What I Will Teach My Toddler Son Over The Next Four Years

I woke up the morning of November 9, 2016, feeling a pang of sadness. A hangover of the despair I felt the night before, I suppose, when I stayed up past my bedtime to wait for election results.

And then my thought immediately turned to my little boy. I realized Budgie is going to grow from age 2 to 6 over the four years of this next presidency. (I can’t bring myself to type the name of the next president.) Over the next four years, my son’s earliest and arguably most formative memories will be made.

I know my sweetheart and I will work hard to make many of those memories happy ones for Budgie, full of love, adventure, discovery and wonderment. There will be family trips, birthday parties, nature hikes, art exhibitions, magic shows, impromptu dance parties, rivers, oceans, swimming lessons, holidays. And so much more.

But Budgie’s earliest memories are going to be formed with a contentious, even hateful political climate in the background. I don’t want to overstate this influence, but I don’t want to minimize it, either. I remember my own early childhood years, when kids seemed to throw racial and sexual slurs around the playground with the confident blitheness that only children can muster. I remember watching the news on TV and feeling worried about nuclear war, though I didn’t know exactly what it was — only it involved war and giant bombs that could burn people up and turn them into dust instantly. I remember witnessing my first grade best friend’s shame of being poor and having to buy clothes at Salvation Army, and wondering why some people had money and others didn’t, no matter how hard they seemed to work. I remember a neighbor who let his dog charge and chase me as he sat on his porch and laughed because he didn’t like Vietnamese people. (Never mind I’m not Vietnamese.)

I was not “political” as a child and had no language or intellectual framework to understand and articulate justice, equality and the role government and economy play in these — that would come later. My parents were ‘keep your head down and work hard’ kind of immigrants, hopeful just to be left alone to live their lives. But I knew somehow that the world wasn’t fair, and that people were judged cruelly and unfairly. I knew, with a child’s acute sense of fairness, that some things are not right. (I also remember watching Reagan on TV and feeling he was not all quite there in some way, and I wonder if Budgie will one day watch something on YouTube and feel the same thing.)

I worry we’re going to slide back into those days with our next president. Not that sexism, racism and other forms of hatred have ever been far from daily life — but that bigots feel they have a mandate to express these ideas openly, feel entitled to justification, and actually get it in the form of legislation and social policy. I don’t think I’m the only one worried.

Still, one has to get up in the morning. So I did, thinking of my son and what to make him for breakfast. I studiously avoided turning on the news or going on Facebook or Twitter right away. It was a sunny morning, and I opened the blinds and curtain to let light stream into the rooms. Budgie babbled and scampered about, trying to catch the flying particles of dust in his hands like fireflies on a summer night. I thought about what he was going to see, observe and learn from me and the world around him, and how the next president is going to affect that.

I was always going to do my best to raise Budgie to be kind, curious and discerning. To love nature and all its creatures, to know himself and feel compassion for his weaknesses and struggles, and to extend that compassion to others. To derive his sense of fullness and prosperity of life and self from the love of his family and friends, the beauty he creates and cherishes, the warmth of his home, the richness of his intellect and the largesse of his heart. I would like to think most parents aim to teach their children something of these ideals. But I’m also not naive. Other things — prejudices, worldviews — get in there as well.

I guess it hit me — and yes, I know this is something other parents of children of color realized much earlier — that raising my son was not just an act of love and devotion anymore. Over the next four years, I’m going to have to provide active, urgent “counterprogramming” to what might become a poisonous political atmosphere. I’m going to have to model it, teach it, embody it. Talk the talk and walk the walk. For him and for me.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been somewhat complacent these past 8 years. Not entirely: I donate, I do what volunteer work when I can. I wouldn’t say I existed in a bubble — I know what’s going on in the world, I’m familiar with the struggles of the politically and socioeconomically vulnerable. It has sunk into my heart. I used to be more active in my 20s in terms of politics and social justice, but as many people know, the demands of family, career, job and health pile up as you get older. It’s not an excuse; it’s just a reality of time and energy.

But now I think the time for more purposeful action has come. Of course, it’s just as I’ve segued into the “busy lane of life” that many parents (especially of small children) find themselves in. But still, we have to try. Especially now that a little one is watching, learning and growing.

And so, I am wondering and thinking of what I want my just shy of 2-year-old son to learn about politics, civility, compassion and justice, especially at this loaded moment in history. (I’m an INFJ, we are very overarching thinkers that way!) Beyond the basics of kindness, decency, and mindfulness. Beyond the golden rule. Besides the precepts of right speech, right mind, right understanding — all those good things. What do I want him to train his emerging eye upon? How do I help him hear the unspoken subtext underlying discussions? How do I teach him how to fight without harming himself and others? What tools can I equip him with over time to counterbalance hatred and bigotry he may see or face?

This is what I came up with.

