The Joys of Letting Kids be Inappropriate

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Co-parenting under any circumstance has difficult moments, but in one household, even when parenting styles are misaligned, there is usually motivation by each parent to occasionally bend on at least some values in the name of preserving a semblance of a peaceful and united parenting front.

When marriages end, a parade of therapists, court system employees, attorneys, and others offer no shortage of advice for dealing with big rock decisions — how to divide parenting time, how to ensure children are financially supported, what school district is gonna be the “home” district, how do you divide holidays equitably? Those questions, while large in scope, at least typically come with a playbook negotiated through the court system. 

But what about the mundanity of day-to-day parenting decisions? There’s often no guide when parents who were previously coupled and made nearly all minor in-the-moment decisions in tandem are suddenly individuals in charge of their own households. That dynamic is simultaneously freeing and immensely complicated.

The mother of my children and I want what’s best for our kids, and have both created loving, comfortable environments that the kids feel safe in. We are largely in agreement about the “big issues.” But little things — like what we consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviors — often cause disagreements. When I got a text from her that said, “Isla is singing Baby Got Back pretty much word for word,” my natural instinct was to be proud. It’s a great song!

I soon learned, though, that moment wasn’t shared as a funny “kids are hilarious” situation, and instead was her probing for where our 6-year-old could’ve learned such a thing. I immediately panicked, realizing that there were probably a half dozen different ways my daughter could’ve learned Baby Got Back, with my encouragement, when she was with me.

I don’t want my kids to be rude or offensive. But I also don’t correct them much when they’re talking about gross things, especially my daughter. During an appearance on Pete Dominick’s podcast in 2019, comedian Nikki Glaser discussed the tired and easily disproved stereotype in comedy that “women aren’t funny.”

“People say that women aren’t funny,” Glaser said. “And there aren’t as many female comics, because you lay the groundwork for someone to become a comedian early on. Your brain has to be a comedic brain, and it has to be encouraged to be so. So when little boys are making jokes, what do you make jokes about? Farts and poop. And everyone goes, “tehehe, that’s silly, that’s funny.” When girls make jokes about farts and poop, because that’s what’s funny to a child, you get shamed for it. So, the thing that’s funny to a child inherently is not of access to you when you’re a young girl, because that’s gross. So you don’t develop a sense of humor, because all your jokes are taken from you.”

As someone who has flailed away at a standup comedy open mic night once, I wouldn’t say I’m trying to steer my daughter into that (or any) profession, unless she has a passion for it. But I do want her to continue developing a sense of humor, even a sometimes inappropriate one, and be as confident telling good or bad jokes as any boy is. There are immense benefits to laughing and making others laugh, and it takes trial and error to get good at those skills.

Dr. Ashley Soderlund, a child development psychologist, notes the importance of humor in a child’s ability to develop resilience and relieve or manage stress. 

Edutopia, a K-12 education foundation founded by George Lucas, points out that humor in kids stimulates goal-oriented motivation, helps students with retention, and helps build a sense of community in classrooms. 

A 2007 study published by researchers at UCLA discussed the positive impact humor can have on children dealing with pain and illness. Psychology Today notes that repeated laughter has benefits for circulation and lung and muscle health. 

So, as parents, how can we give our kids the freedom to develop their sense of humor without letting them go too far? Nemours Pediatric Health System has some helpful tips that include:

  • Model appropriate humor for them by telling funny jokes, laughing, and not getting worked up over small accidents like spilling a drink.
  • Encourage their humor by acknowledging and laughing at them when they’re funny, drawing silly pictures with them, or playing along with jokes they are making or funny stories they’re telling.
  • Point out when other people are funny, and encourage them to share their own funny observations, even with other adults. 
  • Create a “humor-rich environment” by having funny or creative books, comics, art, movies, or TV shows available.
  • Use boundaries to keep them from making mean-spirited or hurtful jokes or to point out appropriate times or places for certain jokes (like bathroom humor), but explain those boundaries in ways that are inclusive and respectful of their developing intellects.

Dr. Larry Kutner, a clinical psychologist, author, and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes that humor and jokes are important to kids developing language skills and learning and understanding cultural norms, including what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

My daughter, like many kids, often pretends to be a parrot and mimics every word I say to try and annoy me. My go-to move to win the game is saying something like, “my daddy is so cool and handsome!” — a line she would rather die than repeat. When she was playing it recently, I said my typically game-ending line and, without missing a beat (and staying in character in the weird monotone robot-parrot hybrid voice she does), Isla droned hilariously, “… I am not fully trained yet.” Her ability to talk conversationally and think improvisationally has clearly improved because she so often jokes around, experiments with words, and is figuring out how to appropriately interject her quirky sense of humor.

