I Don’t Know How to Talk to My Kindergartener About Race

T included a classmate in a drawing at school. He wrote the child’s name and put a label beside the picture. Black. Another student informed the teacher who took T aside and explained they do not use terms like white and black at school because those words can hurt feelings. His teacher assured me he was using the word as a descriptor and not out of meanness.

I get it. And I don’t get it. And I get it.

We live in a city. T goes to our local public school. It is very diverse, both economically and racially. Every child in the school receives free breakfast and lunch. Since the beginning of the year he has had a lot of questions about his classmates. Only occasionally are they about race, but those are the ones that I remember. What does black mean? What color am I? What does white mean? Do we have any black people in our family? Why not?

In our school there is a correlation between race and privilege. It is uncomfortable and impossible to ignore. There are extracurricular events arranged by the PTO; STEM night, mini academies, the neighborhood 5K, marching in a local parade. The same kids and parents are always involved. Of course the segregation is not 100%, but again, impossible to ignore.

Forget my kid, I don’t know how to talk about race period. I notice a gap between the experience of T and some of his peers. I notice the gap only widens by the higher grades. Does it help to talk about it? Do I dare talk about it as a white woman who is incredibly privileged? Can I do something to help? Is trying to do something to help an example of privilege trying to solve problems it doesn’t understand?

How do I explain race issues in America to a five year old when I can’t wrap my brain around them myself?

If the rule is we don’t use color as a descriptor at school that is fine. It is easy to tell him that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with who that person is. It is harder to explain why addressing race is a minefield in America.

“We need to talk about something serious, T. I need you to focus.”

“Ok. But can we stop at Target after swim lessons to get one of those squishy Transformer things? From the dollar section?”

“You are not listening. And no, no toys. You need to focus.”

“Aww…….Ok.”

“You know how we have talked about women being treated like less than men?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“So 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. Women used to belong to their husbands. They couldn’t own property. You know how Daddy and I own our house together? A long time ago I wouldn’t be able to own a house.”

“Yeah.”

“It used to be like that for black people. Actually the white people came to this part of the world and they took the land from Native Americans. And then they brought people here from Africa and made the those people slaves. You remember what slave means?”

“Yeah. Um…uhhh. To take somebody away and never let them go back?”

“Yes, to own a person. Which is terrible thing. So white people were in charge and they made really bad choices about how to treat people who looked different from them.”

“If white people were in charge were white women in charge, too?”

“Nope. Not for a long time. If you were a white woman or a person who had darker skin you were not treated equally. And the problem is that even though now there are laws to make people treat women and darker skinned people equal it doesn’t happen all the time.”

“If I went back in time I would be really nice to women and people with different colored skin.”

“I really hope that you would be.”

“And I would be mean to white men to teach them a lesson.”

“Oh baby. No. I don’t want you to be mean to anyone. I wouldn’t want you to go back and be mean to white men. Maybe if you went back in time you could try to change their minds about the way they treat anyone who is different.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, there are good white men and bad white men and good women and bad women and good black people and bad black people. Because we are all human and we are all born equal to each other. And there are good people and bad people in this world, but that has to do with who we are on the inside, not what we look like on the outside. Just because white men made bad choices a long time ago doesn’t mean that all white men are bad. Is that daddy bad? Is granddad? Is grandpa? Are you?”

“No.”

“Dude, this is so complicated. It is so complicated that using colors to talk about people’s skin can be hurtful and we need to be extra careful at school not to do it because those are the rules. But it is ok to think about how people look different. It is ok to talk about it. You need to be aware that people with darker skin are still treated unfairly too often and we need to speak up when we see that happen. You need to understand that you will be given extra opportunities as a white man that have nothing to do with how hard you work. And that is not fair. It also isn’t your fault, but you need to be aware of it.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

“Okaaay!”

“OK.”

“Stop it Mom!”

“Ok.”

“Ugh!”

Is this enough? Is what I said appropriate? I have no idea. How do you explain institutional racism to a 5 year old? The amount of discomfort I feel about it tells me we need to be talking about it. Even if I screw it up. We need to keep talking until we get it right. I don’t want him to carry the guilt of the choices his ancestors made. At the same time he must understand he occupies a place of privilege in this world that he did not earn, but that he was born into.

IMG_6570

This kid is trying to figure stuff out.

Report Card

A couple of weeks ago I trudged through the snow towards the kindergarten door at T’s school. A gaggle of middle school girls breezed by and I noticed one of them waving a small manila envelope. Goosebumps erupted from my scalp to my toes.

It was a report card envelope.

In the fall we had parent teacher conferences and the first report cards were distributed then. Seeing the envelope in that girl’s hand was a complete surprise, and I could not wait to hustle T home to see if he had one too. I wanted to peek into his bag as soon as we were back in the car, but I made myself wait, savoring the anticipation and excitement. By the time we got to the house I was lightheaded and giddy.

At the thought of looking at my kindergardener’s report card.

