Last week, you read my letter to Marie, my brilliant insightful friend who has two children like I do. I reached out to her in a desperate effort to see if I was really alone in this scramble to protect my child from the world, and its assholes. While my particular situation involved gender stereotypes, there are many issues our children will inevitably face in this world. Now please enjoy Marie’s response in the second letter of our Letters Between Mom Friends series.
My dear friend, you are very much not alone. Sometimes I think that my worries and fears for my children’s physical safety gets outweighed by my fear for their emotional safety. As fellow teachers, you and I both know how people can surprise us with kindness, but can also break our hearts with their cruel treatment of others. I think this is especially true of children who sometimes try out the cruelness of adults as part of figuring out who they are. Of course, we want to shield our children from this reality as long as we can. I too have tried to mitigate situations to prolong this shield, much as it sounds like you were with the pink butterfly backpack (which, I agree with you, is totally adorable!). I too struggle with the balance – how much do I mitigate the situation, and how much to do I let it run its course so my children can learn to stand up as who they are in this moment?
I still vividly remember sending my son off to kindergarten. My spouse and I weren’t sure how he was going to do. He was a quiet kid in preschool who rarely joined in with the superhero play that filled the preschool classroom. He was far more happy to build trains or do art on his own. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when he entered a world of children that had different experiences from our own, ranging from rough play with older siblings, to movies we don’t watch because they scare my son, to prejudice we had yet to experience in our cozy co-op preschool.
He shocked us all when, half-way through the year, it was clear that our son was putting himself in charge of things. After school on the playground other children would look to him to think up the game, or we would hear about how he led something at school.
In those years between kindergarten and now – he is seven, and in second grade – I’ve had the privilege of watching him start to figure out social norms. I wish I could tell you it’s been smooth sailing, or that I’ve simply watched him come into his own personality. But the truth is, he is trying to figure out what actions, ideas, and persona fit him, fit in with social norms at school, and fit into our family dynamics.
It’s as messy as it sounds.
One minute he is all in with swordplay, using his hand or a stick to pretend to chop someone to pieces. The next minute he is telling me, in a soft scared voice, that he changed his mind about the gift he wants to give his teacher because he thinks she or the other kids might laugh at him (he wanted to give her Smarties, because she said she liked them at Halloween, but then felt like that looked silly compared to what other kids gave her the week leading up to Christmas).
My son will play-act with blood and death at the playground in ways that make me cringe and want to scream. Then he will tell me that he makes it a point to listen carefully (read: eavesdrop) on all the adult conversations he hears so that he can “understand everything”.
I’m starting to believe that growing up is just a huge mix of contradictions. And, when I’m honest with myself, I think that pretty well describes adulthood too.
So, I feel like we’ve made an interesting transition with parenting our son: We’ve gone from protecting our son from assholes to trying hard to keep him from acting an asshole as he figures out his place in the world. There is plenty that is not working, and that worries me, like his excitement about swordplay or how quick he is to say he doesn’t like someone because he doesn’t like one thing they said to him.
There is also plenty that is working, as he continues to be a strict rule-follower and still loves to play family and build elaborate imaginative scenarios with his sister. And, while he is an asshole sometimes, I can’t remember him ever being outwardly being an asshole because of a prejudice that he learned at school.
I’m not sure about you, but I wasn’t surprised by the wave of #MeToo accusations against men in power. Frankly, to me, the only surprise is that some of those men are actually being held to account. For most of my life, I’ve seen the power of toxic masculinity, and take its toll on men, women, and non-binary folks alike. With my daughter, I feel more confident in modeling and teaching her how to resist a system that would see her as inferior in some ways.
But with my son, I’ve felt the tension between wanting to protect him from a world that may brand him as a “sissy” but also want to remind him not to get sucked into an identity that is centered around holding power over others. He is a white male – it’s pretty darn easy for him to look around and assume that most people in power look like him and that is just the way it is. As he gets older my spouse and I are learning that our job as parents is to provide the occasional shield from the outer world, as well as nurturing nudges in the direction of compassion, kindness, and empathy.
Most days that feels like balancing on a narrow beam – with far too little sleep or patience. Ya know . . . . like most of parenting.
So no, you are certainly not alone. What I want to know is, as our children step out more and more from that shield of family and home, how do we help them navigate that world with their compassion and kindness intact, even if their innocence must dissolve a bit simply because they are growing up? What does that look like when many of the people around us may not have the same values as us, even if while we are all part of the same community?
I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
If you missed the first letter in the series, you can read it here.
And please let us know your thoughts in the comments. This dialogue needs to happen between parents, and it needs to be ongoing! I will do everything that I can to help you learn how to protect your child.