A few minutes later, I watched her pick her nose and eat it. Like all of us, she’s still a work in progress.

Raising a Justice-Oriented Sports Fan

I was 12-years-old the first time I fought with my dad about sports. 

He grew up in rural Michigan, rose every day at 4 a.m. to head into his maintenance job for a General Motors parts supplier, and rarely missed a day until he became too physically weak to turn a wrench. He proudly boasted about his “shop rat” credentials any chance he got. His sports rooting interests reflected his humble work ethic. Though he never went to college himself, no team better reflected his values than Bo Schembechler’s “the team, the team, the team,” University of Michigan. I was raised watching Michigan football and basketball, rooting for an endless parade of athletes who, I was constantly reminded, were never bigger than the program.  

Then, five talented freshmen arrived on Michigan’s campus in 1991, refusing to pay dues and unimpressed by the university’s manufactured mythology. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson had undeniable skill and style, mainstreaming the baggy shorts and black socks look that had been popular for years on city courts into the halls of pasty white suburban middle schools like mine. Their play was flashy, with off-the-charts athleticism paired with a gleeful willingness to celebrate every play they made. They violated everything my dad tried to teach me about sports, that stars should be humble, that showboats always get comeuppance, that basketball teams that don’t run structured offenses will never beat regimented, disciplined teams. It is too simplistic and not really accurate to say my dad hated them — they played for his favorite team, after all, and he was loyal. But he was never comfortable with their style, with their willingness to speak their minds from the moment they showed up on campus, with their blackness. He was definitely not comfortable with how much I loved them. 

In 1993, I watched every second of Michigan’s season I could, prepared for the Fab Five to win a National Championship. My dad watched with me, also hoping for a championship but never missing an opportunity to question whether Webber’s ego was getting too big, or whether he was thinking too much about leaving for the NBA, or whether Rose was too much of a “ball hog” to be an effective point guard, or whether Steve Fisher should be a more forceful disciplinarian “like Bo would be.”  

Webber played beautifully in the championship game until, in a flash, his narrative was forever changed. Webber ensnared a rebound with :20 seconds remaining and Michigan down two points, the last moment in that game that he looked like the swaggering, once-in-a-generation basketball machine he had been for two years at Michigan. First, he traveled. But he didn’t just travel. One of the most instinctive, gifted players at any level of basketball looked unsure of what to do with the ball. He looked like he was trying to pass, then changed his mind and dragged his feet. The referees didn’t call it, and Webber clumsily and frenetically began dribbling. He advanced the ball himself, but then dribbled directly into a trap by two North Carolina defenders. His basketball instincts suddenly returned, and he did something most basketball players do to save a possession under immense defensive pressure — he called timeout. Michigan didn’t have any. Referees awarded North Carolina technical foul free throws and possession of the ball. The game was over, and Webber produced an iconic sports mistake that will outlast his Hall of Fame-worthy career accomplishments. 

My dad pounced. “See, he was trying to do it all himself! He should’ve passed to Jalen! He wanted all the glory!” I’d watched Webber sullenly walk off the court, clearly near tears, his once joyful eyes blankly staring in the distance. For the first time in my life, sports made me cry. I couldn’t listen to my dad. I shouted something incomprehensible at him as I stormed to my room, closed the door, and bawled. He didn’t understand why I was mad. It was just sports. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain why I was mad. But for the first time in my life, I was seeing humanity in the people playing the sports I loved, and that humanity seemed more important to me than the result of the game. My dad couldn’t figure out why a game occupied any of my thoughts after it ended. I was angry that my dad wasn’t worried about whether or not Chris Webber was okay. 

***

Although he never would’ve articulated it this way himself, my dad’s childhood indoctrination of me into sports fandom had a central theme: playing college or professional sports is a privilege. The responsibilities that come with it include never calling unnecessary attention to yourself or seeking personal glory at the expense of the team; never showing weakness or pain; certainly never pointing to unfairness or structural inequities that are inherent in high-level sports.  

Sports gospel in my house was most easily explained through Barry Sanders – my dad was far more impressed with the emotionless way Sanders tossed the ball to an official after scoring than with the otherworldly athletic feats that propelled him to the end zone. I blindly accepted that thinking, mostly. Until my mom got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated as a gift near the end of my freshman year of high school. 

