Sunday, February 7, 2010

For the Sake of the Kids

My daughter recently corrected my pronunciation of Stegosaurus. “It’s Steg, Steg, eeeeg,”she said, “not Stag.” How can I explain to her that I was born in Wisconsin and any exposure to dairy products unleashes my otherwise subdued Midwestern vowels?

At nearly five, the kid has an ear for detail. So, when she completely misuses a word, it’s always interesting. “Let’s go sit in the caboose,” she’ll say, pointing to our plastic kids’ gazebo. Someday, when she’s arguing with a confused wedding photographer, I’ll correct her.

There are other mix-ups. I’ve let them stand not because they’re cute, but because I’m avoiding an uncomfortable conversation.

“Why did that man die Luther King?”

I heard this a few weeks ago when I picked her up from school.

Kill. Die. I am glad she’s so unfamiliar with these words that she doesn’t know how to use them. When she does say die, it’s usually in the melodramatic sense, as in, “my balloon died,” after the helium has fled and it hovers pathetically near the floor.

“Why did that man kill Martin Luther King?” I said, translating her four-year-old speak. We’d recently observed the holiday and I knew they had talked about MLK in school. It was only a day or so earlier that she’d walked me to the car with a, “Guess what? A bad man shot him.”

It was then that I said to a friend, “Don’t you think they’re young to hear about the assassination?”

“Well, you don’t know,” she said, pulling on her experience with her older child, “another kid might have brought that part up.”

I think that’s true. And, even if it wasn’t, I trust my daughter’s teacher immensely, and imagine however the conversation went, it was handled well. But, it was still a shock, like the other newsflash I was met with last week:

“Guess what? There was an earthquake in Haiti and a lot of kids had their parents DIE. They’re ORPHANS!”

Haiti was not a surprise. I’d left the New York Times on the kitchen table day after day, photo after photo, and already talked to her about the earthquake. The school was having a fundraiser, and I knew they’d discuss it in class. But, the part about orphans--the part about kids whose parents were killed-- that was a surprise. And, sure enough, later that day, “Mom, when are you going to die?”

Moving away from the tragic and to the fiercely contentious, I heard this three days ago at pick-up:

“You know what? A girl can marry a girl and a boy can marry a boy!”

Given the fear of cooties and self-imposed gender segregation in preschool, you can imagine the euphoric relief with which this was shouted. And, I don’t think they were discussing the fallout of proposition 8 on the playground.

I am happy to send my daughter off to school. I am even glad when I am shaken out of my bubble and forced to think about conversations I’ve avoided. And, as a former teacher, I have a lot of faith in the ability of other teachers to lead sensitive discussions, and handle the inevitable curve ball tossed their way.

But, lately, my daughter’s casual conversations sound more like talking points for Larry King Live. And, I’ve had to work very hard to suppress my natural instinct, which is to scream,
 “How on earth did you hear all this?”

Instead, I’ve invoked my stay-at-home parent prerogative, and said, “This is a great thing to talk to your dad about at bedtime.”

So instead of reading Dora Saves the Mermaid, my husband has gotten to explain James Earl Ray, plate tectonics and gay marriage.

And, really, he’s the better parent to do this. Because there is one trait of mine I do not want my daughter to inherit: my anxiety.

Stressful, emotional, tragic, ambiguous, topics—he’s the man. Scientific, mathematical, economic questions: he’s really the man. At least for the initial conversation; the one that conveys the grown-up’s equilibrium. I am great at follow-up questions.

Actually, I am getting better at initial conversations, but I have to channel my husband’s sense of calm. I cannot speak off the top of my head. I have to stall, distract, and then come back around to the topic when I am prepared.

This has been a long process of learning. The first time I deliberately waited to share upsetting news was ten years ago when I was mugged at gunpoint on a New York subway. After a night with the police, I got back to my apartment at three in the morning and wanted to call my parents. But, what was the point? I was safe, and calling at that hour would only send them into a sleepless night of worry. So, I sent my father an email. And, the next day he called. And, then he told my mom.

Watching my husband, I’ve learned a few more ways to think before I speak. He can do that to a fault, if I may say so, and I am much better at playing Password. But, with our kids, I see how his approach is healthy.

Our children will absorb my passion and sense of empathy, and I have no doubt they’ll perceive some of my fears. But, at this early age, when they ask why the earth split open and swallowed up other kids’ parents, I’d rather they hear an explanation that doesn’t create more fear.

My husband once explained dinosaur extinction and the whole “meteorite smashing into the earth” catastrophe in a way that was, frankly, almost boring. He has a gift.

