Intentionally Destroying My Kids' Innocence: Part I *updated with confession

In case you were coming here for a quick Scooping it Up picture fix, this post isn't it. If you were coming for a diatribe of meandering public over-analyzing, well, you've come to the right place.

A few months after Tsega was home an adult we know mentioned to Samantha that they knew someone with dark skin like Tsega. My brain exploded. I wanted to toss the person (who I should mention did absolutely nothing wrong) out of the house because until that moment, my sweet four-year-old had never noticed that she and her brother were different. And now it was done.

I berated myself that the conversation took me by surprise and that I was so unprepared to deal with it as it happened. Within thirty seconds I came to the conclusion that I will never let another human teach my children things I want to have first dibs on, if I can help it.  Later, sure, I don't want to be the Be All and End All of my children's world views.  But on sensitive, important topics like where babies come from, that fact that our family looks different, Racism, etc., I decided I want to lay the ground work for these vital dialogues with my kids, not do damage control after someone brings up the topic for me, possibly in ways I don't like.

This means starting earlier than I ever intended. So we talk about color a lot more. We notice it. We revel in it. We sign up for soccer in other more diverse towns, we go to stores and parks in more diverse neighborhoods. We bring it up. We buy and check out books that help facilitate our conversations.  A few months ago we read this book.

I screened it beforehand and decided it was just the right amount of information. I tried to be strong, emotionless- Don't make it about you, just read the words on the page I told myself. But I couldn't. I choked back tears reading to my kids about how people hated Ruby, yelled at her, didn't want her to associate with their children, learn with them.

And I revealed to them it was because she how she looked. And that she looked like their brother, and many of their friends.  It was harsh, specific, and I hated doing it. *** See Update at Bottom of Post

This concept had never occurred to them. We talked about how this story took place awhile ago, and those people didn't know you could be friends with people who looked different. They didn't know you could be family if you looked different from each other. And how stupid it was. Yep, I authorized the word Stupid when talking about the marginalization of people based on skin color. I will admit, I couldn't bear to get to the fact that there are people still like this. That is a topic for another day.

This Ruby Bridges book made a big impact on the kiddos. Ruby is an impressive heroine for children, because she was brave, forgiving, she prayed every day for the people that hated her. She believed in a God that could give her strength and help her. Ruby made an impression on all of us and made for several great conversations.

And thus I ruined my kids' innocence. They no longer can believe in a world where it doesn't matter what you look like. Because in our family that might be true, but it's not true everywhere. I feel I've done the right thing. I hope it will make them stronger. I hope it will set the stage for more talks. Talks that will help them be more aware, more sensitive to the crap that their brother will experience as he changes from a cute little brown baby to a Black Male Teenager.

I am grateful to that person who clued me in on my duty as a parent, even though the moment was hard for me.  Last week when we checked out the book Pink and Say, and thus introduced the Civil War and the evils of slavery, I again bawled my head off, became a bit emotional and the kids got to say the word Stupid again.  But they didn't giggle and smile when they said it. They understood. They were reverent.

My big message is, don't be afraid to talk to your kids about this stuff. Even if you aren't a transracially adoptive family, or biracial family. If your little ones aren't quite ready for Ruby or Pink and Say, start with this one. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox. It is a great conversation starter.

And another note for you Christians out there who want to want to start talking about the birds and the bees with your kids, I cannot recommend enough the book The Wonderful Way That Babies Are Made. Great for the 3-10 year old age range. It even has different words for younger and older kids. I repeat, this book will not fly if you do not believe in God. We do, and it gives a great jumping off point for this important dialogue.

I should mention that when put on the spot the other day, Samantha didn't provide a decent answer to the question What does it mean to be adopted? I would have bet solid money that she'd have this one in the bag. We talk about Tsega's first family all the time, pray for them, and yet, I have more work to do. I realized it had been a long time, months since we've really talked about Tsega's adoption. Another lesson learned: With small children, one or two or three conversations isn't enough. All of this has to keep going. Over and over and over.

I once read that not preparing our children for racism because it might make them over sensitive or that it might not happen at all is like sending them into a football game without a helmet. Sure, they might not get hit. They might not need it. And just maybe knowing they need padding and a helmet might initially result in fear of the hits. But this is life. They are gonna be in the game whether they like it or not. I want them to have a helmet, pads, mouth guard, and have trained well enough to run faster than the other guy.

And it's not about creating an attitude of I am a victim. Or people are jerks when they say insensitive stuff. It's preparing them to deal with it.

I guess with all of these ramblings I am trying to say that my goal is not let the swastika adorned skinhead we encounter at the county fair who says something ugly  introduce racism to my children. It is to not let my kids find out about s*ex from drawings in the bathroom at school or a next door neighbors' box of old Cosmos. It is my obligation as a decent mother. I am still figuring out how to do these things, but I am trying.
We, Hubs and I, intend to slowly and carefully replace their sweet innocence with knowledge.  Didn't someone once say knowledge is power? And hopefully in the meantime we are building trust that our little can talk to us about anything.

I hope. I hope. I hope.