I got the first issue in June of 1995. It had a teenager on the cover — someone only a few years older than me — who I’d never seen before. He was wearing a blue and white track suit, but seated sideways in a way that made it impossible tell what brand. He was holding a worn basketball that had clearly been abused by blacktop before, and posed in a way that could’ve been a senior portrait. It was Kevin Garnett, before he’d achieved anything professionally, when his legacy was already a topic of debate in sports media before he’d even played a game.  

Garnett was attempting to become the first player since 1975 to enter the NBA straight out of high school, skipping what I had always assumed was a required step of going to college first. My dad, unsurprisingly, was skeptical. Garnett was too young, too physically immature to face fully developed grown men. Who was going to babysit this teenager? Mostly, dad was just mad at Garnett’s audacity to defy convention — how dare he skip college? Everyone went to college! Didn’t he know the value of the free education he was turning down? That particular line of reasoning was extra funny in hindsight — my dad never went to college, and likely would’ve hated it if he had gone considering he’d never had a remote interest in anything resembling academia. 

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Jack McCallum’s cover story humanized Garnett for me, a rural white kid who didn’t even have cable television and learned to shoot on a makeshift court in a barn, slipping on hay and having to adjust the arc on my shot to account for a huge beam that was only about two feet taller than the basket roughly above where the free throw line would’ve been on a real court. 

I couldn’t view athletes on TV as robotic entertainers anymore. I saw and questioned my own privilege. I grew up poor, but I still went to a good public school strictly because of where I was born. I didn’t fear violent crime in my trailer park. I didn’t fear the police. Even though college was expensive, I knew I could still go. My parents were divorced, but both were prominent, largely positive influences in my life. Many of the athletes I loved watching grew up in environments that were immensely more difficult than my own. To impose the values or standards of my family or community on them suddenly and definitively felt immoral.  

*** 

As a parent who wanted to embrace my son Oliver’s love of sports but also provide him with the tools to find balance, humanity, and context in his fandom, I also turned to Sports Illustrated. Oliver stalks our mailbox each month, obsessing over when the next issue of SI Kids is going to arrive and who will be on the cover.  

The subscription has sparked thoughtfulness in him. He’s taken an active interest in women’s sports as a result of the coverage it gets in his magazines. He was engrossed with the World Cup tournament and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. We watched and followed this year’s WNBA Playoffs together, and he learned and asked questions about the league’s top players after reading about them. His younger sister Isla recently started gymnastics, and he was ecstatic when the poster in one of his recent issues featured Symone Biles. He asked if we could frame it for Isla.

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It has also helped Oliver understand some of the hypocrisies inherent in major college sports. The concept that individual players he roots for make massive amounts of money for the universities they play for and deserve to be compensated isn’t lost on him, even at only 10-years old. He constantly asks which pro teams his favorite college stars will play for. 

*** 

My dad died in 2009 at 53 because of a confluence of health problems resulting from years of his beloved “shop rat” lifestyle — chain smoking, using alcohol to self-medicate, and chronic pain from a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor. We fought about sports all the time, and I got better at arguing my viewpoint after tearfully screaming incoherent words at him in defense of Chris Webber. 

He was barely old enough (born in 1956) to be able to say the Detroit Lions had won an NFL championship in his lifetime (they last won in 1957, the pre-Super Bowl era). He also lived long enough to see the Lions become the first-ever team to go 0-16 in a season in 2008-09. I was a sports writer for the Flint Journal at the time, and when it became apparent the Lions had a real shot at a winless season, I began a weekly column rooting for the team’s demise in each game. After all, they were a really bad team no matter what, right? Wouldn’t it be better to be immortal than just a forgettable conventionally bad team?  

“You’re an asshole for writing that,” he’d say to me, laughing and shaking his head. Our relationship had ups and downs. We were really different people. He worked with his hands, fixed things, and hated complexity. I was bookish, uninterested in working on cars in his smoky garage, and obsess over the real and imagined intricacies of why people are the way they are 

My dad lived with pain his entire life — physical pain from his job, emotional pain from tragic losses of people he loved, and depression and anxiety that he flat out refused to seek help for. Strong men don’t need help. That’s what he believed. I could never question it as a kid, and certainly not as an adult when my awareness of his struggles heightened. We couldn’t talk about it. 

