Image Credit: Innosanto Nagara
Historically, I was convinced that I’d have Rosemary’s Baby, so I’d never considered motherhood as part of my trajectory. However, a few shots of tequila and a rigorous yoga session later, I joined the ranks of petrified and dazed new mothers. And now, seven and a half years after that, there’ve been no exorcisms and no regrets.
Parenting is an ongoing process of making and navigating the repercussions of your and other people’s decisions and mediating information that you did or didn’t choose for your kid to have access to; all of which directly affects, and in turn, shapes a kid’s perceptions, perspectives, and identity. Being a mom is petrifying. Your bad day could be fodder for years of therapy. That whole kid’s brains are like sponges thing is no bullshit. They’re astute observers, intuitives, and truth-tellers. They’re creating blueprints, roadmaps, and recipes. They’re gathering nuts and bolts for the scaffolding that will one day uphold values that will or will not contribute to institutionalized oppression, condoned violence, self-care, self-acceptance, and self-love. And all the while, they’re using these bits and pieces to form their own value systems and dream up a life of their own.
Once upon a time, about three years ago, a four-year-old daughter and her mother were driving home at dusk. While stopped at a light, the little girl’s backseat chatter was replaced by fearful whimpers.
As her mother turned to her right, she understood her daughter’s sudden shift. Their car was parallel to, and only a few feet away from, a bus stop with a homeless man being beaten up by two police officers.
“Mom! What are they doing? He can’t even walk! He can’t even stand up! Why are they doing that?”
What do I do? Thought the mother.
If she’d been alone, she knew she would have just gotten out of the car and said something, but she wasn’t alone.
The mother considered her options: I could get out and say something. What if I get arrested? What if I get arrested and they take my kid? I could film it, but will she be even more afraid if she can hear what’s happening, too? Do I show her how to stand up for what she believes in? Do I teach her to respect cops? Do I teach her that cops are dangerous? Fuck. I have to say something! Don’t just let her watch…
She said, “I don’t know why honey, but you’re right. It doesn’t look like a fair fight,” and reached back to hold her daughter’s hand.
“I thought cops were supposed to help people!”
The mother replied, “Cops are just people. Some are kind and others are not. Some make good choices and others don’t.”
There was nowhere to go. They were between two cars. Trapped. Stuck. Trying to help her stay present, the mother asked, “Baby, are you ok?”
The daughter began to cry.
“I don’t understand, Mom!”
“Yes, honey. I don’t either.”
The light changed.
When they got home, the mom and the daughter called the police, and told them what they’d witnessed. After that, the daughter started having nightmares involving cops–they were the bad guys, the boogey man in the closet, the monsters lurking in the bushes. She woke up in the middle of the night after dreams where they violently escorted her to jail for being rude to the babysitter, not finishing her dinner, or having a meltdown because she hated her socks.
A couple months later, the daughter, who was still having the same nightmares a couple times a week, and her mom, who was from Chicago and tended to have a bit of a leaden foot on the gas pedal, were speeding down the freeway and rocking out to Fleetwood Mac.
When the lights appeared in her rearview mirror, the mom distractedly pulled onto the shoulder, already engrossed in budget crunching and how to include the impending ticket in her adjunct salary, until the officer appeared in the window, and the daughter began to scream, hysterically.
The mom rolled down her window, and motioned for the cop to lean in and said, “Ok–so I know I was speeding, but more importantly, my daughter recently saw a cop beat up an unarmed homeless man so violently that he couldn’t even walk afterwards, and she’s terrified of the police. Can you say something kind to her so she knows she’s not in danger?”
And without another word, the officer nodded and turned his attention to the back seat where the daughter was shaking and crying. He introduced himself. He said he’d be right back, and ran to his car, and came back with stickers and a toy badge for her, and a ticket for the mother.
The nightmares began to dissipate, slowly.
Fast forward to now, the daughter, now seven and a half, rarely discusses seeing the homeless man being beaten; however, when the mother asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, she replied:
“All I want is one very small Polly Pocket Doll, and I want to take the rest of whatever you were planning to use to buy me stuff and buy presents for the homeless, because they don’t have anything, and they may not even be safe.”
