I worry about what my kids say in public.
Most parents reading that sentence are probably having one of two reactions. The honest ones are thinking, “Oh, God, me too!” while those who prefer not to look too closely behind the curtains of their own lives are saying, “Well, then maybe you should raise them better and stop polluting their minds.”
It might come as a surprise to realize that I’m more closely aligning myself with the second set of parents here, but not in the ways you might think. I don’t worry about the following things:
- Whether my kids have picked up swear words that they might pass along – They have
- Whether my kids will talk about the R rated movies they’ve seen – They will
- Whether they’ll pass along their knowledge of reproductive anatomy or physiology – Oh, well, at least they know the correct terminology.
- Whether they’ll out us for “always going to fast food restaurants for treats” – In my kids’ collective mind, more than once = “always”
I worry more about the value judgments they absorb from us, and how they convey those judgments to the rest of the world. If there is one lesson in life that I would really like to give them, it is that every person has his own story. The problem with this is that I also want them to understand that evil and malice do exist in the world and that it is the responsibility of every person to confront injustice. Reconciling those two ideals becomes, for me, a giant, tangled, who-gave-the-ferret-the-yarn mess.
Mike and I are not perfect, and yeah, I do worry that our children might pick up something that slipped from our mouths in a moment of anger, irritation, irreverence, or sheer stupidity. But, overall, I think of those things like viruses – something that may cause a transient infection but will be eradicated if the patient is generally healthy. I believe that when parents try, most of the time, to live and speak the lives they want for their children, that is largely what the children will learn. But, I worry about the hidden lessons, about the stories that my kids will take away that are right for our family but may not fit another household.
Here, let me give you three examples: two are moments when my children passed along things from our family – with different results, and one where another family’s values intruded on ours.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, then you probably realize that religion holds a somewhat tentative place in our house. Mike is pretty opposed to organized religion, and while I was confirmed Catholic, I’ve fallen away from the Church whose teachings differ so drastically from my core values. As a result, our kids have been raised with a pretty sketchy idea of theology. My general message to them has been that I believe that all religions – throughout history and cultures – are ways of coming toward the same basic truths. In this, we’ve tried to teach them to respect everyone’s religious beliefs. Well, that hasn’t always worked.
Caitlin has considered herself a polytheist for several years. She tends to favor the ancient Greek pantheon, but will consider the influence of the Egyptians. She has no patience for the notion of one omnipotent and perfect deity. She prefers the concept of a number of gods, flawed in human ways, and fulfilling different roles. Since Caitlin is also typically opposed to sharing information with others except on a need to know basis, her beliefs haven’t generally been a problem. A couple of years ago, however, she came home from school with one of those stories that made me wince.
Somehow she had wound up in a religious debate with a classmate in which she insisted that the Greek gods are real while the classmate, offended, said that the Greek pantheon were myth and that “there is no God but God.” This was the point where things fractured a bit. Caitlin, always ready for a good, speculative argument, demanded, “Well, what if the Greek gods are real and your God is imaginary?”
I’m still grateful not to have received an irate parent phone call on that one…
Incident number 2 took place in our car a year or so ago. Aidan and two of his friends were riding in the back seat of our van while I was driving and trying not to listen to the 3rd grade boy dialogue. No one should have to listen to boys who somehow consider themselves out of earshot. In my attempt to drown out the fart-jokes with internal white noise, I missed the beginning of the conversation. My attention focused when I heard one of the boys say,
“That’s so gay!”
Aidan didn’t miss a beat. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Huh?” The conversation stopped.
“What’s wrong with being gay,” he asked.
Neither boy had an answer, other than a muttered “nothing,” so the world returned to methane-based humor.
My initial, and current, reaction was pride in my son. I was proud of him for speaking out against a stereotype, and I was proud of him for breaking from the group to look at his own values. Usually we worry that if one of his buddies said, “Hey, let’s go jump off that bridge,” Aidan would be the first one over the rail.
But, part of me wonders. Where do we draw the line in speaking out for our beliefs? Is it more right for my son to assert his value that no way of being should be used as an insult than it is for my daughter’s classmate to try to impose his belief in a single, omnipotent God on her, or her to impose her polytheism on him? Part of me says, well, of course. The one is speaking out against injustice while the other shows a disrespect for someone else’s religion. But, is it ultimately the same thing?