But we could talk about sports. We gained new understanding of each other’s personalities, senses of humor, concepts of right and wrong, even if we rarely agreed. He wanted to hate Rasheed Wallace when the Detroit Pistons traded for him before winning the 2004 NBA Championship based solely on Wallace’s overly negative portrayal in media from his time with Portland. When I reminded him that he used to adore another Piston center who shot three-pointers and got technical fouls, Bill Laimbeer, he quickly came around and usually laughed at ‘Sheed’s penchant for theatrically arguing with referees. And, even though I always gravitate toward loudmouths with colorful personalities, he helped me appreciate the athletes who just show up and consistently do a job. Loudmouths are fun, but sports don’t work if you have only loudmouths.  

Oliver was born nearly a year to the day after my dad died, so they never met. Sports help me feel dad’s presence frequently, though. 

Those moments when Oliver’s engrossed in a game, or asking dozens of rapid fire questions because he’s obsessed with a topic in the unique way that only kids can obsess and needs you to drop everything and answer RIGHT NOW, make me remember my dad’s patience when I’d similarly bombard him. I don’t want to force Oliver to watch sports the same way that I do. But I do want sports to be a vehicle for him to obtain curiosities about the greater world around him. I’m more aware of racism, of white supremacy, of poverty, of misogyny, of environmental racism, of a myriad of other societal and cultural issues, because of sports. I want him to find those things, too. 

The greatest gift sports gave me as a kid was a way to get comfortable challenging an adult, and the greatest gift my dad gave me was the ability to argue with and challenge him in a space that was safe, that allowed me to build confidence, and speak up passionately for things I believed in without punishment or judgement, even when he thought I was a smartass. I hope sports allows me to provide those same gifts to Oliver. 

When Oliver got to pick out a basketball jersey for his eighth birthday, he picked Ben Simmons. I got it for him, but not without a few, “He’s supposed to be a guard but he can’t even shoot!” digs. Oliver quickly responded, “Daddy, not everyone has to play basketball the same way. He’s fun to watch!” 

I’m positive my dad would’ve been on my side regarding Simmons’ lack of shooting range. I also have no doubt he’d have adored his grandson pointing out my own lack of imagination.

I’m Trying to Delete my Babiez off the Internet

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“How many likes? More than Isla?”

My hyper-competitive 9-year-old son Oliver breathlessly asked that question every time he realized there was  a photo posted of him on my Instagram page. And … I mean … of course you didn’t get more likes than your sister. You’re cute and all son, but have you seen her blue-eyed/blonde-haired/angelic face combined with her instinctual ability to find her light and pose perfectly any time a camera is even near her? Sorry O, you inherited your dad’s lack of charisma. We will never compete with her.

I liked sharing pictures of them. I’m biased, but they’re pretty awesome. My son is sensitive and shy, but picks his spots to be hilarious and charming. My daughter is a whirlwind of energy ranging from demonic to silly to obsessively focused and creative. I love that I get to help unleash them on the world. As a single dad, as stupid as it sounds, it was helpful to me to post pictures of them. It made me more thoughtful about planning fun stuff to do, which positively focused my attention on them and their well-being, which helped me begin healing from my own sadness and pain. Sharing those moments relieved some of the anxieties any parents feel when a marriage ends. “See … they look like they’re having fun, right? Maybe getting a divorce didn’t irreparably fuck up their lives, right? They definitely won’t be telling a therapist about me someday, right?”

But recently, I deleted every photo of my kids that shows their face on all of my social media accounts. I’m increasingly alarmed by how little digital privacy actually exists, how much of our information is stored, sold, shared, and used for mostly unexplained reasons, and how this is happening mostly because we just willingly give it away. I’ve always been careful to ask my kids if they’re okay with me posting their pictures before doing it — their consent is important to me, and I want them to grow up confident that they can tell people to eat shit if they’re invading their personal space in unwelcome ways. That was a lesson I learned waaaaay too late in life, so I’ve been obsessed with imparting it early on with them.

I also recognize that I’m probably borderline psychotic about my reactions to this stuff. I got a Google Home Mini speaker for Christmas two years ago that I couldn’t return, so I immediately recycled it. The kids were annoyed — they love asking the dumb speakers for jokes and trivia questions. It’s probably mostly harmless, other than the microphone mining your conversations to feed you ads. But all I could think about was Google listening to me swear at my dog for eating all of the stupid raw sweet potatoes off of my counter and using it against me.

Yet … it also trends into decidedly not harmless. TikTok is censoring Hong Kong protestors and mysteriously storing massive amounts of data. Facebook already influenced the election of Trump and is now openly saying its cool with ads that are lies. The Detroit Police Department, among others, is experimenting with facial recognition technology. Earlier this year, I was downtown with my kids and the Flint Police Department had a tank out. It looked like something straight from a war zone. And they felt the need to wheel it out for display during a super hero fun run in the middle of the day. More weaponry and more technology don’t seem like the greatest combination to me.