Stories are often the beginning blocks of self-awareness and identity. Whether stories are told orally, in writing, or simply internalized and incorporated, they can serve as a way to understand and cope with one’s environment. For instance, as a child, I remember reading and listening to the album Free to be You and Me with Marlo Thomas et al, and after my parents would argue, I began to play the song “It’s Alright to Cry” on my Fisher Price turntable in the basement. That song has remained a deep and hokey comfort throughout my life, and I imagine it will until the end.
The stories we’re told or read when we’re young can become the basis for our opinions and behaviors, as my daughter illustrates in the true story above.
Stories are also how we’re taught about how to be a girl, a boy, or to be ourselves. There are far more children’s stories in the world that don’t speak to my daughter’s experience of having a mom, a trans step-father, a biological cis-dad, a step-mom, and a step-brother. However, reading books that don’t demonstrate her circumstances don’t have to be painful or alienating if I’m teaching my daughter to approach information critically.
This generation of parents isn’t the first to consider how much TV to allow on weeknights, or talk to their kids about depictions of wars, stories on the nightly news, equal rights, or oppression; however, the playing field has changed—dramatically—with the addition of pervasive Internet and media access.
While a parent having 100% control over what their kid does or doesn’t see has never been possible, nowadays, the severity, intensity, and magnitude of random and unmediated information far surpasses a Playboy centerfold poster or reading your brother’s secretly hidden- on- the- very- top- shelf of his bookshelf copy of The Joy of Sex at six-years-old. No. Now, it could be that your six-year-old goes to have a sleepover at a friend’s house, and that friend has a tablet, and they get super curious (because, of course, they’re kids), and Google the word sex and then they’re watching porn. No middle step of having to not wake anyone up by using the DVD player. No filter. Just a two second delay between “I wonder…,” and a smorgasbord of uncomfortable questions, like, “Mommy, what’s a pearl necklace, like, you know, like, when it’s not really a necklace, and more like, well, actually what’s sex?”
I’m on the more proactive side of the Serenity Prayer. For instance, I can accept that there’s nothing I can do about my kid watching wayyyyy too much unmediated garbage TV, including horrific commercials, when she’s at her dad’s house, because it’s out of my control; however, I can do the following: Not have cable in the house, and not let her have any screen time Monday through Friday, and when she does watch Netflix or a movie on the weekends, proactively teach her how to think critically about what she’s intellectually, psychologically, and (thinking about) physically ingesting.
You may wonder whether or not my kid gets to just laugh and be a kid, or if I make her live in a bubble and she feels awkward at parties; you wouldn’t be the first, and the answer is: of course she gets to be a kid, and she’s probably no more awkward than any of the other kids at the party. Aside from my truly unbending “I will nevereverevereverever buy you a Barbie Doll” rule, the point isn’t that I shield her from reality and contemporary culture, but rather, I encourage her to engage with it thoughtfully and deeply. My daughter still asks me for a Barbie Doll whenever we see one, but now she says: “Mom, can you pleaseeeee buy me one? I promise that I’ll never think that my body can look like that in real life. Pleassse?” And I say: “Nope.” But if she somehow acquires one in a hand-me-down bag, I don’t make her throw it out. When she asks why, we talk about belief and value systems, and what I will or won’t spend my money on.
There is often a precious time before a child discovers television and Internet, before images are hurled at light speed and the interaction is a fast-paced filtering and filing, and that is the tender business of reading. There is space on the page so a mind can wander in and out. There are quiet illustrations to ponder, and an invitation for interjections when it’s time to turn the page, and moments to reflect, relate, re-imagine, and rewind (sans a button).
Reading is a personal experience. It’s often one of the first invitations to have a response, to analyze, and to form an opinion, as opposed to simply being immersed in situations and reacting to them. Reading is intimate. Initially, it’s usually performed by a parent, teacher, sibling, caretaker, or friend, and therefore, often allows for emotional vulnerability, which can in turn inspire deeper thinking. When a child is no longer dependent upon books being read to them, they have the intimate experience of reading alone. This is dramatically different because reading, unlike other information highways, is a self-regulated, one-on-one process that, by definition, cannot be a barrage to the point of disassociation. One can just set the book down, close their eyes, take a deep breath…it’s only as mesmerizing as the reader allows the experience to be.
Books are opportunities to illuminate a kid’s natural propensity to dream and wonder, which, when combined with their growing ability to intentionally think critically, leads to taking dreaming and wonderment into the realm of discernment, reflection, and empathy. This is where a child might learn how to not only dream their dreams, but also begin to thoughtfully imagine and construct the bridges to bring them to fruition. This is how to plant and feed forgiveness, mindfulness, self-empowerment, self-esteem, and deep-seated visionary thinking.
