t. For those which weren’t included, I’ll make a polite note to their teachers to become even more inclusive in the coming years to expose children to an even wider array of religions and cultures that are coexisting on this earth. That’s the least we can do to counter a lot of the rhetoric out there causing divisions between races, cultures, religions, and ways of life.

We had the opportunity to watch a few live-streamed sessions from the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah this year. It was an immensely pleasurable experience to see people of all different faiths and belief systems come together and celebrate the unity of humanity, spirituality, and love. There was a notable session in which women came together and shared their experiences of celebrating life by highlighting their own roles as mothers and caregivers.

As nurturers, we play such a crucial role in how our children grow up to partake in society and evolve into open minded and caring adults. Let’s begin today by learning about someone who is different from those living inside our four walls and begin a proactive journey to combat the violence and prejudice that exists today.

So from this Muslim mom to all the other parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, little tykes, more – Merry Milad-un-Nabi, Khwanzaa, Bodhi Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Omisoka, Festivus and many more holiday celebrations to you and a Happy New Year!

What parenting an infant can teach us about social justice.

The Nights I Get Things Right

3

My son is a toddler. Two and a half years old. I refuse to call it the ‘terrible twos’, and instead call it the “trying twos” as a reminder of what we’re all experiencing. It’s a trying time for him – to carve his place in this world, and trying for us parents – to be patient and compassionate and to stay out the way when the urge is to ‘complete the task’ or soothe the tears. It’s okay to cry, and sometimes, it’s ok to let that be, or to soothe.

I call it the ‘trying twos’ because when you flip the script you also alter that old saying and knock it on its side.

What parenting an infant can teach us about social justice.

About a week had passed and my son and I were stuck in a rut. There were nightly tears when I stopped our playtime and said it was time for bed. I read and attempt to practice RIE (Resources for Infant Educators) and mindful parenting. I often turn to the founder of RIE Magda Gerber’s wisdom when I’m stuck in a parenting moment and yet here I’d let almost an entire week pass. I’ve done my best at creating ‘yes’ spaces and I talk with my toddler in a conversation of adult emotional albeit simplified, detail. For some reason though, these ideas are hard to incorporate when I’m overly tired, or stressed, or in a hurry. It’s as though I’m hardwired to dictate as a parent (time to do this, let’s go, hurry up) and it takes real effort to think before I act and speak with the kindness I want us all to share with each other.

The night things really came together, I played with him, spoke to him and let him know that soon, after the ‘train ride’ we were on, we would tidy up and head upstairs to read, have a bath and go to sleep. He listened. He went to sleep that night without having cried, without whining, without telling me to lie down beside him, and I tuned into the news of the day – another mass shooting in America.

Fourteen dead. The same number of women killed by Marc Lépine at the École Polytechnique December 6th, 1989. Lépine claimed he was “fighting feminism.” Fourteen. The number I would explain to my child as an actor in a high school docudrama performed in 1990, when asked, “How many is fourteen?” “One plus one plus one plus one..” and so on, I replied. The impact of Lépine’s actions has never left me. And now, twenty-six years later, I’m wondering how I will explain any number of deaths to my son. Deaths by guns.

The nights I get things right, are the nights I think twice about raising my voice, when inside there is turmoil and rage for wanting things ‘to run smoothly’ to, ‘go as planned’. Parenting, like so many lessons in life, continues to ask me to slow down, to be present. Parenting asks me to let go of the lists and plans in my head, to be open and willing and accept the present state of not knowing and play.

“There are steps we can take to make America safer,” American President Obama said after the shootings in San Bernardino on Wednesday December 2nd, 2015. He didn’t suggest what those steps are though; he is perhaps not able to be so honest as to what it will really take. It will take a lot of courage in educating ourselves and our children to be strong, emotional, supportive and understanding beings for each other.