I’m nearly 40, so only a small portion of my life has been spent being massively online. Kids, though, grow up with virtually their entire lives shared on social media, through the lens of parents or family members. Worse, they don’t even have a frame of reference for a world in which that wasn’t the norm. Even if I ask their consent to post photos and they give it, do I even know what I’m asking them to consent to? If years from now, we live in some post-apocalyptic hellscape run by authoritarian discipline-humping descendants of Trump, and I’ve given that government the entire aging process of my kids for their population control database, does it really matter that I asked their permission? If I don’t even know the repercussions of sharing photos, how can I in good conscience expect my kids to make reasonable choices about what to share and what not to?

The easier solution was just to delete everything rather than think about it. There are still pictures of my kids out there. Other family members post them, and I am not yet ready to become the asshole relative at holidays who yells at people for taking pictures of my kids. I’m also a hypocrite and reserve the right to rescind my policy if I catch either kid doing something that is capable of going viral … I got my fake audience as a writer to worry about.

But for now, the responsible thing to do feels like hiding their face from the internet as much as possible until they’re old enough to decide how to clout chase on their own.

 

Black Panther And The Power Of Siblings

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Writing in Rolling Stone this week, Tre Johnson had the following line about Black Panther:

Like anything black in America, Black Panther will be politicized for being black, which is to say for being and for announcing itself as a having a right to be here and to be heard.

Johnson is right, of course. There are dozens of Google search results pointing to troll sites dedicated to ruining something beautiful and non-white, with idiot takes if you’re so inclined to seek them out. But the easiest summation of the irrational fear related to the film is the simple fact that Snopes.com had to publish an article debunking an insane lie that white people were getting attacked at movie theaters for daring to see the movie.

I took my kids to see Black Panther because, first and foremost, I wanted to see it, and they were with me (I’m not a perfect parent … sometimes you have to do what I want to do, babiez). But it wasn’t just a selfish choice – my 7-year-old son was Black Panther for Halloween, even though he was only vaguely familiar with the story through a few comics we read together, so that piqued his interest. And my 4-year-old daughter generally enjoys anything that involves kicking ass, so she was on board as well.

There are an abundance of reasons to see the film – all of the detailed reporting on its beauty, on its relevance, on its power, on its importance … none of those things are undersold. Along with being a fan of the comic book, all of the critical acclaim Black Panther is receiving is well-deserved and can’t be overstated (although I’m positive the internet take economy will inevitably produce some contrarian ‘actually it wasn’t that good’ troll pieces). I caught myself in awe of the story and the amazing performers bringing it to life on multiple occasions.

But as most parents probably understand, I have a hard time watching things through the lens of an adult anymore. I am constantly trying to put myself into the minds of my kids, to understand what they’re thinking or how they’re processing what they’re watching or whether they’re too young for ideas I’m trying to introduce them to. Constant anxiety over whether or not you are screwing up your kids is pretty much neverending.

There are so many elements of the movie that I’m still thinking about and processing, but the relationship I was fixated on throughout was the one between T’Challa and his younger sister Shuri. I saw my son and daughter in them – a stoic, pensive older brother and a brilliant, feisty little sister who are amazing friends, supporters of one another, and reliant on each other. That is exactly the relationship I witness every day between Oliver and Isla.

Beyond that, there was a male hero whose support system and inner circle was comprised almost solely of badass women (and … uh … Tim from the British Office for some reason) who were smart, strong equals who saved him on multiple occasions.

Given the current political climate where there is an administration in power who clearly sees humanity in tiers of worthiness, or where nobody Fox News hosts can show their ass by unsuccessfully trying to chastise one of the biggest celebrities on the planet, Black Panther at the most base level is just a giant middle finger to that worldview.

My son ranked it right behind the Star Wars movies (a minor miracle considering Star Wars has been in a class by itself for him for nearly two years now) and better than any super hero movie he’s watched. My daughter, who spends a good percentage of her free time dressing up as super heroes and performing stealth fighting moves on unsuspecting adults, was in awe of the Black Panther costume.

So obviously, for my kids it wasn’t that deep. They saw it as a great superhero movie with characters they both easily related to without a second thought. And that’s exactly part of its power.

Silence is Privilege

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A couple of weeks ago, I took my kids to play and swim at our apartment pool. As we got closer, something fairly … uh … conspicuous caught my eye: a giant swastika tattoo on the chest of a man in the pool.