These topics, as hard as they seem to talk about, are actually quite remote. They don’t touch our lives directly. How would we deal with something that did?

My friend from college had to face this question not too long ago when her brother died. Her two young boys had looked up to him, and he’d sent them presents from all the places he’d gotten to visit. She flew out to see her brother before he passed away, and her husband brought the boys out later, without telling them where they were going. Finally, after their uncle died, the family sat together in a hotel room and she explained.

“We still talk about how much we miss my brother, but he (my oldest son) doesn’t get hysterical about it. Although he did tell me on Tuesday that his uncle talked to him while he was getting his coat on before going to school. His uncle told him that he would always be there and my son told him he would never forget him. Overactive imagination or real?”

As for controlling her emotions in front of her boys?

“I do feel that I have to moderate my emotions around my kids. My youngest gets upset if he sees me crying and just tells me over and over again that he doesn’t want me to cry. I also don’t want to bring down their natural joyousness because I’m having a sad day. ….I am ready to talk with them and be sad with them on their schedule, but don’t want to subject them to mine.”

As for me, after a few minutes, I did try to answer my daughter’s question: Why did that man die Luther King?

Do you mean, “Why did a bad man hurt a good man?”

In her world, where good people are rewarded and bad people go to time out, this was the underlying question. So, I said, “Sometimes things are not fair, are they? It doesn’t seem right, does it, that someone bad would hurt someone good?”

It goes back to the old question, “why do bad things happen to good people,” or more fitting in our world, “why do good things happen to bad people.”

Simplistic to say, “good” and “bad”, but even if we can’t dictate morality, we might still cling to some vestige of it, for the sake of our children.

It sounds old fashioned to say, “for the sake of our children,” but now that I am a mother, I mean it. It’s for the sake of the kids. That’s why I suck it up and say, “I love going to the dentist. Turbulence is fun. I can think of nothing better than having peas with my hot dogs.” And sometimes, when we go under tunnels on the NJ Transit, and I close my eyes and grip the sides of my seat as if my hands were glued, I say, “Mommy’s just sleepy,” instead of saying, that years ago, long before you were born, on a subway near Houston Street, some mean men tried to hurt me, and I’ve been left with a touch of…. claustrophobia….. when I am on a train.


Anonymous said...

Ooooh Sarah...great post. I am a bit more like your husband in our family. I will never forget my Sam (now 7, then 4) looking at my snow globe of NYC (given as a gift to me back when I collected those things) and, fresh from a trip to visit my brother, he asked "Why didn't I see those two tall towers when I was in New York?" And such began the hard conversations that have barely let up since. My theory is to avoid "the big reveal" and to just naturally let hard things flow into conversation as they do, but it is not always without reverberating trauma. Eli (now 4) seemed totally cool with the adoption concept (his good buddy is adopted) until three days later he tearfully asked me whether he would ever have to go live with another family. And then I found out that his buddy's mom has never revealed to her child that he is adopted (a given in my mind) so I am praying Eli won't mention it, knowing if I tell him not to, he certainly WILL. Parenting is hard. Thanks for the wonderful post.


Tim Morrissey said...

Wonderful post - great writing. Don't worry about being a native 'Sconnie regarding vowel sounds. Coulda been Maine...

Liz said...

Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sarah! And being that our daughters are in the same class, I have had the exact same questions posed to me in the last few weeks, along with another few doozies. She has asked me twice in a week, "How did I GET in your tummy when you were pregnant with me?" I still don't have a good age-appropriate answer and being that she has now asked me twice, I am not sufficiently explaining it to her. I have a hard time coming up with tough explanations on the fly too. But I have really realized how much I need to hone this skill! Thanks for another great post. -Cathy

Anonymous said...

Wow - what a powerful last paragraph to a vert thoughtful story.

Brit said...


Great post - quick little story. When we were in NH for the holidays my dad (who has never lived outside of NH) said to Elsie, "I have to get it out of the car (but he didn't say the "r"). Elsie responded with "GrandDaddy, I think it's "carrr," Nellie has trouble with that one too." Thankfully my dad laughed and asked why she isn't being brought up in NH!
On another note, as hard as it is to have the conversations, I'm glad that we do. We're respecting our children's need to understand the world around them. Elsie has picked up on the various ribbons that exist and understands that they have meaning. When she sees a ribbon of a certain color she'll ask me about it, we'll have a conversation and then at a different moment she sees another ribbon and the conversation continues. We had talked about the pink ribbons one day and weeks later, she saw another one, she said to me, "look mom there's another person fighting women's sickness." At that moment I felt proud and she felt like she was creating a meaningful conversation. Thanks for another great posting.