These lessons often start with a first page: “Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a…” Make believe. Stories. Fables. Blueprints. Maps. Barometers. Choices.
Critical thinking is a skill, and like any skill, one must learn how to do it well. Its acquisition is now even more fraught with ingrained hurdles. Dominant culture drank the Kool-aid, and we’re in the midst of an epidemic of skimming and scanning, analytical grazing, simplifying, and accepting information. Of course, the Internet is also a bottomless pit of information, yet more often than not, we seem to be living in a world that is content with sound-byte-sized reports that have been determined and distributed by less than ten people hailing from an uncannily similar demographic. This means that even the most earnest attempts at objective reporting are doomed.
It’s safe to assume that until a dramatic implosion of all media and Internet constructs occurs, this hyper-stimulated state is here to stay. The answer to how to find quality programming, quality children’s books, etc. is to teach kids the value of critical thinking. That is revolutionary.
The Baggy Saggy Elephant (Golden Books, 1999) Written by K. and B. Jackson, Illus. by Gustaf Tenggren
My rad niece Izzy is almost 13-years-old, and has been a voracious reader since birth. Here’s her review of her favorite childhood story:
All in a Day (Abrams, 2009) Written by Cynthia Rylant, illus. by Nikki McClure
These two team up to tell the reader about what can happen in one day. The text is simple yet runs deep. When the author writes, “A day starts early, work to do, beneath a brand-new sky,” she plants the idea that a day is an opportunity to begin again–something that children are at-once experts on because their psyche is ever-forming, yet in need of truly comprehending in order to believe that it’s normal to learn and grow through their experiences, including their mistakes. There are also themes of mindfulness, self-awareness, and positivity, without judgment or hokiness.
McClure’s signature paper cuts are as beautiful as ever, and they provide a layered constancy in which the words can come alive, while continuing to echo their simplicity with the boldly contrasted designs of the duo chrome aesthetic. All in a Day reminds us to be present, that, “The past is sailing off to sea, the future’s fast asleep. A day is all you have to be, it’s all you get to keep,” a lesson that both the young and old can appreciate.
A is for Activist (Triangle Square, 2013) Written and illus. by Innosanto Nagara
A is for Activism is a delightful alphabet book for the activist and/or historian that found the typical landscape of extreme exhaustion, combined with the pervasively painfully boring and empty alphabet books, was a potentially dangerous situation that could induce something akin to post-partum narcolepsy. Nagara introduces important language like justice, ally, freedom, and advocate, words that will hopefully find long-term housing in the reader’s vocabulary and heart. Innosanto Nagara uses history and critique to discuss a range of information and perspectives rarely represented in mainstream public school classrooms, let alone children’s books, including unions, environmental issues, communism, and the patriarchy.
G is for Grassroots.
Sprouting from below.
Sharing nutrients, and the water’s flow.
Below the surface we’re all connected.
Stronger together-we Grow.
T is for Trans.
For Trains, Tiaras, Tulips, Tractors, and Tigers Too!
Trust in The True
The he she They That is you!
“Z is for Zapatista, of course.”
Free to Be… You and Me: The 35th Anniversary Edition (Running Press, 2008) Written by Marlo Thomas and Friends, designed by Peter H. Reynolds
Free to Be You and Me was a basic food group for many of us that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. Thomas spearheaded the project as a means to discuss the various issues brought forth by the second wave feminist movement. From a critical thinking perspective, Free to Be You and Me is rich. It’s an excellent launching off point to discuss gender identity, equality, and stereotypes. The ideas presented are now somewhat passe, and may even feel a bit archaic in year 2014, however, in the 1970’s, they were revolutionary. I find that it’s a very interesting book to read with my seven-year-old daughter. I like to ask open-ended questions. She seems to pick up on the inconsistencies and incongruencies in comparison to her own experiences growing up in a world filled with all kinds of folks. It’s also very entertaining. She likes the music, and little skits on YouTube. I like that it reminds me of my childhood and being young and curious. One very problematic concern that I have with Free to Be You and Me is that you don’t find non-white representations other than African-American, so people of color are simplistically presented without any or very little variation. Nevertheless, even this can used as a teachable moment.