When I think about the kids we’re raising, as a whole right now, I’m so goddamn hopeful for the future that I can’t even really express it, for fear of losing my “unaffected internet witch” cool points (Note: I do not actually have any of those points).
But it’s true: I have been a part of raising the children in my life for 25-ish years now, and – as the aunt of two adult niblings, a couple of teenage ones, and a handful of under tens – I gotta say, that, for the most part, parents these days are hitting it out of the fucking park. Which isn’t to say that ALL parents are doing a great job, or that ALL kids are superstars, just that all of the parents I know – in real life, but also online – are working SO HARD to try to help create better humans. If you spend any time with the youngest of adults or teenagers (kids born around the turn of the century), then you probably understand that it seems to be working, at least so far –
These young people are self-aware, they’re culturally aware, they’re open and accepting as hell, and they don’t give two shits about “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it”, or “Well, society says it HAS to be XYZ not ZYX,” particularly in terms of the -isms. Kids seem less hateful towards each other, less understanding of the status quo, and more willing and able to see, create, and be the change so many of us have been working hard for. (Again, not all the youths are exceptional, but I don’t know any homophobic kids in my real life, and I DO know a ton of Black Lives Matter supporters, a ton of kids who go to protests, or kids who call and make sure things are accessible for their friends/siblings/family members, who blog against Asian American/Pacific Islander hate, just to name a few.)
And yes, I’m going to give the parents and extended influences of those young people a lot of credit for that- Hello Millenials, Gen X-ers, the youngest of Boomers who somehow turned into hippie grandparent- because every parent or person I know who’s got even a tiny part in raising some kids seems absolutely determined to “do a better job”, whatever that might mean to them personally. I’m going to go ahead and says some stuff without outing entire generations of people, because I don’t think either of these generalizations will come as a surprise, but Gen-Xers often grew up in a land of self-sufficiency & media literacy that their parents just didn’t understand (what I’m going to call Latch Key/Toys R Us Kids, and as a member of the Oregon Trail Micro-Generation, a place I will claim as my origin story) and Millenials are used to being blamed for shit they had nothing to do with and being forced into meeting expectations that are in no way reasonable (the Once in A Lifetime Recession happens every single time I’m looking for work generation, if you will). And both of those groups of people, once they started having children of their own, basically looked around at the expectations of society, and how they really got screwed because of them, and were like “Fuck this shit: I’m doing better by my kid(s).”
And then they DID.
Which is really the most startling part of the whole thing, if you think about it, because every group of parents WANTS to do better by their kids, but – as we so often find out in hindsight – they very often fall incredibly short of those goals. And I’m not saying that X-ers and Millenials have perfected parenting with their Zs and Alphas: We will, without a doubt, begin having the conversations about how we messed them up any day now (or, if you’re lucky enough to have a couple of early Z-ers, you’ve already started having these conversations, and wow: aren’t they fun?). BUT, in a lot of ways, parents around my age and younger put in some real work.
We did research… SO MUCH RESEARCH.
We went to therapy… SO MUCH THERAPY.
We dealt with our own traumas, in order to break generational traumas … SO MANY TRAUMAS.
I literally know of no parents my own age or younger, who haven’t – at the very least – done a shitton of self reflection and tried a different way, when they realized something they were doing (yelling, spanking, bribing, fawning, helicoptering, whatever) wasn’t giving them the results – attentive kids, better communication, clean bedrooms, less spoiled brat behavior, etc – they were hoping for.
And we can say a lot of good things about our parents – the Boomers and Hippies, a lot of whom tried to do better in their own ways too – but self-reflection and re-examining the roles we all play in society and within families was not their strongest suit. Hell, depending on how old your parents were, you could’ve been raised with full on “emotions are evil, shut that shit down” Silent Generation-ers, and still you’re out here attempting Gentle Parenting and letting your kid have a tantrum in the Target parking lot. I’m so proud of you!
We saw that society expected us to be independent, but that, as we got older, intradependence is what saved us, so we started teaching empathy and community and communication, even though we had to learn it from scratch then too. We saw that “hey you can’t depend on your job for everything – maybe you can’t depend on it for anything” and we started to tell kids to focus on things that made them feel whole, and happy, and to not neglect those things just because of their jobs/school/whatever society said was more important. We continue to get slapped in the face with the ways in which inequality is a planned feature of our society, and so we taught our kids to recognize it from the beginning, to name it when they see it, to actively work against it.