I grew up in and spent a lot of my life in mostly rural, “salt of the earth” places, so I’ve become pretty accustomed to how casual white people can be with their racism. But still … seeing it literally carved into a person’s chest is jarring, especially when you have a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old with you. My son noticed as well and asked what it was. I gave a typical parent non-answer, unsure where to start with explaining Nazis to a kid.

A panicked fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. On the one hand, I was by myself with my two small children, children I am very protective of, whose youthful innocence and the infatuation they have with the world around them is a constant source of joy for me. So obviously, we’d just go find something else fun to do.

But I also had this angry urge to shame this person. I don’t know exactly how I would’ve gone about that, but I also feel strongly that too many otherwise decent people are simply silent when it comes to hate – whether out of fear, over-politeness, apathy, or some combination. He deserved to be embarrassed. Innocence is worthy of protecting, but I also don’t want my kids to be sheltered, and I don’t want them to be intimidated or daunted by having to speak hard truths or stand up for things they believe in.

In the end, we just left. Me getting beat up by a Nazi while my kids were in my care wouldn’t have exactly been an exemplary parenting decision.

But tonight, in the face of the awful white terrorism and violence occurring in Virginia, I’ve thought about that moment a lot. I did the wrong thing by ignoring that guy.

*     *     *

I have two younger brothers who are biracial. Their dad was an important part of my life and father figure for me growing up. Living in Lapeer, Michigan, our family stood out – let’s just say that when I was in fourth grade and my black stepdad took me to play basketball at school playgrounds, it was noticed. I was too young to understand the complexities of racism at that age, but I … uh … noticed us being noticed, I guess you could say.

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Steve did too, I’m sure. But no one would ever know it. He was always the friendliest, most outgoing parent in those situations – shaking hands, smiling, making eye contact, saying hello to people, inviting others to come and play with us (interestingly, other kids always wanted to … it was their dads who were resistant). I’m sure people were rude or cold to him, knowing the place we lived. I distinctly remember people crossing the street when we were walking on a sidewalk, then crossing back once they’d passed us on one or two occasions. His positivity and kindness in those public situations never wavered – he made any stranger he ran into feel like a buddy. As a kid, I didn’t notice. As an adult, I think about it constantly – what it would be like to have to be “on” like that all the time, just to do basic things like go to a park and play basketball, or take a walk. As someone who can trend toward painfully introverted in social situations, the thought of having to be that friendly and outgoing to strangers – just to disarm them or keep them from judging you – all the time is anxiety-inducing.

My brothers went to Lapeer Schools and, often, were the only black faces in their classes. They had to assimilate, they had to deal with being treated differently, they had to deal with the idiotic thing that white people do when they act like they can ask racist or offensive questions about black people to their “black friend.” My brother Adrian came home from elementary school one day with a confederate flag sticker – the symbol of treasonous traitors and losers – proudly on his shirt. Adrian was happy that someone had paid attention to him and given him a gift. He thought he’d made a friend, a “friend” who was no doubt laughing behind his back. I was in high school at the time, and I just remember my mom, sister and I sitting around thinking, “how the hell do you explain the shitty thing that just happened to a second grader, and tell him he can’t wear that sticker that he’s excited about?” There are probably countless other experiences that they can share that range from simple ignorance to maliciously racist interactions with people when they were just trying to go to school like everyone else.

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And, as most black people in this country experience at some point in their lives, my brothers were harassed by the police. Dangerously harassed once, in fact. They were about 13 and 12 (or in that range) and playing with toy airsoft guns in my parents’ yard. One of the dogs got out of the house and ran across the street into a field (my family has a long history of having the worst dogs on the planet, but that’s a story for another day). They crossed the street to get him.

By the time they’d got him corralled and back home, multiple local police cars had sped into the driveway and road in front of the house. Someone had called the cops and reported “two black men with guns.” They were children. My brothers, children, were forced to lay face down in the ditch, were handcuffed, had grown officers put their knees in their backs. They were not resisting or doing anything wrong. They were terrified. Thankfully – as if “not being killed” is any reason to be thankful – that’s as far as it went. A state police officer showed up, noticed from far away that the two guns laying on the ground were toys, pointed it out to the yokels who’d cuffed these children, and they were let go with a stern warning to be more careful when playing in their own yard.

I tried to file complaints and get information, FOIA’d the police report just to try and make the officers involved feel ashamed and ultimately, nothing happened. No one really forgot, necessarily, but time has a way of pushing things to the back of your mind.