The nights I get things right, I am a very present parent, focused on listening and guiding with kindness. I still get things done, not through pleading or begging, or saying it’s so, but by listening, supporting, laughing and slowing down. Owning a gun if you live off the land, are a farmer, a rancher, or a law enforcer, makes sense. Otherwise owning a gun is nothing but a sign of fear. We can all be intimidated by the notion of other at some time. It is indeed, a whopping of an emotion. Think about how you felt when you met someone you really liked. There was an element of fear there. Of nervous energy about the unknown. Or that first time you played a sport, rode a bike, got on a plane, ate bugs.. insert whatever you want here, fear is a naturally occurring emotion. Does owning a gun erase your fear? No.

It’s hard to listen when you are afraid. It’s hard to listen when you ultimately disagree. It’s hard to listen when you don’t understand what someone is going through, is trying to say, or is speaking a different language. It’s really hard to listen with a gun in your hand. A gun in your hand closes your ears and your heart.

How can we disagree in our beliefs, in our religions, and still stand beside one another? A gun ends a conversation before it begins. One of things that RIE encourages is creating a safe space, a yes space for infants and children to walk/lie/climb and play without restrictions. No sharp edges, nothing that will spark an adult to say ‘no, put that down’ or ‘don’t touch that’. We do this, I think, to instill a safety that allows for uninhibited play and learning that embodies a sense of well being that hopefully paves a path to inspired, intelligent, emotionally open adults. How can we create this kind of space and build communities with guns hanging out of our pockets? Guns that shut people up. Guns that say, I have more power than you, when really all that gun is saying is, I am so afraid. I am afraid, listen to me. I am afraid.

How can we create communities where we put an ounce of understanding and acceptance in each other’s minds instead of bullets in one another’s hearts?

The nights I get things right, are nights I will continue to strive for. As a mother of a son I will do my best to ‘get it right’ by allowing for any anger or fear, or rage be heard and understood in a way that encourages open palms and the word yes instead of no. Words that take what a gun represents, all that violence and fear and says, ok, I hear you. Let’s flip it, let’s somehow try to make something work and live, let’s live for fuck’s sake, together.

Racism in the Mirror

Racism in the Mirror

4

I am brave enough to write this but not brave enough to use my real name.

Racism in the Mirror

Lately there has been so much discussion about race, racism, white privilege, and I see a lot of anger and discomfort by whites in identifying with any kind of privilege or racism – systematic, personal, other. I completely understand. Racism is an ugly, horrible word, who would willingly acknowledge that as part of their identity? I will.

Racism Is Not Innate

Racism, prejudice, bias, whatever you want to call it, is not innate. It is learned from our environment. I grew up in the South. Growing up, the world that I knew of consisted of 2 races, black and white (and that one Jewish girl in school). I don’t remember anyone ever using the “N” word, but it was clear that there was “us” and “them” and we each kept to our own groups. (Ironic given that on both sides of my family within 2 generations prior were impoverished immigrants, and I was raised in the lower class/ lower-middle class.)

That changed for me in middle school with “Jennifer.” Jennifer was black, and her family moved here from the West Coast. Given that my life-long dream was to move out of the South, a friend from the West Coast was exotic and desirable to me. We became good friends, played over at each other’s houses, went on trips with each other’s families, but one thing we were never allowed to do was go do things in our town together – play in the park, go to the movies, etc. – it was not allowed because it wasn’t “safe” for a white girl and black girl to do things together in our town. Our parents never told us that we couldn’t be friends, but we definitely got the message that most people would think that there was something wrong with it.

The next major milestone that stands out for me is high school. There was a “girls ask boys” dance. I wasn’t dating anyone, and there was a guy in my group of friends who was just about the sweetest guy in the world. He was black; I thought he’d be a great person to ask to go as a friend. When I told my parents about the guy I asked to the dance, they were not pleased. I was told that they would not ask me to dis-invite him; however, I was not to date him or any other black man in the future. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it was made clear that blacks were inferior as a race and not appropriate romantic partners. Although it didn’t sit right with me, and I didn’t believe it, I feared the estrangement that disobedience might bring from my family and only dated whites from that point forward.

