How does one protect children from the hard aspects of life while also instilling in them an awareness and a social duty to lead, love, and learn?
This is the question I have been grappling with as a parent and educator the past few days. I am a white, suburban mother of three, but one who is passionate about the importance of being kind to others. I was raised in a household that, on the surface, appeared to be the epitome of privilege, but was also one where male bias dominated and behind-closed-doors rage often led to abuse.
While it took nearly 40 years for me to speak openly about my childhood experiences, those same experiences created a driving purpose in my life to be something more. They molded me into the person I am today which carries the good, the bad, and everything in between.
I wanted many things as a child. I wanted everyone to get along. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a mom.
I wanted to make a difference.
I became a parent in my mid-twenties and naively thought that raising a child in this world would be relatively easy. I didn’t take into account the atrocities that people of color had to endure because it didn’t have a direct impact on my world.
Until, eventually, it did.
I remember when my children were young, bypassing the traditional “terrible twos” stage. When other mothers were sharing their woes of children acting out, I nodded my head, not quite understanding their annoyance, but wanting to share my sympathy just the same.
Then my children turned three.
Apparently they missed the memo that the terrible twos were filled with tantrums and angst. Our kiddos saved up an extra year of energy and unleashed it all at once. Watching a three-year-old in a full-blown tantrum was like watching an F5 tornado rip the roof off a house then dismantle everything inside while also giving a commentary that was punctuated by one word sentences.
One moment everything seemed fine. The next moment utter destruction. I was unaware of my children’s pain and frustration hidden below the surface until it was too late.
My daughter slammed doors. My middle son liked to punch and hit. My youngest son screamed so loudly his voice would go hoarse.
My instincts wanted to match their anger with my anger. My childhood experiences wanted me to “put them in their place so they don’t ever do that again.” My heart simply wanted to hold them until their anger subsided.
I am not a perfect parent. I have good days and I have some other days that end with apologies for my actions. I’m doing the best I can. What helps me grow from one day to the next is reflecting on my experiences, then moving forward with a plan of action to be better.
When my children began to express themselves in anger, their small bodies would have an immediate response: flushed cheeks, raised voices, clenched fists. When their anger intensified, it transitioned to an uncontrolled outburst of physicality.
I have seen rage.
I have felt rage.
I have been the recipient of rage.
As a parent, I have a responsibility to teach my children how to recognize feelings of anger and rage and make decisions about those emotions. I remind them that it’s OK to be angry, but they have to “get their anger out” before it turns into rage. If they don’t choose what to do with rage, then rage will make the choice for them and it might have some devastating consequences.
I never spanked my children, due to my childhood experiences. I took the conversational route of discipline which meant more work on my part to remain calm as we worked through high emotions. Sometimes I was successful and sometimes my night ended in tears, frustrated by my inability to relieve their pain.
Our children wanted to be heard.
They wanted their perspective to be valued.
They wanted our attention to the matters at hand.
As our children worked through their emotions, we guided them with alternatives to release their anger. You want to slam a door? Take this book and slam it on the ground. (In fact, you get a louder slam if you slam it outside on the driveway versus the carpeted, bedroom floor!)
You want to punch someone? Here’s a pillow. Punch it for all it’s worth. Let me know if we need to bring you another one. You want to throw something? A stuffed animal is a much better choice than your ceramic piggy bank. Aim at the wall, your door, your bed. Never throw things at people.
You want to scream? Me, too, buddy. In ways I hope you will never know. Head up to your room or go out into the garage and let that anger reverberate against the walls. You don’t need an audience to see it; we can hear you just fine from anywhere in the house.
Once their anger was released, we would talk about what sparked the emotion. Perhaps they didn’t want to stop their playtime to go to bed. Sometimes they were mad at a sibling who beat them at a game. Occasionally they couldn’t even explain why they were mad, they just knew they were. Whatever the case may be, I would take time to listen. I tried to understand. I wanted my children to know that their perspective mattered. If it was important to them, then it was important to me.
Maybe my discipline options weren’t always they best, and maybe they won’t work for all situations, but they helped us survive the “torrential threes” with each of our children and provided a path for self-awareness early on. As they became older, they were able to recognize their own emotions and take responsibility for the actions that followed.
They taught me how to be a better parent.
They taught be how to be a better person.
Over the weekend and throughout this week, we have seen anger and rage at every turn. The City of Richmond is currently under an 8pm nightly curfew with local businesses and landmarks being vandalized and destroyed. A city bus was set on fire. Stores were robbed. Tear gas thrown at kneeling protestors. Profanity sprayed on museum entrances.
There is an uprising of emotion and it’s calling attention to the systemic problem of racial injustice in our country. It’s pushing the door a bit wider to open vital conversations we need to have with our children and with one another.
About taking action.
As I sit with my children watching the news reports on T.V., we dive deeper into questions about bias and race. We talk about the “why” behind behaviors and stretch our capacity to empathize with others who may look or speak differently. We tackle tough topics like how to get along with people whose views and perspectives don’t match our own.
We try to recognize in ourselves the word choices we use when we describe the events that unfold. We make sure to discuss not only the destructive forces shown, but spotlight the actions done well to promote change. We dismantle our own biases regarding protests and riots, making sure to uplift the peacekeepers who share their voices with passion, purpose, and respect.
We emphasize the importance of not making assumptions for all by the actions of a few. We empower our children to make their own decisions in fighting for equity and justice for others.
I continue my quest to cultivate kindness in this broken world. It’s imperative that we step out of our comfort zones and make space for the experiences of others that are different from our own. Some people do this in big, awe-inspiring, grandiose ways. Others make their impact with small, simple steps. Both are needed to move our country forward in a positive direction.
Some people may say, “Things will never change.” I emphatically disagree! Change is a culmination of the efforts of many and often takes time. We can can start the process by listening and learning. We need to understand the constraints of others. We must value the experiences that others describe and look for ways to accept their perspectives. We need to teach and inspire others to do the same. These are the principles that help us grow in empathy and compassion.
Every single one of of us was created with gifts to share with this world.
Every. Single. One.
How we treat others and how we treat ourselves is part of this life journey that sets the stage for the next generation.
When we see injustice, we have a duty to do something about it. We must recognize anger and rage and take responsibility to make it better.
I’m still a work in progress, but I’m trying. I hope you will try, too.