In 2017, I came across this article in the New York Times about how to raise a feminist son. I sent a copy to my partner. I printed it out and cut out excerpts and taped them all over my house as a reminder to myself about my responsibility to model good behavior for my kids.
As the mother of two boys, I felt my responsibility for them to not turn out to be total assholes who use their privilege as blinders to the very real problems and feelings of others as a giant weight on my shoulders. That feeling only intensified when the #MeToo hashtag went viral in October of 2017 and Harvey Weinstein resigned.
Almost four years later, you can still find the illustrations and snippets of advice and quotes from experts hiding behind cabinet doors all over my home.
The article says to “speak up when others are intolerant,” but that’s something that hardly comes up in our suburban bubble with limited diversity, so it’s been hard to demonstrate.
“Use the media: TV shows, movies, books. There are plenty of non-threatening resources out there,” said Shannon Ward, mental health specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital’s Center for Gender Affirming Medicine when I asked her how to approach the subject. “Be intentional. Normalize that people are struggling. Racism is not a taboo subject if you talk about it. Once these conversations are normalized, they’re not uncomfortable.”
The first (maybe only?) conversation I had with my parents about racism as a child was brought about by a very particular set of circumstances that involved me coming home and using a racial slur– not knowing that it was a bad word. It was the summer of 1995 and I just got back from spending an extra two weeks at the mobile home my great-grandmother shared with her boyfriend in Florida after my parents returned home to Ohio. The OJ Simpson trial was approaching, and my “Uncle” Joe had some pretty colorful commentary on the subject, while my great-grandmother rolled her eyes.
I felt a strong sense of shame that I did something wrong, something hateful, something criminal.
As an educator, I often have these conversations with my students. I always reassure them (especially when they get over apologetic and embarrassed) that I’d rather have these conversations in the classroom than saying something offensive in front of a boss or a potential love interest. The classroom can be tough, but the “real world” can be unforgiving.
So when should we start having these conversations?
According to Ward, “it’s never too early to start.”
Classic movies are another avenue that could be used as an intentional teaching tool. By sharing them with my son, I’ve discovered that most of my favorite cult classics need a disclaimer by 2021’s standards — which, quite frankly, I agree is a good thing, as comedian Aziz Ansari preached in his 2019 Netflix special. The missteps of the heartthrob characters of my favorite films as an adolescent have led to some interesting conversations with my adolescent child, and even my peers. We discuss how times have changed and why it’s important to treat all people with respect and why we’re grateful to live in a more progressive and inclusive society.
What about when your kid shuts you down and doesn’t want to talk?
“It can be disheartening as a parent when your kid doesn’t feel like talking,” Ward sympathized, but encouraged me not to get discouraged. “It’s a common occurrence. Don’t be afraid to intentionally revisit the topic in a non-confrontational, casual way.”
She recommends a situation where you and the child are not facing each other and not making eye contact, like when you’re riding in a car or sitting on the sofa. I’ve had some of my best heart-to-hearts with my older son on a ski lift or while playing mobile games like Tetris on our devices.
Most importantly, you need to model the type of behavior you want to see in your child.
“You are your child’s first role model,” Ward said. “Children model after their parents and other caregivers. They will imitate your coping habits and your positive healthy behaviors. If you want your kids to talk about a particular subject, you need to talk to them about that particular subject.”
This can include conversations you have with other adults within earshot of your little ones.
That said, children will also model their parents’ and caregivers’ not-so-healthy coping habits, so it’s especially important for everyone to proactively mind their own mental health during such challenging times.
“Everyone can benefit from positive changes in their life: coping, eating, communication, healthy habits,” Ward explained. “You can work through that with a therapist. It’s healthy — even in the short term. Mental health is just as important as physical health.”
Most therapists offer telehealth appointments, especially now during the pandemic.
In addition to being a role model and caregiver, Ward explains the important role of being your child’s first advocate: “Give them a voice until they have one of their own.”
But what if your child’s developing voice doesn’t align with your values?
“Differences of opinion are bound to happen. They’re their own person,” Ward said. “It’s important to make sure that they’re not hurtful to themselves or others. In that case, help should be sought out immediately. Otherwise, she recommends that you seek out supports through your own networks, like your therapist, church, family or community.”
And, finally, Ward provides some advice on what NOT to do: “Shaming or making a child feel guilty does not work, and it can cause long-term effects such as anxiety or depression.”
But I’m sure if you’re an adult child of parents who had unreasonable standards, you already know that and will work hard to avoid that with your own children.
Brittany Noble Charek is a writer, educator, and mama bear with a lot of feelings. She no longer gets embarrassed when caught talking (or singing!) to her dogs and/or houseplants.