Although We May Desire to Change, It Can Still Be a Challenge

After college, I realized my dream of leaving the South and moved to a large city in the North with several universities. My social racial and ethnic circle widened tremendously – Sikhs, Atheists, Congregationalists (I’m still not entirely sure what those are), Israelis, Brits, people from Eastern Europe, South America, and many others. I loved meeting people from all these different backgrounds and places and learning more about what made them who they were. Everyone I encountered was curious, open, and generous in sharing about themselves.

Professionally it was more of a struggle. I was a young white woman working in social services with people who were mentally ill, homeless, or for some reason involved in the social safety net due to dire personal circumstances. Given what we know about poverty in the US, it’s not surprising that a significant number of our clients were minorities. My social service work is where I first began to feel push-back from people based on how they saw me. I was seen as rich, white, and elite, and I’m sure my youth and lack of experience didn’t help. I was raised that education was the highest priority, and being intelligent was a thing of pride. Add in my Southernness, and my defense mechanism when I feel uncomfortable or threatened is to become distantly polite and use the most proper, formal language possible. This wasn’t helpful with my clients, and my experience of being disliked for how I presented myself made me more uncomfortable and fearful in dealing with people who were different because I assumed that they would dislike me.

This started to change when my I took a job that was closer to community organizing. Our job was to go into the community and ask people what they wanted, and then help create trainings to help them achieve those goals for themselves. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing mentor in this job. She was also white with an advanced degree, but she had a life-long passion for social and racial justice, and was absolutely fearless when it came to engaging with others. The perspective shift from “we’re the experts, let us tell you what you need” to “you’re the expert, please tell us how we can help you access the tools to achieve your goals” made a huge difference. I saw mentor succeed; I saw her fail. I saw her good intentions lead to a complaint filed with the local human rights commission, but she never let that stop her. She introduced me to the concept of white privilege, and it is due to her that I really started looking within myself at how I thought about race.

My supervisor was a big believer in training for staff and our many volunteers. I will never forget the training exercise that helped me acknowledge and come to terms with the racism that exists within me. Our agency partnered with an amazing woman who is the best trainer I have ever worked with. When we asked her to create a training around prejudice, bias and privilege, she used many exercises, including this one: She divided us into groups of 5 or 6 people. She gave each group a type of person/ stereotype (Hispanic male, lesbian, Christian, etc.). She gave each group 2 or 3 minutes to come up with as many descriptive terms about people in this group as possible. She wanted to know everything that we had thought or heard others say about this group (especially what we’ve heard others say).

It was fascinating. Anytime a negative term came up, people in the group were uncomfortable even acknowledging it – to a point the let us know that they didn’t think this, but they’d heard others say it. We all came up with our lists that contained, positive, negative, and neutral terms. The trainer had us review our lists as one big group, ask if people could think of any other terms, and discuss the lists. The trainer asked if people believed all the negative terms on the lists. Of course, everyone responded with a resounding, “No!”

The trainer then asked, where these negative terms came from. The trainees responded that they had heard other people say them. The trainer noted that this is what happens when see people or are with people who we identify as coming from these groups. Not only is our own voice inside our head, but we hear the voices of others saying these terms, positive and negative. These are the words that come into our heads when we see these groups. We may not believe these ideas, but they are there in our minds when we see these people.

So many times in my work, I had seen colleagues and volunteers vehemently declare that they were not biased and were completely open minded yet discuss clients judgmentally behind their backs (or even make comments to their face). There is no way that they would self-identify as prejudiced, but I can see all the baggage of all their previous experience coming into play, whether they are aware or not.

Realizing There Is Always Work to Be Done

I have come to believe that it is better to be aware of these rogue ideas fighting for space within my mind. When I drive through a part of town with more check cashing stores and bars on the windows, see someone, and the words “addict” or “unemployed” or “lazy” come into my mind (and worse words that I don’t want to include here. It causes me pain to acknowledge that these terms pop more easily into my mind if this person is a person of color). Because I want to fight this racism within myself, I now acknowledge that these words come into my mind. I didn’t used to, I used to squash them down as fast as I could, so I could pretend that they were never there in the first place.

