Tough Conversations and Lessons

Honestly, I’ve been working on this post for some two plus weeks. Every time I think I’m close to finishing it, another incident hits the news. I hate exposing the world in these ways to my young children. I despise having to show the ugliness and it’s likely impact on them. I also know I do them no favors by shielding them from it all until the day they confront it ill-equipped. Children are not too young to have these conversations, the approach just has to meet their developmental, emotional, and cognitive level.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert, only that I read, research, and draw upon my own training and education to inform how I engage in these conversations with our children.

Recently, I have been reading more from Asian American parents about how they’re engaging in these dialogues with their children. It’s a comfort to know I’m not alone in these difficult and tumultuous waters. For more on that, check out these articles here and here.

My husband and I have been having these conversations long before our venture into homeschooling. It is also provided a new medium through which we can have not only conversation but more intentional education.

Prior to homeschool, topics around race, inequity, disparities, discrimination, and its multitude of impacts would happen at meals, in the car, or following a situation that unfolded in our lives or those in our social circle. As I have said, I’ve never shied away from these conversations and they’ve rarely been a spectacle or had a lot of fanfare. Rather it’s been woven naturally into the fabric of daily life. For us, we intentionally set out to create opportunities to encourage questions and discussion through our environment and experiences. Books have always been one of our first go-to strategies to create this. For some of the books on our shelves, check out this post.

Exceptions to this have been when current events thrust what’s already been discussed into sharper focus such as the passing of discriminatory laws. This last year presented such instances. My husband and I weren’t entirely sure how we wanted to needed to approach the discussion. We spent time considering and weighing reasons for talking with our children, then aged 3 and 7. We struggled, as I’m sure many families do, with spoiling their innocence to the harsh realities of the world. We also recognized and honored that these realities are true and that many families don’t have the privilege or luxury of opting out.

Armed with that knowledge we sat down with our kids to talk about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and again with Breonna Taylor and yet again with George Floyd. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to highlight the name of every person, even today as more names are added to the growing list. I say that with a dose of guilt in not doing so but also with anger with the sheer number that makes adequately providing context near impossible. It only further highlights the inequities in the system in which we live.

As our children are so young, the conversations have been general and more concrete. We give them the basics that people were hurt by other people. We opt to hold space for them to ask necessary questions they have. Often these questions are how and why. Nothing makes me feel more helpless and frustrated than not being able to give them clear and simple answers to these questions. Again, our goal is a response that is both age-appropriate and relevant to the questions they have.

We are cautious about using the term racist. Now, some may disagree with me here and I completely get that. Our focus is more on the specific situation, and while we highlight the context of bias and race the focus is more on the system and the impacts of systems on individuals rather than on the perceived beliefs of people. This is not to say that we don’t talk about racism. We choose to approach the conversation from a systems perspective rather than an individual perspective.

For us this means discussing how our systems and our history shape the views of individuals and society. We emphasize that these then become beliefs and unconscious biases people may have others. What this means is, we don’t say people are bad.

From my perspective as a former therapist, this has been a critical point for me in raising our children. I have always separated behavior and actions from the character of people, including my children. That’s to say that when mistaken behavior happens, we do not label them as bad children or as misbehaving. Rather, we emphasize choices and the behavior. We talk about the outcomes of those choices and actions and the impact it has on others around them and themselves. Our goal is to foster empathy and compassion as well as critical thinking and decision making while cultivating strong self-esteem and self-worth.

For very obvious reasons, the conversations we have with our Monkey is different and significantly more concrete than the ones we have with Dragon as Dragon is older. Dragon understands more of the complexities and abstract nature of these conversations than Monkey for certain.

One of the ways we have addressed some of these topics is through curriculum and lessons in homeschooling. When I began this journey, I pulled all the state competencies for Dragon’s grade. While it was unsurprising, it was an experience to see the words of a curriculum supporting revisionist history in black and white type. I refuse to miseducated our children to fit the mold of our public education system that simultaneously provides misinformation with the added layer of not critically assessing the content.

As such, I set out to provide content that honors both our history and achievements as a nation while being honest and true to the atrocities of that history. We have engaged in cultural lessons celebrating various holidays, both ours and others, and connecting with friends and colleagues who can provide further context as well as incorporating formal curriculum like the 1619 Project, we used a modified version for younger children.

We used that curriculum and built further upon it to examine our history as a nation in our treatment of Indigenous/Native peoples, immigration practices and its implications, as well as how these histories can form our society’s views of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. As a child with a huge heart, Dragon struggled with hearing the pain and realities experienced by so many in our history. She couldn’t fathom the necessity of laws and practices that could cause such harm. We had to pause our work regularly to process her feelings to ensure I was also providing adequate emotional support.

In recent months, along with this project, we have had to intentionally approach the conversation about anti-Asian sentiment and violence occurring across our nation. Engaging in this discussion was doubly difficult because I was processing my own feelings and thoughts as well. My own experience has taught me the value and importance of equipping children with the skills to reduce internalizing stereotypes and racist ideas to ensure they can identify it is not about them but rather a part of the system and society outside themselves. In doing so, I hope they can better process through their feelings and thoughts and respond in a way honors their value and worth.

For Dragon and Monkey, we sat down to talk about incidents they may have experienced based on their identities. Monkey talked about the constant difficulty others have in pronouncing her name properly. My partner and I recognized this would likely be an ongoing challenge when we chose her name. We also had a strong attachment to her name and refused to water down our cultures for the comfort of others.

For Dragon, attending public school has exposed her to more incidents. One such experience was when being sorted for different groups at school based on the Chinese Zodiac. Dragon’s birthday is such that she was born after the Gregorian New Year but before the Lunar New Year which was cause for some confusion. So her zodiac sign aligns with previous Lunar New Year. So one of the teachers asked for her sign and when Dragon answered, proceeded to correct her. The teacher stated Dragon was mistaken and her sign was the other. Dragon attempted a couple of times to correct them but was concerned about getting in trouble so stopped. She would tell me this later not realizing the importance of such an experience. We discussed this, her feelings, and the problem with such an exchange. She had a visible relief when realizing this was not a mistake of hers but rather the ignorance of others who know little if anything of her culture.

I always endeavor to approach these conversations and lessons with an intersectional lens but I also recognize that I am imperfect in doing so. I still have work to do in honoring and creating space for the various layers that impact experiences of groups of people. I also know I strive daily to learn more and improve. Our hope in these efforts is to both raise humans with a solid sense of compassion and empathy for the various lived experiences of others as well as better understand themselves in society.

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