On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and after a conversation I had with some narrow minds over the holidays, I’m venturing into discussing race with my toddler. I’ll make it as digestible and relatable with 3 short lessons.
Or make that 3 1/2.
- Have empathy for people who feel down-trodden
- Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
- Racial issues are more about socio-economics than skin color.
- Except it IS about skin color, so realize that and fix it.
So here’s a 3-part conversation (that I *might* have imagined) with my 3yo:
Part 1: Empathy for those feeling harassed and down-trodden
Son, if I were a perfect (or just better) daddy, I’d address all your tears with “I understand you’re frustrated that your brother stole your train. But you can’t body-slam him to the floor.” I admit I often roll my eyes and give YOU time-outs for your “brutality”.
But he took my train!
That’s right buddy. He was the aggressor. Doesn’t it make you mad that I gave YOU the time out? But, wait.
Can I have a cheese stick?
Okay, here. So back to this: you know how I’m always telling you to take your shoes off, and wash your hands? I tell friends you’re a demanding emperor. But really I’m the tyrant barking orders at you all day long. And sometimes you say, “No, Daddy! You’re not going to tell me to share my trains!”
Daddy! Sometimes I don’t want to share.
I get that, buddy. (Speed this up, pops. Make discussing race with my toddler a meaningful experience…) And when you tell me not to watch you as you’re hiding behind the couch to intentionally poop your pants, isn’t that frustrating? Doesn’t it make you angry to have anyone look at you suspiciously? Like you’ve done something wrong? (Pooping isn’t wrong, son.)
See? It’s frustrating to feel constantly harassed or have your stuff taken. And imagine having people stare at you suspiciously all day long. That would be sad.
You’re allowed to be frustrated. You deserve to speak out.
When you see people of all skin colors protesting in the streets, it’s because they’re frustrated that someone took their things or looks at them suspiciously or treats them unfairly.
I hope you might ask why they’re marching. Their feelings are important. Just like yours are.
(You still can’t tackle your brother or avoid washing your hands. In New York you wash your hands before going to the bathroom.)
Part 2: Don’t stigmatize an entire population
Son, sometimes you say “I don’t like kids at school!” And why is that?
That’s why(*) that boy pushes me and always takes Percy**.
But that’s just the actions of one little boy. It’s not the actions of everyone. See? You can’t blame everyone for the actions of one. Like, buddy, when you say ‘I don’t like green food’ but it’s really that you don’t like peas, right?
No! I don’t want peas for lunch!
Right. But you can’t stigmatize*** an entire group because of one thing. It goes for vegetables and people. Do you understand?
What do you think?
Um. I don’t know.
Okay. Well, we will not lump things together in this house. You don’t say ‘those people’, you don’t say, ‘I don’t like greens’ and you don’t…
Daddy? Can I watch Frozen?
Part 3. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
Son, racial issues are very often socioeconomic issues.
I’m glad you asked. (High five, pop. Discussing race with my toddler has already expanded into the socioeconomic factors and he is INTO it.) Poor people are often driven to make some bad choices to survive in our country. But they aren’t making bad decisions because of their skin color, rather it’s because they want to have what you have: food, warmth, a few toys. It’s not because of skin color, it’s because of money. You understand?
But because of the actions of a few desperate people, an entire population is found guilty. And that’s wrong.
Daddy? Can we play trains, now?
(You’re losing him! You’re losing him, pops!) One second, buddy. I’m on a roll. Here’s part 3 ½: The system is stacked against poor people. Some kids don’t do well in school, but it’s not because of their skin color. It’s because of a whole host of reasons: they have underfunded schools, they didn’t eat breakfast, no one read to them like I read to you.
Daddy? Can you stop talking? Pleeease?
Buddy, I just need to finish this one point: I said it’s not about skin color and yet it IS about skin color, because in our country many people are afraid, so very, very afraid of anything that’s “other”. And that “other” is a different skin color. And because of their fear, they hate.
Daddy? (He over-dramatically rolls his eyes with annoyance at me.)
And hate always comes from fear.
So anyway, buddy, some people hate people with different colors just because of their color. So they’re treated differently and not given privileges and not respected. And some kids drop out of school because they don’t have support at their house to strive for greater academic achievement, but that doesn’t have to do with their skin color.
He starts singing “Let it Go” and tuning me out.
Some parents can’t give successful tools to their kids, but that’s unrelated to their skin color. They never had those tools in the first place (because other people were afraid of them and hated them), and because they weren’t born into a lucky position with support and resources (and a different skin color), this vicious cycle of racism and socioeconomic disparity cycles through several generations. It started with fear of “otherness” and skin color and then it becomes about economics. But they’re people just like you and me.
He walks away from me. I pursue.
Buddy, you cannot make blank statements about groups of people and you cannot discount how people feel. But you can empathize and ask why and you can seek to understand the world through their eyes.
Daddy? Stop talking. You play with green trains. I don’t like them. They’re green. I want the purple trains.
And you can always talk with me and ask questions about these topics. Because discussing race with my toddler is something we should do. A lot.
Give me my train.
I’m glad we had this discussion.
* My son says “that’s why” in place of “because”. I hope he never changes.
** Percy = Friend of Thomas.
*** You don’t know what stigmatize means? What are they TEACHING you at that preschool?
Though I loathe the culture war centered around “putting the
‘Christ’ back into ‘Christmas’”, I’m definitely one who wants my
children to know the reason behind every season, or in most
This applies most especially to holidays as “abstract” as Veteran’s
Day. Yesterday my older kid jumped with joy as she celebrated having THREE DAYS OF MORNING TELEVISION
this weekend. Uncharacteristically, I held my tongue so as not to
deflate her joy. I’ll save the posturing about Veteran’s Day for the
I’m feeling particularly attached to Veteran’s Day, this year,
because of the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice. I’ve always been
masochistically fascinated by WWI. It never fails to send a sobering
chill down my spine to reflect on the first war in which men were able
to massacre acres of men without catching sight of each other. The
wide-scale use of machine guns, tanks, airplanes and trench warfare that
wasted a generation all because of agreements between insecure, rich
white men trying to keep their place in the upper-class mastering the
Talk about toxic masculinity.