Instead, now I ask them where they came from. I challenge myself, “Do I really believe that?” If the answer is yes, I ask myself, “why do I believe that?” If the answer is no, I ask myself “why did that word come into my mind?” I know that I will never be without these words in my mind. I know that I will never be without judging others based on how they look or act; however, I hope that I will always challenge myself anytime I identify a belief as coming from anything other than personal experience with that individual person.

However, there’s more work to do than this. I don’t live in a tremendously diverse town, and I am not brave about seeking out groups where I create a community where people look and live differently.

Why?

I’m afraid.

First, I’m a super-introvert, so going into a group of strangers (even in similar-to-me groups) is anxiety provoking enough.

Second, what will these different groups think of me? Will I put my foot in my mouth and offend someone horribly? Will they see me as inauthentic, stuck-up, elite?

I know that this is a barrier that I need to cross at some point. If not for myself, then for my children. It’s great to have all these wonderful thoughts and ideas, but I want to pass along the best of this openness and acceptance to my children and help them realize how much of an advantage that they have just because of their skin color and American accent. I want them to be aware of and fight injustice when they see it. It feels like a very heavy burden, especially when I’m still trying to figure out my own.

If you have also begun to think about this or make efforts to talk about race with your family, I would love to hear your story!


Resources:

A great link to test your implicit biases (you have more than you think).

This is a video describing what white privilege is.

Here’s a post on privilege vs. guilt.

Finally some reflective thoughts about reacting to and taking action regarding racism.

Stress = insomnia = racing thoughts.

Trauma, Insomnia, and Making The World A Better Place

0

TRAUMA

In the last month, my family moved to a new home.

I remember how hard it was to move to a new city where we didn’t know anyone 10 years ago, and how hard it was to move to our previous house 6 years ago.

It didn’t deter us from wanting to move again, “oh how fun,” we thought. But there was just a little, tiny detail that I forgot that was different this time: Now, we have 3 kids.

This time, moving wasn’t hard, oh no.

It was traumatic.

Stress = insomnia = racing thoughts.

INSOMNIA

I battled insomnia, each night when I laid to rest, I punched my imaginary time card, and my shift began. It was such work to try to fall asleep. The hardest part was listening to the rest of my family sleep so freaking soundly – even and especially our infant. I can’t count how many times I hoped for my kids to wake up screaming, or fussing, at least then I would have something to blame terrible sleep on. Sometimes, I would gently prod my wife, hoping she would wake up and I could ask her “what’s wrong?” Maybe then, we could talk about it. Sometimes, I just blatantly woke her up.

I sat, each night and thought about what I was doing to make the world a better place. That’s right, merely functioning in the moment wasn’t enough, I wanted to have a plan, to sort out what I could do to make the world a better place for my kids.

And mind you, I realize I can’t even get my son to put on his shoes to leave the house, so making the world a better place likely only added to my stress level… like kindling to the fire of my insomnia.

THE HIPPY HIPPY TASK: MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

Sure, it is pretty hippy to think that we can even make the world a better place, sure there’s part of me that realizes that I don’t even know my neighbors, or the closest grocery store. But, as a parent, these thoughts come to me; I can’t help it. Do they come to you? At 2 AM? Please tell me they do.

Trust me, I don’t think of myself as any great savior, but I feel like I can be a part of change and it starts with my kids, and continues with my life as an educator.

To be honest, I don’t think the world is a bad place. To quote The Tick, “That’s where I keep all my stuff.”
72a17058c56e9b3af75f6eccace66a24

I love life, I love the world we live in, but some things need to change. We have to keep pushing for change. We have to take a clear look at reality. We have to have difficult conversations, with our own kids. Because if we don’t, then we are allowing everything else they are exposed to help form their opinions, (video games, friends, not friends, TV, etc.).

When I first became a parent, I thought teaching my daughter to treat people equally was enough; but now I know it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

WHAT CAN WE DO AS PARENTS?

I think we all would benefit from making a blue print of how we can affect change in our world, and what change we’re wanting to affect, and what trouble we’re willing to go through toward that end.

