I won't talk about what took place on the National Mall today, on the same day in history as Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, because I try not to make this a political space. I have friends and family with diverse political values, so regardless of my own feelings about certain people, *cough* Glenn Beck *cough* or views *cough* radical tea partyism *cough*, I generally try to keep this a place that is politically-neutral. But I couldn't help, as I read my twitter stream today, rife with 140-character-long diatribes on both sides, but reflect a bit on the values I want to share with my child as he grows up. And my sincerest hope is that, when Ethan is a grown man, it will be the words that Martin Luther King Jr spoke on this day in 1963 that resonate with him more than anything that may have been said in the name of "restoring America" today on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This morning I sat on our couch with Ethan and pulled up YouTube on the computer. With little to no effort, I found the full 16-ish minutes of MLK's speech and listened with Ethan. He wanted to know who this person was and what he was talking about. Why were all those people there? And who is that giant statue man sitting in the chair?
In the past, I've been hesitant to talk about race with Ethan. I mean, he's four. Shouldn't explanations about the bleakest eras and intolerances of our history be left to his civics teachers when he's in middle school? Or high school? Isn't it unseemly to talk about something like race with our little ones? I want him to treat everyone equally and isn't discussing our racial differences opening up a doorway to questioning our equality? Can't I just say pithy little things like "we're all equal, honey! Let's go get some fro yo!" ?
Turns out, not really. At least according to a lot of recent psychological studies. I'm reading a book called Nuture Shock, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, which is a compilation of studies conducted to test several relatively recent parenting techniques (surrounding things like intelligence, lying, socialization, etc) and finding that a lot of the things we're doing that we think are super-duper fantastic parenting skills are actually--you guessed it--effing up our kids. WHOO HOO!
I'm not one to read a ton of parenting books (even though I realize I've recently referenced two on my blog), but I came at this one with a lot of suspicion and indignance; given it's title, I expected it to chastise me for "coddling" my child and not preparing him for the harsh realities of the world. But as I'm not really a helicopter parent, I wasn't sure I'd learn a whole lot from the book and I expected to take it with a big fat grain of salt. I have learned quite a bit, but I won't go into it in great length, because you didn't sign up for a book report when you clicked on my blog today.
Essentially, though, the book stresses, through the results of several different psychological studies, that discussing race with your child, as a basic fact and facet of who people are, and talking about what equality really is instead of just relying on it as a groovy happy buzzword (and thereby having to broach the ugly subject of what it isn't) has actually been shown to foster greater tolerance and acceptance in children, as opposed to tolerance and acceptance levels in those kids whose parents make the assumption, "I want my child to be color-blind, so I won't discuss race at all and hope that my modeling tolerance and acceptance will be enough." I was really shocked by this--thinking that my modeling behavior was enough. And who knows--maybe it would be. But that's not what the results of the tests cited in this book show. The studies also show that by the time parents think kids are "old enough" to handle a discussion of race and racism in our history, they've already essentially formed their opinions about the "otherness" of people who look different from them, in spite of our best intentions and in spite of our desire to raise "color blind" children.
So I thought about that as we watched MLK, Jr. talking about judging a person by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And I started talking. Just a little bit. Do you see the color of his skin? It's darker than ours, isn't it? Lots of people have all kinds of different colors of skin, don't they? He's talking about how it's what's on the inside that matters. A long time ago, people thought it was what was on the outside, what color your skin was, that mattered--that made you a good or a bad person. Some people today still think that, isn't that sad? I told him that a long time before he was born, people whose skin was darker than ours were often treated badly and that these people, white and black, came together to hear Martin Luther King, Jr talk about how we could all change that and get along and treat each other respectfully (he knows from 'respectfully'--he's 4; he's hears that word a LOT). Nothing too deep. Nothing to rock his world or disturb his sleep. I'll save that for the civics teachers. And I have no idea how much of it he'll retain. But for now it's enough. A start.
My favorite part of the morning was when I told him that his Grandma Judy and her parents had been there. Watching Martin Luther King, Jr make this speech. They'd ridden down from Philadelphia on the train with a bunch of other people wanting to march on Washington and share MLK's message of peace and acceptance. To me, that is a tremendous thrill, to know that that thread of history runs through what is now my family. I got a little verklempt.
For Ethan, though? It kiiiiiinda changed the tone of the whole "I Have a Dream"-speech-watching experience. From that point on, he insisted that I fast forward to the part where Grandma Judy got up to speak about being nice to everyone, and that if I couldn't do that (I tried to explain, but what can you do?) that I should be able to find her, and her mother and father, in the crowd. Sure, kid. Whatever you say. A four year old's reality is something not easily messed with.