How to Raise a Good Person

There’s a misperception that a blogger is someone who shares experience and knowledge as though it might point to answers. If our recent headlines have taught us anything it’s that, in parenting and in life, none of us really know what we’re doing. My first goal as a parent was to keep the child alive. So far, we have achieved that, though I might not clearly remember how or know if we did it in the best way possible. Now, at almost a year and a half, he’s starting to develop skills that, if you look closely, resemble that of a real human being. It is at these moments that I realize that he is not just a cute little accessory, but he will one day be an adult and we’re responsible for more than keeping him alive; we’re responsible for the type of human he will become. This makes the aforementioned headlines all the more scary and it is one of the many parenting moments when parents might pause to consider all of their inadequacies and wonder why there isn’t some kind of application process required to become a parent. It would be really helpful to have some kind of certificate hanging on my wall that tells me that I’m qualified to be making these decisions--experts who acknowledge that I have some kind of "expert" training. Since parents can never get that kind of solid reassurance, I decided to put together a list of the things I’m thinking about, hoping that my anxiety at least leads me to ask the right questions. But since I’ve already admitted that these are hunches more than any kind of real knowledge, how ‘bout we all just brainstorm about these ideas, ‘kay?

Things recent events inform me I should be teaching my child in order to make him a productive, better human being:

1)    Don’t climb into a gorilla pit— Remember everyone was lighting their torches because of this a couple weeks ago and then, oops, much worse things happened? It seems like a great conversation to have with your child, except I don’t think you can really teach a kid things like this. I constantly walk around telling Dexter that the stove is hot, that the toilet is not for splashing, that electrical sockets are not fun little receptors for our fingers. He responds by walking over to these items and saying “no”, most likely assuming that this is the appropriate verb for these actions. What he doesn’t seem to understand, however, is that “no” means don’t do it. I know the kid who fell into the gorilla pit was older, but kids are fast and come with hardwired instructions on how they can most quickly self destruct. I will try my best to deter him from this type of behavior, but so far it looks like buying a leash and harness that grows with him through his toddlerhood is the only real solution.

2)    Get consent—Then we were slapped in the face by the Brock Turner ruling. There have been some amazingly open conversations about how to improve gender inequality and safety for women. It’s clear that there is much work to be done with our current laws and perceptions of gender and power, but there's also the question of how we, parents of young children, try to raise them better. Girls have always been told how to protect ourselves, but the conversation more often is being turned toward boys who, not surprisingly, are being named as an important part of the sexual assault problem. Parent blogs have weighed in and as I read them I was most struck by those that claim that we should be teaching children the idea of consent. I’m not against the spirit behind this recommendation, but I do have my reservations as to its plausibility given the experiences I already listed about how well he's receiving rules about survival. Can a young toddler really learn consent? Of course, this skepticism isn't enough to avoid trying. Much like the electrical socket battle, part of the lesson is to keep reinforcing good behavior so that he will have a good foundation to understand. But another question that struck me is, are we being too careful? If we focus too much on consent, can we take away a toddler’s natural instinct to be compassionate? What I mean by this is, as much as we try to expose our son to every type of activity there is, it’s becoming clearer that we have a rough and tumble boy. Will he play with a tea set? Yes. Does he “cheers” with a little too much gusto for a refined tea party? Absolutely. With him, it has been a battle getting him to pause from his climbing, running and throwing to give hugs, kisses or cuddles. I’m happy to say that he’s starting to mature into a child who can balance both and he’s pretty enthusiastic about giving kisses to anyone he has known for a minimum of 30 seconds. I saw this as a positive sign that he was learning compassion, and I encouraged it, even though I wish he hadn’t kissed everyone he met the other weekend when I later realized that he had Hand, Food and Mouth Disease.                      

I understand that the purpose of having children gain consent is so that it will become a main consideration when they are older, but I think the deeper, more graspable lesson at this age is to try to have them observe and consider another person’s needs in general. This isn’t an easy task for children who are just becoming old enough to recognize themselves in the mirror and who, for a few more painful years, won’t really be able to understand the world outside of their own needs. What I have committed to for this stage of development is to teach him to offer kisses, but don’t insist on them. It seems important in order to not limit compassion, but it also comes with an evolving lesson to notice how your actions are being received. This fits in nicely with the other lesson I’m trying to teach him when he hits the top of my head and I try to teach him that "it hurts mama" when he does that. This gives him an opportunity to see how his actions affect others. The other part of this is to let him say hello/goodbye in whatever way he feels comfortable. Sometimes a high five or a hand wave is where he is with a person, and that's completely acceptable. Offer some kind of greeting or departing gesture within your comfort zone, and try your best to observe what others are willing to receive. 

3)    Erase privilege and recognize diversity—This might be the hardest lesson to teach because it continues to be very complicated for us adults to find our own balance with it. As much as I keep hearing parents of young black males weigh in on their reality, I can’t help but worry that I’m raising a white male, someone who will find himself highest on the food chain of oppression. I realize that I should teach him to recognize his own privilege and champion the equality others deserve, but the question is how does one achieve this? Part of it is exposing him to diverse cultures and people. The other part, which I think is harder, is letting him ask tough questions and try to answer them honestly. One of the biggest fears parents of a white child have is that their kid will ask an inappropriate question about someone who is different while waiting in line at the grocery store. A much lesser concern than others are dealing with to be sure, but it’s impossible to keep children from making real, albeit inappropriate, comments loudly. I also think that, regardless of the level of embarrassment it might bring, it’s the type of question that should be explained, rather than shushed. It’s a moment to engage and let there be a conversation, even where it's terribly mortifying. I will work to explain that yes, many people in this world are different and we need to work to understand their experience and love them all the same. As a lesbian, my only avenue through which I can experience minority status, this is what I expect. When you encounter a difference, don’t start bringing up the second uncle, once removed in your family who is gay and how “totally fine” you are with it. Nice story, but it’s not always as great an illustration of your lack of bigotry as you would like. Instead, I appreciate when people treat me like a person with equal entitlement to be in this world. When something about my experience strikes them as new or different they ask instead of assume.  Though I know my sexuality doesn't equate to racial discrimination, I imagine this approach can still be ubiquitous. This leads me to my next lesson:

4)    Let things be complicated—This might seem like a funny final rule considering the developmental stage my child's in, when conversation past The Little Engine that Could doesn't hold his attention span. Perhaps it’s a rule more for myself as a parent and one I’ll keep tucked away for him when he gets older. There are no obvious solutions, but parenting, along with making the world a better place, seems to mostly be about compassion and admitting that there’s a lot out there that we don’t fully understand. And then listening and trying to understand anyway. It’s terrifying to feel like you’re raising a child in a world where violence seems to be such an easy impulse--when the flags have been flying at half staff for so long I'm afraid my child might start to think that's they way they're supposed to be raised. You’ll notice that I didn’t even touch on what should have been #3 if we follow recent events chronologically, which was the Orlando club shooting. Same goes for the horrible deaths in Nice, France. I don’t know how to make a rule out of all that senseless carnage, but I think it’s an important segue between #4 and #5:

5)    Fight for the conversation—As I said, I don’t know the answers, but these are the best ways I have come up with to deal with raising a child with the current tumultuous events—they are parental instincts at best. Any other comments about how to be a good parent (kind and productive, please) are welcome. I’ll do my best to follow my own advice and compassionately listen.