The start of my blueprint (I will finish eventually finish in place of sleep):

TALKING TO MY KIDS

Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about social justice and injustices. As a white family, I feel it’s very important to talk about our the imbalanced power structure that benefits our race far more than any other. I am working toward opening a continued dialogue, learning about trials of the past, helping them to understand that racism is not always blatant in our society. This is a part of creating change. I feel I’ve stood idly by for far too long and worried about how I treated people, instead of how the world at large treats minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and women.

NOT ACCEPTING THE WORLD AS IS

There has been progress in the U.S. Social victories if you will. If my kids and your kids identify as LGBTQ, their lives will be just a little easier than mine would have if I had been gay. There’s more support, same sexes finally have the right to get married. That’s really good, but it’s not even close to enough.

DON’T LIVE IN A BUBBLE

After leaving the newspaper business, I deliberately avoided any current events that stretched beyond my block. But, as a parent, there’s more of a responsibility (as if that’s what parent’s need, even more responsibility) to stay abreast of current events; and then to clue our kids in; in a developmentally appropriate way.

Sometimes it’s hard to see or read about the horrible things happening in our society. But digesting them, working out ways for you to teach lessons to your kids, making them advocates for change, this is how we create change.

So, I know we have hundreds of little battles everyday with kids, I know that it’s stressful to change our household for the better. I know I haven’t slept 8 hours any day in a month, I know I will never move again, I know I will someday forget I ever said that. But we’re all part of a bigger picture, so I ask of all of us, how are we making the world a better place?

Practical tips for talking about gender roles with your kids

Getting Social: A Gender Neutral Dialogue

0

In the world we live, there is a constant sliding scale that is our social evolvement. In social evolution, not all of us are at the same place, there are many factors, background, exposure, education just being a few. This is an exciting time to be a parent, as many social issues are coming to the forefront, and that sliding scale is moving forward for many. It is a perfect time to start a dialogue now with your kids about social justice, and discuss issues, like gender, race, equality and consent. Our children are not only advocates for the future, but also advocates for change now. This is the first part in a series of articles about the discussions of social justice with my kids.

Practical tips for talking about gender roles with your kids

MY BEGINNINGS WITH GENDER NEUTRAL PARENTING:

First of all, there are many, many misgivings on gender-neutral parenting: (discussed here.) As a kid, I liked Boy George, and Depeche Mode, and wore earrings, and even once had my naval pierced. It never seemed odd to me, but it did seem odd to others in West Texas.

When I became a parent, the phrase ‘gender-neutral’ was not at all on my radar. As I continue the process of parenting, I have learned a lot. I hope to raise my kids in an environment that encourages freedom for personal growth, period. Wait, that lacks emphasis, I guess I should type it in all caps: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. PERIOD.

Many things we do, without even thinking about them, encourage gender stereotypes.

Girls: We talk more to them. We compliment them, how they look, how pretty they are. Words we use: cute, pretty, princess, sweetie, cupcake, etc.

Boys: We talk about their future conquests, how they could end up as the next linebacker for The Cowboys, how they are so tough, no one will mess with them.   Words we use: heartbreaker, lady killer, or the less insidious but equally divisive; athletic, strong, wild, brute.

ELSA SPARKS A DIALOGUE 

So, let’s go into when I realized I needed to have this dialogue. Way way back in the Frozen –crazed days of 2014 (shudder: I swore I’d never speak of them), there was an argument in our house:

My daughter tells my son: “You can’t be Elsa, she’s a girl, you can be Sven.”

This was a pretty telling statement, 1. That gender trumped species, (though to be honest, my 3 year and Sven share similar eating – and likely, hygiene habits.) 2. There was an understanding that in play, boys were boys and girls were girls, regardless of species even. That’s when I started to be more aware of the gender-controlled world we live in.

Just after the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage, I talked with my daughter about love and gender.

Me: Adelaide, do you think that men can love men and women can love women, like I love your mom?

A:  Yeah, I know that.

Me: What do you think of that?

A: I like it. Wait, Do you mean like mommies and daddies?

Me: Well yeah. Some families have a mommy and daddy like you, some have 2 daddies, some have 2 mommies. 