Now, I happen to know the parents of both my son’s friends well, and I’m reasonably confident that none of them would be okay with their offspring using “gay” as a pejorative. But what if one of those boys had belonged to a family who truly believed homosexuality to be a sin? I would argue that Aidan was simply asking, “What is wrong with being gay?” and that his intent was to say that it’s not okay to use someone’s identity as a slur, but might not the hypothetical parent view the conversation as an attempt by my son to impose his beliefs on others? I don’t know.
The third incident may explain some of this further. While we generally try to provide a healthy balance of foods for our kids – we receive a weekly “farm box” from a local CSA program, we don’t stock fluorescent orange chips except as a special treat maybe twice a year, the bags of Halloween candy last longer than the twelve months between trick-or-treats, and a fruit or vegetable is mandatory in every lunch – Mike and I aren’t fanatic about every ingredient or product that crosses the kitchen threshold. Sierra may have a whole-grain flour, nut, and raisin bar from Trader Joe’s with a glass of Kefir for breakfast but a Skippy peanut butter and Smuckers strawberry jam on white bread (with the crusts cut off) sandwich in her lunch. (This week, these are her menu items of choice.)
Most of the time Sierra, like her siblings, packs her own lunch. And for a first grader, I think she does a damn good job. Her typical lunch involves the aforementioned sandwich (sometimes she mixes it up and has leftovers in a thermos jar), a pack of dried seaweed, a container of Pirate’s Booty, and a piece of fruit. Nutrition-wise, I’d have to say, “not bad.” She’s got her protein, her carbs, multiple vitamins and minerals, and nothing super-processed or with a lot of ingredients whose chemical structures were the stuff of my undergraduate nightmares.
You may have noticed that first graders are not into nuance. Shade of grey tend to fall into two camps for the seven-year-old: black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or bad-for-you.
Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Sierra came home a couple of months ago saying, “We need to buy a different kind of seaweed.”
Ok, not a comment I would have expected to hear in my former, non-kelp-purchasing, kid-free life. But, what really threw me was the next line.
“M says that the kind of seaweed I bring in my lunch is bad for you.”
My first reaction was a series of three-letter acronyms for expletives. Seriously? Some kid had decided that our brand of seaweed is unhealthy? What sort of freaky universe was this? Could someone please choke that child with a Twinkie?
I’ll admit it – we did double check the sodium content (the only potential unhealthy thing I could think of). It was fine. As I type this, I feel like an idiot. What kind of adult allows a 7 year old to influence her perception of how she feeds her children?
Well, we’re nearing the end of the school year, but M is still at it. Last week, Sierra was visibly upset (since this child’s default expression is a huge grin, upset isn’t exactly hard to discern.) Sure enough, “M still says that my lunches aren’t healthy. Now he’s saying that my sandwich is bad for me.”
Aidan, from the back seat, made the noise beloved of pre-teen boys – that sort of cough, laugh, vocal fart that indicates a level of derision un-expressible by words. “What the heck is wrong with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” I have to give Aidan credit; he may rain a torrent of judgment down on Sierra, but other kids are not allowed to make his little sister feel bad.
“He says that the kind of bread we buy is bad.”
Ok, well, white bread criticism makes a bit more sense to me than seaweed-critique, but I was becoming annoyed. Biting back a number of comments that would not endear me to the 1st grade parent body, I dredged up, “Well, anything is bad for you in the wrong amount. Even water can be bad for you if you drink too much of it. The important thing is eating a reasonable amount of each kind of food.”
This is our default answer to junk food, why pizza is not a vegetable, whether soda=poison, and any other random nutritional question.
So here is my quandary. M and his family obviously had nutritional right on their side in the white bread question. Realistically there isn’t anything healthy about the sandwich bread Sierra eats. (I’ve learned to pick nutritional battles because I fear that if my children decide that cannibalism is the only reasonable antidote to whole grains, I will be the first menu item.) However, where is the line between M being informed about healthy foods, M educating his friends, and another family’s way of life trampling all over ours?
And where do my kids draw the line? When does their belief in freedom of religion collide with someone else’s values? And where does indignation over a slur become telling someone else how to live?
I don’t really know. I haven’t answered these questions for myself yet. And so, I do worry about what my kids pass along.