To be continued

*** Update: I left out an important part of our story. I actually did change some of the words in the Ruby Bridges book as I was reading. I failed to mention this. Despite my high falutin' talk about letting your kids in on everything, I balked when it came to teaching my kids the social constructs of Race words. That "Black" indicates anyone who has a smidgen of African descent. And that we are "White." The books does say "black folks" "white folks" "white school." This is not bad, there is nothing wrong with those words, so I don't know why I changed them.  See, we talk about colors of skin and are just starting to talk about the social significance of colors of skin. I am even pretty sure they've heard me say Black and White, but we don't use those words to define us quite yet in our family. I changed every time it said "black students" to "students with brown skin" or "darker skin." Partly because of things I read once upon a time in
this book:

Another reason is because I am not perfect. And I don't know what I am doing either. What would you do?


Cindy said...

The things my kids (especially Mihiret) have asked me about all sorts of race and adoption related things has blown me away. I thought I had more time for some of them...I did not. Always good to know I am not alone as I work through the harder subjects.

Jon and Jamie said...

ahhh the color card, it came up for us earlier than I wanted too. You guys are doing a great job and will keep on educating your babies in your ways ad your mores, and that is more important than preserving their innocence. Get them the best pads, helmets, gear and send 'em into the game of life, they already have an awesome coach!!!

Anonymous said...

You are a wonderful Mother and a great teacher. There is definitely a learning curve with this. Thanks for the book recos. We have Whoever You Are and I love it. I will say that my 5 yr old nephew got reprimanded the other day for asking, outloud so everyone could hear, what his "black" friend's name was. This may have bothered me too when I didn't really understand, but now I know that it is ok for the little ones to be so open and curious and in tune to skin colors. If you reprimand them for doing this at a young age, I think that is where racism starts, like it is bad to say or notice colors. Anyhoo, that's my rant. Thanks for this post and the good reminder.

JillEE said...

You should check out the book Nurture Shock. There is a chapter dedicated to talking about race with your children. The scientific studies that have been done seem to indicate the importance of addressing it head on. Too many parents think that just saying we're all equal and we're all the same is enough but it is demonstrably not.

Your strategy of "So we talk about color a lot more. We notice it. We revel in it." is spot on with what experts recommend. As much as we may want to believe that kids are color blind, its just not true. They start categorizing much earlier than we think, not out of racial superiority, but out of a need for order. So helping them see that it is okay to notice our differences, but not okay to put people down because of them is an important developmental tool.

Anyway, all that is to say that I think you are doing it right.

Also, I like the idea of never ceding the initial conversations on tough issues to someone else. That is great parenting advice.

Jenna said...

I love that book about Ruby. I bought it for my classroom and read it to my students. It's a great book! You are a great mom for preparing your kids to handle certain tough situations.

il panettiere... said...

Great post! I'm putting a couple books you recommended on my list.

Before I check out, I wanted to recommend you see if your library carries "Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez." It's a great children's book that focus' on the struggle of the immigrant farmer.

Cheers to incredible literature with difficult messages!

Laura said...

I read that Ruby Bridges book with my children last year (2 bio, one Vietnamese) and also couldn't stop crying. I'm sure my littles thought I was crazy, but I was so touched by the way she chose to pray for those who hated her. Still gets me choked up. Thanks for the other recommendations!

HapaMama said...

It's not destroying their innocence to talk about these things. It would be worse to not talk about these things, because your son will inevitably face people who treat him differently- and not giving him the words to talk about it would be further disempowering.

I'm curious about the Vanilla and Chocolate book now...

Jennifer Hambrick said...

i agree that being proactive is the key...teaching them "right" ways of thinking about skin color before they are confronted with the wrong ways. we also refer to eli as having brown skin...because...well, he does have brown skin. not black. and i'm certainly not white. kids are so literal, it just makes sense to me.

p.s. my kids loved the book "shades of color" (can't remember the author at the moment) to help reinforce all these ideas!

Anonymous said...

In the amazing book NurtureShock the psychologists say kids notice race between 4 and 5, just as they notice gender, and that in both cases they naturally make it My race and gender are better than others-- they can't help it, they are making sense of their place in the world, seeing outside themselves but still naturally thinking they are best.

The scientists concluded we should thus talk the talks at age 3. But how? Daunting! Your model is gorgeous. Graceful. God has many choices and they are all beautiful-- people didn't used to know that but now we do and are all friends.

I am always learning from you, taking parenting notes and stealing All of your book ideas.
oxo Mrs. R

Popi and CeCe said...

There is NO WAY to read RUBY without tears. I showed the video to my fifth graders (when were were learning the "I've got a dream" speech...)and they found it appalling anyone could be treated the way Ruby was. It is comforting to know they would continue to treat ALL others with respect.

Maegan said...

I really like to idea of shopping and driving to other parts of town that have people of different color skin than around you. Thanks for the reminder.
I cry when I read Mem Fox's "Whoever you are." I don't think I'm ready for Ruby. But man I think it's so important to talk about. I think you are preparing your kids for the mean crashing football hit that will come their way. Your kids will hear black and white from gov't forms the rest of their life. Let their mama teach them what God sees- love.

adventuresofthewondertwins said...

I agree completely with the idea of broaching sensitive subjects with my kids before somebody else does and I have to do damage control. I'm admittedly on the more extreme end of providing my kids with information, but I'd rather err on the side of too much than not enough. Anyway, I certainly don't profess to be an expert, but I did write a blog entry about how I handle these kinds of conversations with my children. Maybe it will be helpful. I'd also love to hear how others approach these topics in their families.