I’ve probably mentioned a few times before that I like listening to podcasts when I go running. Today’s installment was from This American Life, one of my go-to podcasts.
This episode is called “Birds & Bees,” and it’s all about grown-ups talking to little kids about the things in life that are big and complicated: sex, death, race, and racism. They are the things that so many of us parents aren’t sure how to broach with our children. Honestly, many adults are still trying to negotiate their feelings around these prickly, serious subjects.
The race and racism segment of the show comes from comedian W. Kamau Bell, who is married to a white woman and the father of two daughters. After a rude, racist incident Bell experienced at a coffee shop in Berkley, California, he tries to figure out how deep he wants to wade into the treacherous “racism pool” with his young 4-year-old daughter.
Bell talks about race and racism in his comedy act all the time, but he wasn’t quite ready to delve into talking about racism in American and its violent history with his young daughter. He mentions using the book A Case For Loving — an MMM fave — as his jumping off point.
It’s a good piece. Definitely listen to the 22-minute segment. It’s Act Two: “If You See Racism, Say Racism.”
There’s a line from another father Bell speaks to about racism that keeps playing in my head:
“I don’t want my children confused. I want them knowledgeable.”
So true. About so many things in this life.
Which kind of leads me to the final act of the TAL podcast. It’s about trying to explain death to young kids, especially those who have lost a parent or sibling. The story focuses on this remarkable grief counseling center in Salt Lake City called The Sharing Place. It’s where kids can go to work through and understand their own grief.
The children sit in support groups led by adults and they talk. But it’s important to note how they talk about death; they use concrete language. “Because, the thinking goes, that’s how to process death’s finality. So people don’t pass away, you don’t lose them; they die,” reporter Jonathan Goldstein says.
The really heartbreaking part of the story was hearing these little voices, young children who have lost a parent or sibling to suicide, say the words raw: “… my father died. He shot himself in the head.”
This podcast segment is heavy. It is. But it’s useful and good, too. As an adult trying to raise a little being into whole and healthy grown-up, I think it’s important to listen to the heavy stuff. Because this life, it’s not all light and laughter, and we need to help our kids see that the weight of the heavy stuff is real, but it certainly won’t break you.
Super excited to share my first essay for the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” column. (It’s the first of three that I’m writing for them. Alright, alright, alright!) It’s about talking to my son about God and religion when there are many questions still floating around my own head about the layered subject.
I wrote the essay earlier in the year and it just posted Monday. As it happened, I ended up having a conversation about God, “Baby Jesus who grew up to be an adult” and religion with my son over the weekend as we flipped through a Williams-Sonoma catalogue that featured every Easter Bunny-related thing you could think up.
We snuggled up chatting about LEGOs and springtime and jellybeans, and it just felt like a good time to angle the convo towards something with a little bit more heft. I started by talking about Easter and the different ways people celebrate it. So, this meant touching on the chocolates and sweets-fest that trails behind the Easter Bunny these days. From there, we quickly moved into faith and talking about those ideas that people believed to be true and take very seriously.
The Youngster asked smart questions, but his queries mainly came down to, What does [new word] mean? So I found myself explaining, in terms a sharp 6-year-old could follow, things like sin; heaven and the afterlife; Christianity, Judaism and Islam; agnosticism (which I instead called “being unsure and still thinking it over”); faith and worship; and — the one thing I was slightly uneasy about — crucifixion. Through all of it, my son listened well and I could see his little mind working to make it make sense for himself. He also added that one of his buddies “believes all of this,” which underscored for me the fact that he’s aware, astute and ready for these more intricate conversations.
I expect this child to come back to me with more involved questions; some that might even send me off to research a proper answer. And I look forward to it. It’s his keen interest in the world around him that keeps me curious and alert, too. Good things to be in 2015, I say.
Below is the essay in full, which was originally posted on WaPo.com’s “On Parenting.” Please click over there. Every click helps! Thanks.
By Nicole Blades
Santa Claus was easy. But Jesus Christ, Son of God? Now, that’s going to take some work.
It was about three years ago when my son started floating questions my way in earnest about ol’ Kris Kringle. His questions were leading, though. It was as if he already knew the answer about where the gifts actually came from, and my husband and I were merely confirming it for him. I was fine telling my then toddler son that Santa Claus was just a fun, charming story. And putting the focus of family, kindness and love around Christmas came naturally for me, for us. However, with Easter on its way and my son soon turning 6, my old anxieties around religion—that is to say, how I feel about what’s real and what’s story—are starting to bubble up.
You see, while my husband is a longtime agnostic, I am a believer, but no longer a churchgoer. Although I pray or, moreover, talk to God in my own way, I’ve purposely stepped away from organized religion and have a lot of issues with The Church — issues that make me uncomfortable even referring to myself as a Christian anymore. It doesn’t feel truthful, and doesn’t line up with my worldview. I’ve even started to bristle at trotting out the spiritual but not religious line; it feels overused and a little wishy-washy. But I do want to be the one to talk to my son about God before things get complicated. And I’m trying to reconcile how I feel about God and religion—or at least begin the process—so that I can honestly venture into the potentially layered conversation with my son.
I don’t want these holidays for us to be purely secular, spilling over with sweets, treats, gifts, and trinkets. (Step off, Easter Bunny.) Instead, I want them to be steeped in something more meaningful to our family. Does this mean incorporating religious practices, prayer or worship? Maybe? No? I don’t know. And this is where the apprehension sets in: I believe there are definite lessons to be learned about faith, forgiveness, and compassion from the story of Jesus. But how do I invoke God into our traditions around holidays like Easter without being disingenuous or resting on a pretense that I subscribe to some of the more “magical-thinking” aspects of Bible stories?