A: Aww, how sweet.

Me: Yeah, 2 men and 2 women can love each other, and can have families, just like a man and a woman can. But not everyone likes that. Some people don’t think that people of the same gender
should be married.

A: That’s so mean of them. I think they should be married.

Me: I agree with you, and so does the law now. I think that love is love, and it doesn’t matter what gender you are.

Adelaide smiles in agreement.


But a couple days later, it was a harder discussion about clothes and toys:

Me: Adelaide, do you think there are some clothes just for girls?

A: Ummm, dresses, and skirts.

Me: Do you know that in some places, boys and men wear something called kilts?

We look it up on google images.

A: That’s only in pretend land.

Me: Let me ask you this, is it OK for you to wear boys clothes?

A: I can wear what Asher wears. Pants and shorts and shirts.

Me: Ok, so, can he wear what you wear?

A: No, silly, boys don’t wear pink.

Me: I wear pink.

A: Well, my teacher said boys don’t wear girl’s stuff, and she knows everything.

This helped me realize that there are lots of influences that a child has, and I’m only one of them. In many classrooms, there definitely exists very specific gender lines and roles – that go along with toys, dress up clothes and even class jobs. Getting to know them is part of being an advocate for your child, and will help in your continued dialogue.

Me: What about pretend play? Is it OK to pretend to be a boy or a girl?

A: yes. I like to pretend I am a boy –I’m Batman (in a gruff, and surprisingly accurate Lego Batman voice)

Me: And your brother?

A: Yes. He likes to be me, and play with my toys.

Me: You like that he likes to be you? (shocked)

A: Yes… sometimes – as long as he doesn’t copy.

BUILDING PARENTING WINS – 1 VIRTUAL LEGO AT A TIME

So, we had this proud parenting moment in our house recently when playing The Lego Movie video game. In the game, you can switch between a wide assortment of Lego characters and superheroes.

She felt an affinity for Batman, while she was curious about Wonder Woman, she decided she definitely preferred Batman. She ran around the house for days saying “I’m Batman!” in legit Batman voice. It made us happy that our daughter didn’t feel she HAD to be Wonder Woman, just because Wonder Woman happens to identify as Wonder Woman.

I know some people that I know would stop her if they heard, and correct her “You can be batgirl. Haven’t you heard of her?” She also wants to be Batman for Halloween. Boom.

DSC_1133

 

(Wanna have some fun? If you have both a girl and a boy, challenge them to get dressed in each other’s closet. It is a guaranteed good time. It seemed they felt like they were breaking the rules that society already set- and we all know breaking the rules feels really good.

EMOTIONS ARE FOR GIRLS AND WORK IS FOR BOYS

I have accepted that I will never have the communication skills of my wife. For instance, she can go into such detail explaining what happened during her day on the drive home from school. I have trouble mustering a 4 word statement to explain my day. “Good” or “Not bad” will usually be all I can muster. I am aware of this, and really try at it. But growing up as a male, I don’t think society challenged me to develop my communication skills.

I want both of my children to learn to deal with their emotions and communicate better than I have myself. So far so good, as Asher already is able to recognize and express his emotions more quickly than his 5 year old sister.

Ash: I’m mad

Me: You’re mad? What are you mad about?

Ash: I wanted to close the car door and jump out.

Me: Did you ask?

Ash: No.

Pauses for effect and stares at me.

Can I close the car door and jump out?

Me: Sure, just reverse the order.

At just 3 he is able to express his feelings so well, and communicate them to me, I have a lot to learn from him.

Emotions are not girl stuff. It’s life stuff. Learning how to handle your emotions is going to be pivotal in our child’s lives, and in their relationships the rest of their lives. Why would we prepare our daughters for heartbreak and conflict, but not our sons?

What’s your son going to do when he suffers his first breakup? What is he going to do when he has a conflict at work? “toughen up” is no longer an acceptable strategy.

It’s important that our kids understand their emotions, and have productive, helpful strategies to get through the big and powerful ones.