And then, several years later, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland. A 12-year-old child who was killed for playing with a toy gun. He was roughly the same age my brothers were that day.

*     *     *

My brothers are smart, talented, funny, grown men (who have EXACTLY the same ripped, muscular physique that I do, it’s weird how genetics work). My kids adore their uncles – they can climb on them, wrestle with them, get thrown around by them and they light up any time we get to visit them. I’m not sure Adrian and Anthony look forward to getting immediately pummeled by two babies (babies who are unafraid to go directly for punches to the groin), but they’re good sports about it.

I love seeing my kids with them, I love that my kids just automatically connect with them and solely see them as nothing but their fun uncles.

But it also makes me think about my own privilege, about things I’ve never had to worry about, about inherent obstacles that Adrian and Anthony have just had to deal with and figure out ways to maneuver around that I never will have to worry about.

It actually isn’t hard to get white people to discuss race. We do it all the time – cable news and the internet are filled with white people (to be more descriptive, mostly white men) who do nothing but tell people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community how to feel about their experiences, what is “real” racism and what isn’t, why they themselves couldn’t possibly be a racist. White men talk too much. (Yes, I get the irony that I, a white man, am writing a wordy blog post about white men talking too much, but if it helps get other white men to shut the fuck up, then it has at least provided a service).

Understanding your own privilege is a starting point. I grew up poor – a long portion of my life was spent in a trailer park with three siblings being raised by a single mother. I had to work nearly full-time in high school (thankfully, my boss ignored the legal limits on hours teenagers could work) to save enough money to have a car, to pay for college. I worked all the way through college just to be able to stay enrolled. I’m still paying student loans off. I’ve rarely taken vacations. My life isn’t luxurious by any stretch.

And I’ve benefited from being born into privilege. As a poor white child, I still lived in a community with well-funded and well-run schools, so I received a good, free, public education. I grew up with people around me who told me that I could, in fact, go to college even though my family couldn’t afford it. I grew up in neighborhoods that were safe, where crime and drugs weren’t major day-to-day presences. I did not grow up fearing the police. As an adult, people listen to me and give me more automatic credibility simply because of what I was born as.

My life hasn’t always been easy, but it has certainly had privileges built in that have removed barriers that minorities, that women, that LGBTQIA+ people face on a daily basis. I could choose to never think about those things – and A LOT of white men do make that choice every day. But just being mindful isn’t enough, that’s what the ugliness in Charlotesville illustrates.

It’s easy to see a guy with a Nazi tattoo and be horrified. But what is more horrifying to me is this picture. Those are just everyday, mayonnaise, white bread joes. They could be your cubicle mate, they could be your neighbor, they could be members of your church. They have the same views – and the same level of comfort espousing them – as the guy who felt the need to carve a symbol of evil into his chest.

Hate isn’t an ideology. Hate isn’t the norm. People aren’t born into this world full of hatred. And even in the face of awful, soul-killing days like today, there is always, always more love in the world than hate.

But don’t be silent. Silence is complicity, and complicity is what normalizes and emboldens people like this.

Be a Feminist for Your Sons, Too

President Obama wrote an essay for Glamour, proudly proclaiming why he is a feminist. The entire thing is beautifully written and worth reading, but this particular passage really stood out to me:

Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race—or when they notice that happening to someone else. It’s important for them to see role models out in the world who climb to the highest levels of whatever field they choose. And yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.

President Obama is speaking here from the perspective of a father with two daughters. But I’d like to expound on that a bit as a father of both a son and a daughter.

A cliché that I’ve long found grating is the notion that men don’t become more receptive to sexism and gender inequality until they have daughters, then expect some sort of pat on the back for having a way-too-late-in-life epiphany that, hey, maybe you actually shouldn’t treat women like garbage. Here’s a recent example of this phenomenon from former ESPN blogger and epitome of Cool Dad syndrome Bill Simmons, via Sports Illustrated:

“One of the ironies of my life is that I was definitely a chauvinist with men’s and women’s sports before, I’d always make WNBA jokes and stuff like that. And now I’m like a feminist, and it’s all because of her,” he said in reference to his 11-year-old daughter. “In L.A., they have all these academy teams for boys, and the girls are treated like second-class citizens. The fields we have are worse than the boys’, too. It all just drives me f—— crazy.”