Anyways, now that I’ve patted us all on the back for … you know, trying to parent in a way that actually takes our children into account, like all parents SHOULD have been doing for all times, let’s move on to the next point, my main point, even. And that is the tools we use to engage in responsive, responsible, effective parenting (or teaching, or counselling, or interacting with children in any way), and how one of our best tools for that is books.
Like many of my fellow Cannonballers, books are a vital thing in my life. I am not exaggerating when I say I would not be alive without them, and so I don’t tend to underestimate how important they can be, ever, but I often see them undervalued in the greater world, which is unfortunate. Unfortunate because books can be one of an adults most essential tools for teaching – well, for teaching anything, but if we’re talking about how we go about teaching our kids how to become good people? Then books can be 90% of your toolbox, and the other 10% is just living what you’re preaching.
Want to teach small children going out to face the big bad world (of preschool) alone for the first time that it’s ok to be scared or lonely? Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney is going to give you both some much needed comfort. Want to teach your teenager that they’re capable of finding & making “good trouble”? Try the March trilogy by Civil Rights hero John Lewis. Want a picture book that tells your kid that being their ‘best’ means being themselves? Try I’m A Lot Sometimes by Jack Guinan. Something about how nonsense is necessary to a full life? Hit up Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Something that speaks on first love and first loss? Try Joy School by Elizabeth Berg.
And so we (finally!) come to today’s three books:
Kindness Makes Us Strong & Love Makes A Family, both by Sophie Beer; and What Happened to You? by James Catchpole.
Kindness Makes Us Strong & Love Makes A Family are boldly illustrated declarations of love, acceptance and the different ways we can live out our values in our real lives. They’re both populated by characters of different colors, ability levels, genders, and ages, while also ensuring that no one is specifically shown as “different” meaning lesser or unequal (a pitfall of many early ‘melting pot’ books or books that have disabled characters, but show them as people we should all be helping, for example). The books are simple reads, with simple messages, and little kids really GET THEM. They’re perfect for talking about what kinds of ways love shows up in your family, and what kinds of ways you all can/do show kindness to each other – and also, what to do when kindness is hard. This is what I meant by books being a tool – If you’re trying to teach your kids what it means to be a good human, and you don’t have examples of how they can be good humans, then it is a lot harder for them to learn.
Something else that might be harder for tiny humans to understand is “what things can I be curious about, and what things should be private”, and that leads us straight into What Happened To You? As a disabled person, the number of times I have been asked invasive questions about my health, my disability status, my wheelchair, &/or other more embarrassing private things about my body in public is really too high to count. And each disabled person has their own comfort level about questions and what they are willing to share: For example, I don’t care if your four year old asks me what’s wrong with my legs, bc I was a preschool teacher, and I’m used to answering those kind of questions from tiny humans. I prefer it, actually, to the whisper-yelling you think you are subtle about (you are not) when you’re kid asks you, and you drag them away from me, which I think teaches them to be afraid of people like me. But I don’t answer invasive questions from adults, and I get a lot of those too. Also, that’s just me: Other disabled adults AND CHILDREN get to decide their own comfort levels with both the question and the answers they give, and that is 100% the point of What Happened to You?
In the book, Joe has only one leg, and uses crutches sometimes. But when he’s approached by one kid after the other after the other at the playground who all ask him what happened to him, and offer up their own absurd theories about his missing leg, he doesn’t want to answer them. He wants to play pirates, and stay away from invisible crocodiles and sharks circling his ship. Eventually, the other kids catch on to the real game, and we never do find out why Joe is missing a leg. We do find out that all of the kids are very good at being pirates.
My love for this book is immense, and for so many reasons. How do you teach kids that it’s ok to ask questions, but also prepare them for the fact that sometimes people don’t want you to ask questions, or don’t want to answer your question, and that’s ok too? This book. How can you explain to non-disabled children that disability is just another regular part of a disabled person’s life, not something they constantly think about and worry over and focus on? This book. How can you show that everybody – including disabled people – are owed privacy and allowed not to answer intrusive questions? This. Book.
So there you have it – Three more books to add to your toolbox, if you’re working on making the young ones in your lives more empathetic and whole humans. Since we aren’t going to be perfect, we just have to aim for better, and these books – and so many like them – can help us get there.