Breathing exercises have been great for our family, and we practice often when we’re happy. And sure, sometimes, when she is especially mad at me, my daughter chooses to hold her breath.

PRACTICAL LIFE SKILLS ARE FOR EVERYONE

Asher loves to help cook. And he has always wanted to “put back” whatever he is playing with. Montessori schooling only tells part of the story, Adelaide on the other hand would rather do anything but cook or clean. She will occasionally spread her bed, or put clothes away, but only ever under duress. Asher doesn’t mind, ever. And he loves to do dishes.

Oh how I wait for the day when kids are doing work independently around the house, cooking, dishes, trash, and, dare I say it: laundry. It is hard to believe there was a time when laundry was thought of as girls work. Learning how to cook, to clean after yourself, to take care of things, these are life skills. How did anyone make it without this crucial training? My wife will tell you these people just found someone else to do the work for them. Ahem. But if we want to raise independent, capable, confident little humans, how can household chores be skipped?


Giving our kids the opportunities to be themselves, enjoy a wide variety of things – instead of just boy and just girl things is a great start. But I encourage you to start a dialogue with your kids, about their thoughts on all this boy/girl stuff.

 

 

Resources for talking with your kids about transgender

Let’s Talk about Sex(uality): Transgender

10

Resources for talking with your kids about transgender

Unless you’re off the grid, unplugged or under a rock, somewhere on your feed, in your paper or on your television, the news of former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner openly living as Caitlyn Jenner appeared.

Maybe you watched the Diane Sawyer interview (I haven’t) or read the Vanity Fair cover story. (I’ve skimmed it.)

I have not bathed in the details because of my mixed feelings. To be clear, these feelings aren’t about Jenner being transgender. Parts of her 65 years of life break my heart. I don’t want to be a gawker. I’d like her and everyone else to live life authentically without judgement, discrimination and objectification. Ironically, living her life publicly, may pave the way for others to live authentically.

Talking to our kids

Maybe you’re wondering how to talk to kids about transgender. That’s why I’m writing this. But, first, I decided to go to the source. My almost-teen boy.

“So, what do you think about Bruce, now Caitlyn Jenner?”

“I don’t care. Doesn’t matter to me she’s a woman now.”

“Biologically, she’s not a woman.” Inside, I’m happy-dancing he used the feminine pronoun. We’d talked about transgender transitions a few days ago – including the anatomy details.

Boy, attempting to walk away and escape this conversation, fingers in ears, “Whatever. She feels like a woman, looks like a woman. I’m okay with that.”

Me, grabbing his arm, “What if it was your father?”

Boy, stopped in his steps as wheels turn in his brain, “Later, I’m outta here,” – as in ‘later dad, been nice knowing you.’

“Why is that so different?”

“That’s my dad, now he’d be my mom.” Enter gender roles, norms, society, etc.

“It wouldn’t change that he’d fathered you,” I explain. His fingers go for the ears.

“Relax. I’m not gonna talk about sex. Get those fingers out of your ears.

“He’d still be your biological father. Would that change? All of the things he’s been to you? Would it change your love for him?” I pelted him with questions.

transgender_quiz4.0“Well, no. What would I call him or her or …?” He’s concerned with practicalities.

“Dude, that’s simple, you’d ask, ‘Hey, what do I call you?’”

“Ok. That’s easy,” Problem solved, he turns to walk away. “I’ve got to feed horses. Later mom. I love you,” And that was as much as he offered. He was done.

Ever the persistent teacher, I add, “Really, you know, lots of things affect someone’s gender,” I follow him across the room pointing to the Genderbread Person “…biologically their anatomy:  you know penis, vagina, etc.; who they’re attracted to; who they feel……..” and with that, his 12-year-old brain hit Charlie Brown overload. The door opened and shut.

There you have it. Not the first time we broached it, and not the last. (I will finish explaining the Genderbread Person, come hell or high water.) In one way or another, we’d discussed sexuality, gender, and more, since he was born. What began with calling a penis a penis, continues with things that influence gender. To borrow from my favorite author: so it goes.

