Sunday, July 24, 2016
Children WILL Listen
Even though my primary career over the last forty years has been working with young children and college students, my other passion (both vocational and avocational) is theatre. In between a Bachelor’s and a PhD focused on early childhood, I worked in a MA in theatre. I am one those nerds who will break into song from a musical with little provocation, much to the dismay and occasional embarrassment of my daughter. One of my favorite musical theatre composer/lyricists is Stephen Sondheim—my second favorite musical of his is Into the Woods, and my favorite song from that musical is “Children Will Listen.” Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:
Careful the things you say,
children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
children will see, and learn.
Children may not obey,
but children will listen.
Children will look to you
for which way to turn,
to learn what to be.
Careful before you say
“listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Never has this song seemed so profound to me as it has over the last few months, as the lyrics weave together for me a legacy of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general hatefulness toward those who are different than. This legacy characterized my own childhood, and it persists today in our children’s worlds in an enduringly painful way.
A friend of mine reported a deeply disturbing incident involving his adolescent son that occurred not long ago. My friend is white, and the three siblings adopted by him and his husband are African American. We live in a small college town in southwest Ohio, surrounded by gentle hills, verdant farms, wonderful and caring residents, and, unfortunately, no small amount of bigotry and psychological violence being openly expressed to an increasing degree by young people. At school one day, a white classmate, surrounded by friends, called his son the “N” word. His hurt and anger flared, and he responded by pushing the young girl. He was suspended. She wasn’t. His physical response was deemed more transgressive than her psychological attack.
I grew up in this area, in the mid-size city down the road from this little college town, and I was aware during my adolescence in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that there was an active KKK chapter in our city. Even though there were no lynchings or beatings in our little Midwestern city by the time I was born, I grew up in an atmosphere of openly hostile racism that was evident in many segments of the community and the surrounding areas (including the petition that some residents of our suburb circulated to keep a black family from moving in). I heard the regular use of the “N” word from my father’s lodge brothers, from some of our neighbors, and in popular media (where it was used occasionally in movies, but found new life on television by the ‘70s, used mostly by black actors in sitcoms like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons). I never heard my parents say it, other than the bizarre explanation that Brazil nuts had once been referred to by some people as “n….. toes,” which I now recognize as one of the most profound examples of culturally sanctioned racism that has ever existed. But I also never heard them correct or respond to others saying it. The first and only time I said it was in the fourth grade, when I came home singing a song I had learned that day from friends at school, which was a variation on the theme song of a popular TV show. The lyrics my friends taught me went like this (anyone over the age of forty five will probably know the tune):
“Daniel Boone was a man.
Yes, a big man.
But the bear was much bigger,
So he ran like a n….. up a tree.”
I’m sure you can fill in the blank. I was eager to sing it for my father, thinking he would find it funny, since it sounded like the kind of thing I heard his friends joke about on a regular basis. But he didn’t think it was funny at all. In fact, it was one of only three times in my life that I recall seeing him really, really angry. He spoke more strongly to me than he ever had, saying, “I don’t EVER want to hear you say that word again. EVER. Do you understand me?” I was devastated. And confused.
When he saw how upset and baffled I was, I think he realized that the example he thought he had set of never using hateful language couldn’t overshadow the damage done by the things I was hearing around me on a daily basis outside our home. He told me that, even though people we knew used that word, he didn’t want his children growing up to hate other people who were different than us, or using words that were meant to be hurtful. He gave me a brief history of racial terminology in the U.S., and personalized it by explaining that, when he was growing up, he was taught to use the word “colored,” but that now, the people it referred to wanted to be called “Afro American” or “black.” But the part that I most remember and took to heart from his explanation was that it didn’t matter whether we understood why people wanted to be called a certain thing—it only mattered that we respected everybody, and that meant respecting and accepting how people wanted to refer to themselves to make sure that you never hurt anyone’s feelings, either intentionally or by not knowing any better, and we should always know better.