In his essay, President Obama pointed out that his early experiences with strong women in his life influenced how he viewed sexism, the glass ceiling and the myriad other challenges women are faced with in our society. I had similar experiences in my life – I’m one of four kids raised primarily by a single mom and my paternal grandmother was one of the strongest women I ever met. She put up with insane behavior from men in her life and held her family together despite unimaginable grief and destructive behavior by people she cared for. Both were extremely influential figures in my adolescence, and I realize not everyone has that same set of experiences, but I still for the life of me can’t understand how someone makes it through life with the sort of blinders on that Simmons displays in that above quote. You don’t realize society is plagued with gender inequities until, well into middle-age for you, your privileged family starts getting involved in youth sports in some bougie suburb?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist and a believer in equity and inclusion, but becoming a parent does make me focus more intently on those responsibilities. It is important as a father of a daughter that I help her learn what she should expect and demand from men she will encounter in any relationship as she grows up – social, professional, romantic or otherwise. But I think too often, discussions of feminism gloss over the importance of fathers teaching their sons those same values – not focusing solely on how to treat women with respect, but how to immediately call attention to or not be passive bystanders to bad or destructive behavior from men in their peer groups.

My son finished kindergarten this year, and I had the opportunity to spend time in his school and in his classroom on multiple occasions. One of those days was field day. He was part of a group that included both boys and girls, rotating to different stations to play games outside. One game – I can’t even explain what the object was, as I’m a pretty useless volunteer and didn’t pay attention when the gym teacher explained all of the game rules to the parents beforehand – required kids taking turns doing something. I think throwing frisbees into a bucket … whatever, they wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

A girl in the line next to ours was getting frustrated because all of the boys who were also in her line weren’t giving her a turn. There was nothing malicious going on – she wasn’t being purposefully picked on or excluded. The kids were excited, she was smaller and shyer than all of the boys, and the overall exuberance of overhyped six-year-olds caused her to get lost in the shuffle. But it’s also the sort of behavior – accidental exclusion, ignoring the needs of others, etc. – that contributes to many boys growing up believing that not knowing a problem exists is a fair excuse for not caring about said problem.

So I talked to Oliver about what was happening. I explained to him that it was important to make sure everyone got a turn. And he immediately went, picked up some frisbees and let her go in front of him in his line. It’s amazing how much sense simple fairness and respect makes to children – that’s by far my favorite aspect of being a parent. Common decency, something adults struggle with on a daily basis, is second nature to children. They naturally want to love and respect each other. It’s adults who eventually ruin that beautiful world kids are trying to show us is super easy to create.

Oliver is incredibly lucky to have women in his life who obliterate any potential for him to give any credence to gender stereotypes, especially one that he’s growing up right next to.

My daughter is only two, and she and my son are already best friends. He has friends who exhibit the stereotypical “no girls allowed” behavior, and occasionally he brings that home. Fortunately, he has a sister who, even at this young age, REFUSES to be excluded, and anything he picks up from boys at school is quickly extinguished at home. And he honors that because, even at his young age, he enjoys being around her and understands that he needs to respect her wishes and interests in order to have a strong friendship with her.

He has a sister who enjoys playing with his WWE wrestlers and superheroes as much as she enjoys wearing princess outfits or putting on tutus and dancing. She’s completely happy to wrestle with him, watch his shows and, when she feels like it, demand that he watch Sofia the First or Frozen with her. They certainly have fights like all siblings do, but not only does he often comply with his younger sister without any protests, there are times when he actually suggests they watch her shows or turns them on for her (she still relies on him for his mastery of the Roku, but I assume she’ll figure that out and further solidify her independence soon).

The beautiful part of their relationship, to me, is how they cooperate. He doesn’t like Sofia the First that much. But he watches it because he enjoys her companionship, respects her and likes making her happy. In turn, she can recite the New Day (she REALLY hits the ‘feel the POWAAHHHH’) entrance theme (along with the Ric Flair ‘Woooooo!’) verbatim because she has fun with him doing things he likes.

Even at their early ages, one is clearly introverted and one is clearly an extrovert. But they love each other and respect each other, so they humor each other. If Isla wants to dance, Oliver … reluctantly … will dance.

That’s the greatest gift being a parent has given me … hope. The times I’ve been able to observe my kids in environments with their peers, things are just … easy. There are no preconceptions, there are no complexities, they are all just nice to each other. Or, when they’re not, they quickly resolve whatever petty issue got in the way of them having fun.

Younger generations are increasingly willing to simply reject the outdated notions we adults continuously effe up. Current news is depressing, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. But my kids and their friends have allowed me to just check out. They’ll fix it. I have no worries. My only job is to support them and to tell other adults to wake up and pay attention to the beautiful world they are going to create.