I guess it starts with faith…in myself as a parent who can indeed raise a moral child without needing to quote Bible verses. I do believe that there’s a larger force, a greater being that exists beyond our known world, but I don’t want to pour my ideas over this child. He can look to science for cold, hard facts about the tactile world, and that doesn’t preclude him from incorporating ethics like The Golden Rule (a.k.a. Just Don’t Be a Jerk) into the way he moves through that same world.
It’s about holding fast to a belief that I can influence and help shape his young mind by letting my life be the lesson. How do I treat people I care about—and maybe more important, the ones that I’m not too fond of? Am I striving for happiness in my life? Do I put love first? Does my word mean something? Have I allowed passion and integrity to guide me instead of guilt and shame? These are the kinds of things that I think about, when I think about God. They aren’t linked to any Bible stories about sacrificial lambs. It’s not me trying to untangle the doctrine of the Trinity in language that a 6-year-old can understand (or a 60-year-old, mind you, because, listen, consubstantiality is one hard nut to crack). And it’s definitely not throwing the convenient blanket of “For the Bible tells me so” over anything that might be difficult to unpack or explain.
Maybe the way to smooth out the rough edges around how I feel about God and religion is to not mark that as the goal. Instead of trying to make it all make sense for my kid—and me—perhaps I need to leave it open-ended, create plenty of space for us to figure it out on our own time and in our own way. And if that means gray areas, question marks, differences of opinions and doubts, so be it.
Nicole Blades is an author and freelance journalist who writes about motherhood and race, identity, culture, and technology. Her second novel, The Thunder Beneath Us (Kensington), will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleBlades.
I celebrated my birthday last weekend, March 8th. It was sweet and fun; I definitely felt loved and appreciated. But over the last seven years there’s this thing that starts to flood my mind a few weeks out from my birthday. Truth told, sometimes it starts to seep in a good month before. It’s this weird heaviness that’s tinged with disquiet; a dash of gloominess and too many deep sighs that leaves me feeling out of sorts for brief moments before bouncing back into contentment.
The brooding is essentially about time moving too fast and feeling like I’m getting old. Older. Old. Closer to “the end.” It’s not that I have regrets or dreams that I’ve abandoned and now I fear that I’m running out of time. No, it’s the opposite: I’m so grateful for my life, my family, my choices. All of those things make me feel fulfilled, happy, and like I’m truly getting better with age — learning more, seeing more, doing more, understanding more, and just growing.
But I still can’t seem to shake this weird thing that starts brewing in the last weeks of February.
Then this morning, I saw this wonderful NYTimes piece from 2012, An Illustrated Talk with Maurice Sendak. And through sniffles and watery eyes, I can almost feel the heaviness lifting, melting away, evaporating for good.
“There’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging, that I’m in love with the world. … It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music.” — Maurice Sendak
So as I start this new day, a full week after my birthday, I plan to keep these simple but profound words of Maurice Sendak‘s close to the surface: “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”
Truth: I wrote this post last year and still haven’t found the nerve to ask the awkward, but important question about firearms in the homes of “new” playdate friends.
Granted, since I wrote this piece, my son’s playdates have either been at our house or at the same short list of kid’s homes. He’s had two new home visits in the last year, but I still failed to ask the question. Instead, I just stayed and chatted with the mom during the visit. Which was fine, I suppose, since our kids are still on the young side and sometimes actually ask us to stick around in the background as they figure they way through the new relationship.
But it still ways on my mind, heavier when I read news stories about young kids finding their parents guns and accidentally shooting someone or killing themselves. It also springs to the front of my concerns when I read pieces like this one from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, that highlights the fact that we will ask if a visiting child has any allergies (life-threatening or no), but not about the other potential threat to their young lives: guns.
It’s clear — especially living in this country — that as my kid gets older and starts venturing off to new places on his own, I will just have to find the nerve and ask. It’s that simple. It’s that important.
As I drove by the house with its orange, pro-gun rights flag flapping in the frigid breeze, I thought … well, first I thought, What the hell? I was actually considering pulling over and hopping out of my car to snap a photo. However, I was running too close to being late for a meeting (and I had flash visions of an ugly, git off mah lawn-style confrontation with the owners), so I kept it moving.
But the idea of the flag stayed with me for much of the morning. I started thinking about what it would look like if homeowners — more specific, parents — posted bright flags outside their doors letting you know that they indeed had firearms in the house. I know. The whole thing crosses many lines and bumps up against civil liberties, but it still made think how these flags could pull a very prickly subject out of the shadows and into the literal open air.
The loaded-weapon-in-the-house issue swirls around my head each time I read about the number of children shot to death in the last year or about a young child taking a gun to school or — worse — ends up dead after finding and playing with their parents’ firearm at home. It comes up again when I think about my son soon going off on more solo playdates (he had his first one ever just two weeks ago).
I’m a confident person and trust my choices as a mother, but having to ask a parent (and somewhat stranger) if they have guns in their home makes me oddly uncomfortable and sheepish. I haven’t done yet. I haven’t had to ask so far. But part of me feels like I should get un-sheepish about it, because it’s about safety and protecting these young folks.
Curious, are parents actually following through on this? Are you asking other parents or guardians this important question before allowing your kids go to playdates, sleepover, birthday parties alone? And on the other side of it, have you been asked about firearms in your home? If so, were you insulted? Annoyed?
Definitely leave a comment below. I’m always up for hearing your take.