Genderbread-Person-3.3
There’s a lot of information in this one graphic. It’s nearly overload. That’s ok. Just consider it. We’ll talk about it in another post. Another day. No quiz.

More on transgender

Imagine attending a gala honoring your best friend: tux, and gowns required. No matter how long you look in your closet, there’s no tux. Not even a ball gown. (Hey, you’re flexible that way.) There are corduroy pants, an 80’s tie and a worn oxford shirt. She’s your best friend. She doesn’t care. She wants you there. Clad in corduroys you spend the evening feeling out of place. You leave, depressed about never fitting in. You feel worthless and judge yourself the way you believe everyone judged you. Imagine this feeling every day of your life. Every day for 65 years. That’s 23, 725 days. 569,400 hours. 34,164,000 minutes.

I’ll never know for sure, I imagine this is sort of what it feels like to be transgender – when you feel like a girl but your physical body screams boy! or vice versa. I’d guess the actual feelings are much worse. Like wearing corduroys to the gala – similar feelings on steroids and exponentially multiplied.

It’s accepted that most people form their gender identities by the time they’re 3 years old. If how they feel is aligned with their biological bodies – that’s cisgender.

For those who are transgender, born with one biological body and identifying as another, it’s the beginning of those “not fitting in” feelings. Society expects them to fulfill specific gender roles based on those physical bodies – regardless of how they feel inside. You get the picture. Maybe you begin to understand why 41% of transgender individuals attempt suicide and why more than 30% of LGBTQ youth reported at least one suicide attempt within the last year and more than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide at least once by their 20th birthday. LGBTQ youth are twice, TWICE as likely to attempt suicide than their hetereosexual peers. Not to mention the increased likelihood of being victims of bullying and violence.

It’s hard to find an analogy to explain the intricacies of gender to my kids. It’s not perfect, but it’s an opening to compare it to eye color.* You’re born with the color of your eyes. You can’t change it. You can wear different clothes may bring out one color or another. You can buy colored contacts. At the end of the day, you’re still blue-eyed, but you’re so much more than just your eyes.

At the end of my day, I want my children (and the world, because I dare to dream big) to treat others with kindness, respect and compassion. I want us all to see the whole person – not only eyes, gender or sexuality. We are all so much more than a sum of our parts.

I want a world where Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t have adult children before being authentic. There is a poignancy in my son’s response to, “What if it were your dad?” The answer is different when it shouldn’t be. Suddenly, it’s real. It’s got to be challenging, maybe even painful for Jenner’s children. How much better would it have been if she could’ve been herself all along? The truth is, she’ll never know. Hopefully, her very public steps now pave the way for future walks of others. Not only for transgender individuals, but for those who love and support them.

So, this is way more than your basic sex ed. Or, is it?

Many of us talk with our kids about the physical act of sex. Some of us start young. As a former sexuality educator, I believe starting early and continuing the dialogue throughout childhood and into adulthood is where it’s at. The “act” of sex is a small part of a large ongoing dialogue. Like putting gas in a car is a small part of driving. It’s not the whole story. A solid foundation comes in handy when things like Jenner’s transformation take center stage over floods, wars, and earthquakes. (I’m looking at you fracking.)

Society, as a whole, recently started defining gender. Our understanding is new. Understanding leads to empathy and compassion. As Sam Killermann said, “Gender is something we all learn about as kids, but we learn a very limited concept of a concept that’s truly unlimited. ” When we consider about 40 years ago homosexuality was classified as an illness, we realize we’ve come a long way. I’m here to tell you, there are miles to go before we sleep.

How do you talk about these things with your children? Let me know in the comments. In the future, I hope to post more on gender, sexuality, and conversations with our children.

Here are some resources you may find helpful. Not all are perfect, but they’re all a good start:

18 Books to Teach Kids About the LGBT Experience

Great info for parents, educators, guardians, etc.

The Genderbread Person and more

Teaching Tolerance: The Gender Spectrum

Some jumping off questions for discussing gender stereotypes

Transgender

Parenting and Family: The Gender Spectrum

*Most experts believe there are many influences on our gender.