This experience was the seed for my personal, ongoing efforts to “unlearn” everything I had absorbed (and continued to encounter) regarding what we now think of as the pervasiveness of institutionalized (or systemic) racism. This work never stops, because, even though the overt expression of that pervasive racism was somewhat publically sublimated or hidden on a cultural level after the racial violence of the 1960s and ‘70s, and through legislation that not only condemned discrimination, but also criminalized hate speech, the reality is that it has never, ever gone away. It became more apparent after 9/11, though with new targets, which included not only Muslims, but the expansion of racist attitudes and actions towards Latino/a individuals beyond the American southwest. It intensified after we elected our first African-American president. And it is now reaching a fever pitch with the hate-filled rhetoric that is being given by public figures. And it isn’t just about race—demeaning language toward women, which peaked in the backlash to second wave feminism in the ‘80s, and which took an especially virulent turn in the ‘90s with Rush Limbaugh, is also coming back with a vengeance with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In addition, homophobic language has remained fairly constant throughout the last half century, but also seems to be experiencing an upsurge in response to marriage equality.
This resurgence of anger and hostility channeled into racist, sexist, and homophobic speech and action is being given permission to show itself in the ugliest of ways by public figures and through social media. And children are listening.
Anne Lamott, a well known author, recently posted on her Facebook page a photo of her grandson, with the following text: “This is my grandchild. He turns seven today. Last night, watching the RNC, he said that Trump will separate us, because Trump hates Mexicans, and Jax is Mexican. I said, ‘Oh, no, baby. Never. Not on our watch.’” A friend of mine who has family members who are Muslim explained that his nephew expressed an almost identical fear, that he will be sent away, or that other family members won’t be able to visit anymore because people want to send all the Muslims away. And the recent postings on the Twitter feed of actress Leslie Jones became so openly racist and violent in tone that Jones felt compelled to discontinue her account.
My friend whose son was suspended from school for responding to the hatefulness directed toward him said that his son reported that he has heard more and more of this kind of speech from his classmates over the last year. Whether or not those classmates are hearing that kind of speech from family members, or are picking it up from the world around them, the result is the same—they are feeling a greater sense of “permission” to speak those words out loud, and to express that hatred toward those who are different from them. This is the example that they are seeing from adults in public, in private, and on social media.
And that brings me back to the rest of the verse from that song I like so much:
Careful the wish you make,
wishes are children.
Careful the path they take,
wishes come true,
Careful the spell you cast,
not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
past what you can see,
and turn against you.
Careful the tale you tell,
that is the spell.
Children will listen.
So, how do you know what your children are hearing, even as you are trying to teach them acceptance and kindness? How do you know what types of speech and kinds of actions they are witnessing from friends and on social media? How can you tell how they are incorporating what they are seeing modeled around them? First of all, make sure that you are not only modeling kindness, but reinforcing it when you see your children express it, and naming it when you see others exemplify it; at the same time, don’t hesitate to address hatefulness when it appears at any point in a child’s environment. You don’t need to become a “helicopter parent,” constantly hovering and micromanaging every aspect of their lives, but you do need to stay informed, and pay attention. And that means, turn that lyric around:
Listen to children.
And if your child does transgress, either with intentional hostility or through innocent ignorance (such as my fourth grade song), then respond as my father did—including the angry part. Children need to know that hateful speech justifies a strong response, but that anger doesn’t justify violence. Follow through, as my father did, by calmly explaining why it was wrong, and what the responsibility is for each of us to know what we are saying before we say it. And in this current political climate, it is also important to point out that, just because a child sees something on television or reads something on social media, that doesn’t make it okay. Because adults don’t always get it right, and some people are so consumed by fear and hatred that they feel justified in lashing out toward those who are the objects of their fear.
Children will listen to everything in their world. We should be listening, too, to make sure our children are hearing the messages that we intend for them to hear. What they hear, and what we say, are all part of the “tale you tell.”