The other morning while going for a walk, Josie asked me, “Mom, what should I be when I grow up?”
After going through a couple of suggestions and explaining what they were, I said to her, “Do you know what I want you to be when you grow up?”
“What?”, she asked.
After the sass and arguing I’ve been getting from her for the past two weeks of summer break, along what happened a couple of days ago, I find myself focusing on being kind and respectful more than anything with her.
Earlier this week, we were at AT&T getting some help with our phones, which of course meant we were there for an hour. Moses had been doing his thing – making his rounds, telling people “Hi”, tagging some people on the leg as he walked by and giving others hugs. At one point, he wanted something in my purse, so I gave him my tin of Altoids. He walked away shaking it happily, and then came walking back to me empty handed. As I got up to find where he had put it, a woman who had been sitting by the door was coming toward me holding my Altoids. We laughed as I thanked her for giving it back and I told Moses to stop giving my things away.
Moses was smitten. He kept going back to where she was sitting on the ledge by the door and would wait for her to put her hand out and he would touch it as if he was touching a cloud. Seriously, I wanted to ask her if I could feel how soft her hand must be with the way he kept going back to to touch it.
After a bit, he walked away and I followed him. When I looked back a few seconds later, Josie was standing about 10 feet away from the woman and other woman who was with her, and she was just looking at them with a weird, shy smile on her face and had her fingers in her mouth, which she never does. I told her she could go say “hi”, which I normally don’t have to tell her, but she stayed put. I could tell the women were getting a little uncomfortable with the way she was acting towards them, so I told her to stop acting weird and either say “hi” or go sit back down. She walked back toward the bench and I went to go after Moses again. When I came back around, she was staring at a man wearing a safety vest. I took her over to the table where Tyson was and told her that it wasn’t nice to stare at people and asked her why she was acting weird. She said she didn’t know. Thankfully, we left a couple of minutes later.
Later that evening, we were outside and she came over and sat next to me. It was my turn to ask her a question.
“Why wouldn’t you say hi to those ladies at the store?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know them.”
“You didn’t know the lady that was talking to Moses, but you went right up to her and even gave her a hug. What was different that you would talk to her and give her a hug but you wouldn’t say hi to the other ladies?”
“Well…it’s because their color wasn’t this.” She pointed at her arm.
Thank God I’m in education and could recognize that this was about to turn into an important teachable moment. I was able to take a deep breath and think about how to best respond to the answer that broke my heart.
I asked her, “Why does that matter?”
“Because I don’t like when people have brown or black color. I don’t like to talk to them.”
In my head, I was screaming “THAT IS NOT TRUE! YOU’VE TALKED TO PEOPLE WITH BROWN OR BLACK SKIN! WHERE IS THIS COMING FROM???”
Taking another deep breath, I responded to my daughter as calmly and clearly as possible.
“Josie, do you know what this is?” Pointing to my arm and to hers. “This is skin. Skin comes in all different colors, and the color of peoples’ skin is never a reason to not talk to them. Skin color does not matter. What matters is how people act and treat other people. Does that make sense?”
Josie nodded. But I wasn’t finished.
“Those ladies at the store were very nice. They were being kind to your brother and were trying to be nice to you. Were you being nice to them?”
She shook her head no.
“Remember that man in the safety vest? He had your color skin, but guess what? He wasn’t nice. He said something very not nice about you and your brother. That’s why I wanted you to stay away from him. It had nothing to do with the color of his skin but because of how he was acting.”
We then talked about one of her friends at school that has brown skin and how they’re friends because she’s nice. I ended the teachable moment by telling her, “You better never not talk to someone again because of the color of his or her skin, do you understand?” Thankfully, she nodded her head yes.
By the end of our conversation, I felt a sense of relief even though it wasn’t an easy conversation to have. It would’ve been easy to excuse Josie’s behavior to she was feeling shy. But in my heart I knew that wasn’t it. It would’ve been easy to just ask her if she wasn’t talking to those women because they had black skin. But as I’ve learned in the last almost 5 years, this parenting thing isn’t always easy.
More than anything, I want to raise my daughter to be kind. In a world in which people are still judged based on skin color, socioeconomic status, religion, number of chromosomes, etc., I want my daughter to simply show kindness and respect to all people. I want her to choose friends based on whether or not they treat her and others with kindness. I want her to choose a husband that treats her and others with love, kindness, and respect. I want her to be chosen to be a friend and wife for the same reasons.
I think of the people in history who have worked to teach people that gender doesn’t determine jobs, skin color doesn’t determine where you sit on the bus, and the answer to an extra chromosome is not institutionalization. While incredible progress has been made, it doesn’t mean the lessons don’t still have to be taught.
So at this young, impressionable age of almost-five, I find myself in a position as her mom to make sure that I’m not turning a blind eye to or excusing her behavior because of her age. I have to remember and understand that she is learning every day. I have to have tough conversations with her. I have to listen to her and help her see the errors in her thoughts and behaviors. Above all, I have to make sure that I am teaching her not just through words but by my own actions. I know that not everyone is going to show Josie or even myself kindness and respect. But I know from experience that I sleep much better at night when I can look back on the day and know that I did my best to be kind and respectful. I look back at how I’ve treated others, and at how I have been treated, and know that kindness and respect are not often regretted.
Back to our walk, Josie ended up saying she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. My response? “Be a kind one.”