WWI was the end of an era (for the Western, caucasian paradigm, of
course) in which impersonal savagery replaced, well…personal savagery.
A pall of sadness always lingers over WWI media (books, poems, movies, stories.) And so much changed for men in that time – so many poets
and authors emerged from the battles in France scarred for life…with
new-found expressionism. Seems to me, WWI created a generation of
self-reflection, as opposed to WWII which created the emotionally stoic
“Greatest Generation”. It wasn’t just a triumph of good vs evil, allies
vs. axis. it was the destruction of humanity.
Yesterday, in France, French
President Emmanuel Macron declared at the ceremony marking the end of
WWI, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a
betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens
to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have,
that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that
which is most important: Its moral values.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Because nationalism (setting national gain over international
citizenship) is what caused WWI and could easily cause another
unthinkable world conflagration. This is what most scares me about Trump
and what most scares me about my kids’ generation not having a grasp of
history. I pray neither of my children ever has to endure a
generational war (although let’s not forget that American forces are
waging battles around the world, today).
So we have to teach our children the significance of world
citizenship, collective good and personal sacrifice so that insecure,
rich men don’t repeat history and take us down the path of
I don’t exactly know how to talk with my kids about such disturbing
issues as massive loss of life in the name of freedom (and on behalf of
European royals and leaders). But I’ll lecture my kids, tomorrow, and
will embrace the eye rolls in the interest of world citizenship and
patriotism. I’ll recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, even though it’ll mean nothing to my kids.
And I’ll keep doing so…to protect them.
I know – I’m exhausting: I just can’t abide y kids NOT undersatnding the reason behind any celebration, and so even at Christmas (even though we aren’t regular church-goers), I need my kids to have Santa with a side of Jesus. Or vice-versa. But let’s be honest: our culture focuses MUCH more on Santa than Jesus.
Like yours, my kids are obsessed with receiving presents. It always makes me nervous they’ll become unappreciative, acquisitive kids lacking any appreciation for the reason for the season. I fretted about it. So I quizzed them:
“Why do we celebrate Christmas?”
“To get presents!”
“Right, but beyond that, people believe someone named Jesus was born.”
And my innocent child blandly responded, “Jesus Fucking Christ?”
We were actually decorating the Christmas tree in this moment and my partner and I could absolutely not look at each other for fear of guffawing uncontrollably.
After we both bit the inside of our cheeks til we tasted blood, I responded, “Well, we usually don’t use his middle name.”
This year, we’re reading diverse books about Rudolph and Santa with a side of Jesus.
As I’ve alluded, I’m a believer in a higher power, a worldly energy, a
united human spirit. But I don’t think there’s a grandfatherly figure
with a white beard deciding whether or not we get into pearly gates. And
Biblical stories?, word-for-word?…not so much.
Of course we embrace the spirit of Christmas, spreading joy and good
tidings and all that jazz. But (as with appreciating Veterans’
sacrifices on Veteran’s Day – and that it’s not just a day off
from school, and that Labor Day celebrates sacrifices made by people
once working in deplorable factory conditions – and that’s it’s not just a day off from school), the birth of a baby named Jesus is the reason for Christmas – not just getting presents from Santa.
That’s the origin of this holiday; the why. I want my sons to know why we celebrate Christmas and why we give gifts in the same spirit of the wise men and kings bringing gifts to Jesus.
I won’t allow my kids to go through life not understanding the why – of pretty much everything.
No need to lump me in with people who get freaky-outy about keeping
the “Christ” in Christmas. I really don’t think Jesus would (is?)
insulted by secular shopping mall decorations or red Starbucks cups
lacking snowflakes. If He weren’t so full of forgiveness, I’m sure he
would be rolling his eyes at us…like incessantly.
The “war on Christmas” just sells more advertising on FOX. Christians are not the victims. And if you’re really that pure a religious observer, you should be able to separate your authentic & personal celebration from consumer frenzy.
Sorry. Stepping off my soap box.
Recently, I read an interesting tidbit in the NY Times about how Washington Irving (he of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) crafted a Christmas tradition for America and helped invent Santa Claus. (So much to unpack, here…not the least of which is we crafted our own consumer Christmas frenzy. How…American.)
Until the early 1800’s, there was no national Christmas holiday, like…anywhere; let alone the United States. They didn’t even have Santa with a side of Jesus. Christmas was even approached differently by Episcopalians and Unitarians and every other Christian denomination. (Some saw it as blasphemy. WTF?) But in a book parodying the history of NYC, Washington Irving made the Turkish St. Nicholas the patron saint of NYC. Then Irving’s neighbor wrote a poem for his daughters describing St. Nicholas as a “Ripe jolly old elf.”
Up to that time, Alexander Hamilton and Mayflower refugees weren’t dreaming of sugar plums or fretting over any war on Christmas.
It was a religious holiday celebrated by some, not by all.
Isn’t that fascinating? (I love our current culture of revisiting history with different lenses.)
I’m excited to pass this history on to my kids and help them understand the why, plus the crafting of traditions from mistletoe to crèches and mangers to Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
For this year, my kids still see Santa and say presents presents presents. But when I nag, “Why do we celebrate Christmas and give gifts?” they parrot, “Because Jesus was born.”
“And what do we do besides get presents?”
So they regurgitate my words. I’m okay with that, for now.
Next year we will work on generosity, world peace with a side of virgin births.