July 12, 2020

Am I really preparing my kids for the world, or sheltering them from it?

My kids are sitting at the kitchen island waiting for the lunch I’m preparing. Before me are three plates where I will carefully arrange three different assortments of tasties that I hope will pass their picky test.

I wash and slice each grape individually for my Babygirl.

It’s toast with no butter for the Babyboy (he hates butter).

And, for the oldest of the three, a peanut butter sandwich with the crust cut off.

That last one, crust-free sandwiches, sparked a problem for me.

“Mom doesn’t cut it like that,” he said. The others laughed. Apparently, Daddy is a poor stand-in for mom’s culinary artistry. I cut sandwiches into four pieces to make them child-sized, but mom cuts them in half (still child-sized, but it doesn’t make them feel like babies).

Can I get a little slack? I was their age in the 1970s when kids could eat grapes without choking. I ate butter on toast if the toast came with butter on it. In my time, crust on bread wasn’t disposable.

So, when my kids gave me the business I wondered if I’m getting old and starting to say things that old people said to be back in the day. My elders were fond of saying “Y’all don’t know how good you have it – we didn’t have no McDonald’s in our day!”

I used to laugh and think “that would suck.” Then I’d pity them for not being modern.

Those of us who grew up knowing what it was like to be thirsty longer than five minutes (the great soda rationing of 1975), and how to live without air conditioning or cable or gadgets for extended stretches of time; maybe we have so internalized those shortcomings of past days and turned them into a cause for spoiling our precious offspring who can’t be bothered with the indignities of our dark past.

Maybe it’s a sign of how much we’ve “made it” that we raise our kids to be mainstream and familiar with the middle-class privilege we’ve come to see as the common markers of class. Our past lives of perceived scarcity might feed our drive to give conveniences and advantages to our kids and protect them against feeling less-than in a world where less-than might as well mean social exile.

If so, that’s more about our unresolved wounds and our medicinal signifying, and less about giving kids what they need to survive in the future.

I’m the first to admit my struggle. If the charge is spoiling and indulging, damn, lock my black ass up and forget about bail. I am not my parents, who, while doing their own bit of spoiling (I once had 9 cats), can only scratch their head about the next-leveling overcompensating that happens these days. I spoil, therefore I am.

Still, I worry about it even as I do it.

In the back of my mind, there is a dark thought that loiters in my recesses, moving about without much acknowledgment but present and haunting nonetheless. “Am I raising soft children of color who will crumble the first time they are tested by the unique challenges of a world that won’t always cut the crust off the bread for nonwhite people?

A story from yesterday’s news brought that challenge into focus for me again.

Two young women who were accused by white employees at an Applebees in Independence, Mo. of dining and dashing the night before. That’s when you eat and flee the premises without paying, and these two young ladies knew they were nowhere in the vicinity when the crime happened.

Police officers came and grilled them with paternalism and white license; in the background, a sheepish looking white employee stood firm in her recollection of these two black diners as petty criminals.

The video of the event when viral and the Applebees employees were fired. That might seem like a satisfying outcome, but I found one thing unnerving. The two young ladies cried during the event; one called her mom to whimper and whine about the incident. The young woman feigned disbelief that such a thing could be happening.

I was bothered more by her tears than the assault itself. I don’t feel good about that, but it’s true.

Not to belittle her, but her response calls into question the preparation we provide for black and brown children.

Are we preparing them for the world we want them to have, or the world as it actually exists, corrupt, inhuman, and racist AF?

In the same situation, I can see my three babies (and their older siblings) faltering too. My 50 years of living have trained me to expect racism, to distrust white authority, and to never feel fully “in” this country, but I’ve attempted to train my kids to expect to be treated as human beings, equal to any others.

What happens when they encounter an Applebee’s situation? Will it shatter illusions I should have never allowed them to adopt?

We’ve put our kids in piano and dance lessons; sent them to camps where they blend in with kids who have different cultural backgrounds and we have traveled with them far and wide to expose them to the world beyond their bubble.

And, yet, our parental program is missing the tough mudder, the thing that will test and train them to be indefatigable in the face of adversity.

What about self-defense? What about being strong and kicking ass and believing in your power, your people, your skin, your history?

Without a doubt I want my daughter to call me first whenever she is in trouble (my boys too), but I also want to know that she feels capable enough to fight for herself, and trained enough to do it effectively. I’d prefer she know here constitutional rights and understand that America’s history of racism is ongoing. In situations like the Applebees debacle I’d prefer she not cry in the face of her oppressors, but to deliver a message from all of our family members – dead and living – who’ve taken far too much inhumane abuse from the white world.

In short, my children should channel their ancestors rather than break apart like some child actors on an after-school special.

I worry about doing my part to make them strong, informed, and capable if it means exposing them to discomfort, but how much can I teach them about their personal strength if I’m slicing their grapes and removing crust from their bread?

I’ll have to keep thinking abou that problem. For now I have to make a run to the store to pick them up somehting for Valentine’s Day so they won’t feel left own tonight.


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