We have an obligation to one another. This is at the heart of what it means to be a human being, I think, whether it’s through the bonds of family, love or community. And that is why we need to care, and act when called upon. This is “love thy neighbor”; it’s also an acknowledgment that we all affect one another, whether it’s in the scale of school or family, or the larger scale of community, nation and world. We start with family and friends, learning to treat each other right and with love. And then we work outwards.

Silence is not enough. That it’s not enough to stand by silently while other boys dissect women’s bodies or participate in toxic masculinity. It’s not enough to laugh uncomfortably at the racist joke. That you have to say something or walk away or somehow indicate your dissent — that you have a voice to exercise and it only has power when it’s used. You can be graceful about it; you can be kind about it; you can be funny or sharp or outspoken or subtle. That leadership doesn’t belong to the alpha male, that leadership means nurturing alliances and allies. That “warrior virtues” like honor and strength are about aligning words and actions, not overpowering or dominating others. That your word matters, and is a very real currency in life.

How to be an ally. How to deeply listen and understand. To let others speak, as well as speak up to make a space for them to speak when it doesn’t exist. To serve as an active and engaged witness. How to make someone feel safe and heard and believed. And also how to be a helper. To put time and action into something he believes in, to where his intelligence, good heart and kind spirits are most needed. To articulate the inchoate thoughts and feelings, and help us to move forward. There are so many ways to help, to use gifts and strengths towards a common good and goal.

There is goodness and weakness in people, and the emotional intelligence to read and understand that. Yes, I know there are hateful people out there. I also believe that most people don’t wake up and decide to actively hate people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, queer and transgendered people. That most people want to live lives of dignity, usefulness and respect — but that they are also driven by emotions, not rationalism and logic. And too often the emotion of fear wins out: fear of not having right livelihood for themselves or kids, fear of losing homes, fear of treading water only to be pulled under despite all that flailing effort. And yes, sometimes a fear of losing power and privilege in a complex world. I want him to know that any fear can be simplified and flattered and given a easy target of “the other,” whether it’s powerful women, refugees, immigrants or Mexicans. Fear is why many good people can be driven to do things that seem incomprehensible on the surface. And that we need to address, acknowledge and understand another’s fear — not just to notch another victory, but truly create change by bridging differences and finding common cause. I want him to recognize the fear in himself — fear of scarcity, of being unloved or undervalued, of loss and change — and not feed it as well. And to know when people are speaking out of fear, or perhaps out of genuine hate. And of course, I also want to teach him to fight hard, speak out and actively resist against people who are simply hateful and awful. That sometimes you do need to FIGHT: fight smart and fight hard.

I want him to understand what it means to truly be a citizen, to be part of a common public. To understand the ethos of true citizenship — that it’s about being responsible and responsive to a community. To know the role of government and law. To know how things like laws and policies shape our everyday lives, experiences and relationships — and how the most privileged of us are insulated by the bumps of politics and economics by that very privilege. And to work to ensure that the less privileged among us are afforded that same sense of safety and protection.

I want him to understand history — that it isn’t a linear tale of progress. That movement forward comes in spurts, hesitant lurches, gravity-defying leaps and perilous falls. That perhaps it’s more a story of picking ourselves up again and again, and helping others to get up as well. I want him to have the ability to switch lenses — to know himself in his life as the lead actor, with choice and power and the ability to create a life, but also to know himself as just a smaller yet integral part in a larger mosaic of humankind, interconnected to others.

And I want him to understand power — what it means to be powerful, to wield it, and how to do so responsibly. To be personally powerful in yourself, in your word, in your action and commitment. And that the responsibility is partly what shapes your character. I suppose you can call it “making a difference” — I want him to believe in that, but also to know that he might not see the fruits of it right away, if at all. But to still have faith in the power of doing the right thing, that small things add up in unexpected ways. And of course, to learn to look at power on a larger level: who has it, who doesn’t, who makes the rules and who the rules serve.

Of course, this is all flying through my head as I make breakfast, dress him and play together with colored pencils and cardstock paper. We sing songs together and dance to “Broccoli” by D.R.A.M. (Because that is how we roll in the mornings.) The everyday work of parenting is a million concrete gestures, words, motions, meals, songs and actions; the larger project of it is creating the right atmosphere for him to grow within. All the things above I want to teach have to be done by me as well, and I feel overwhelmed by it all.

But somehow the innocence and brightness of my child keeps me going. He smiles easily, open-hearted and eager-eyed, and gives hugs and affection freely. His spirit is innately loving, open, bright, happy and unclouded by bigotry and prejudice. (Except for peas. He really innately seems to hate peas.)

It’s my job to be guardian of that openheartedness, as well as mentor and role model. But I know — as any parent discovers eventually — that you can’t protect children forever. The world out there might grow more nakedly hateful, self-serving, ugly. Protecting sons and daughters, I realize, doesn’t mean closing their eyes against the world or insulating them from the worst in human beings. For this particular parent, it means actually opening their eyes to see clearly, to see true. And then to work and struggle and help, as well as find some hope despite everything, or perhaps because of it.

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