When I was growing up I was not a popular kid. I was not a beautiful kid. I was not an athletic kid. I was a smart kid. Everyone looks for an identity as we grow. Honestly, I would have loved to find mine as a popular kid or a beautiful girl, but smart is what I had. So I clung to it.

Over the years I’ve come to realize I am not anywhere as smart as I thought I was back then. But in childhood being grouped with the smart kids made me feel like I belonged. Excellent academic performance was not just expected, it was required. If we weren’t in the National Honor Society how would we get into a great college? My sister and I were good girls. We got into great colleges.

This is the baggage I hauled into the kitchen with me as I opened T’s report card. It was excellent. T is a bright kid. His preschool teacher called him her little thinker. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Most of the 3s he got in the fall had turned into 4s. At the parent teacher conference we were told they don’t give 4s in the fall because it doesn’t give the kids any room for improvement.

“They don’t give 4s in the fall, but T got one 4.” I bragged to my friend.

“Wow. What was it in?”

“Homework. I always make sure he hands it in early.”

“Oh, so YOU were actually the one who got a 4.” My friend is incredibly smart, way smarter than I am. She nailed it. My pleasure in that 4 could not have been a clearer red flag that I was being nuts when it came to T’s performance in kindergarten.

The second part of T’s report card was a series of standardized test results. Like in the fall, his scores were terrific. All but one. He was a few points below the expectation in one.

The room started to spin, my ears started ringing, the lightheadedness increased.

That one score invalidated every good thing I’d read. I panicked. Should I call Z? My parents? What were were going to do? What had I failed to teach T? When was the soonest I could get a parent teacher conference with his teacher? Should I email her right away or talk to Z first? What were we doing to do?

I gulped in some big, deep breaths. My mind cleared a bit.

What the hell was I doing?

T is five. He is in kindergarten. He is happy and learning and figuring out how to be a student. He is thriving. I am so proud of him.

Do I want him to see me losing it over one score out of many on his report card? Do I want to put that kind of pressure on him? On the flip side, do I want him to see me being thrilled over the good marks? Do I want him to think that my approval is tied to his academic performance? Is that fair to him? Is that the kind of Mom I want to be?

I called my parents and told them the whole story. They talked me off the ledge. Near the end of the conversation I told them I was still probably going to contact the teacher to come up with strategies around the lower score. Obviously I had not really internalized my big realizations about not pressuring my five year old. They gently helped me see that there was nothing to contact T’s teacher about. T was fine. I was obviously an insane helicopter mom, but T was fine.

That night I got an email from my dad with a link for a news story out of Staten Island. A mom allegedly threatened to bomb her daughter’s high school after learning that the girl failed a standardized test. My father, sarcasm oozing off of the computer screen, indicated her reaction was completely reasonable. I laughed so hard I cried. And then I cried for real.

T is not me. He is not a chance for me to relive and improve upon parts of my childhood. My son’s kindergarten report cards have no bearing on his academic future. Being a smart kid in kindergarten doesn’t mean he will always be a smart kid. Intelligence is not a measure of worth. This is a time for T to grow and learn and not be faced with pressure, especially additional pressure from his mother. My husband and I came up with a list of three things the boys need to do in order to make us proud: Be kind. Try hard. Treat girls the same way they treat boys. The three things are a mantra in our house. There is nothing about report cards or intelligence on that list.

I screwed up big time. Big time.

In the five short years I’ve become a mother a chasm has cracked open separating the kind of Mom I want to be from the kind of Mom I am. Five years doesn’t feel long enough for it to have become so deep and wide. Seems like I have much more work to do than T does.

airplane T

This kid’s report card doesn’t matter.

100 days of kindergarten

What matters is how much he loves kindergarten. The class made crowns celebrating completing 100 Days. At first he was crushed because he thought kindergarten was over and he didn’t want it to be. But he got into the celebration when he learned he has months left. His love of school is the only rubric we need right now.

T thrown in the snow

Playing in the snow after school.

Teeth Brushing

T didn’t want the tooth fairy to take his teeth away because he is planning on bringing them with us when we visit his Granddad and Grandmom. Last time we were down there Granddad pulled out one of his microscopes and T was mesmerized as he looked at treasures found in the yard magnified many times over. In the cavity of one of his teeth blood is visible. T is giddy about getting a closer peek.

The teeth are in a round metal craft container with a glass lid. They live next to his bed and he looks at them often. Last week he brought the container into the bathroom and informed us he needed to brush the two teeth after he finished with the ones still in his head. Bedtime was rushed that night because Z was headed to a band practice, so we told him he could the next morning. Next morning we were running late for school. And so on and so on. Until last night when he finally got his chance.

I had been hurrying to get a small load of the boys’ laundry folded before we started the reading portion of our bedtime routine. T caught my eye as I began to bustle past the bathroom door, my arms filled with his clothes.

He stood with his floppy hair dangling in his eyes, his body both tiny and so unbelievably big not yet dry from the bath. His electric Transformer toothbrush buzzed away in his hand, the other hand gripping his tiny baby tooth firmly as he gently brushed away. He had a look of fierce concentration on his face.

I watched him at the door and the stress of dealing with two stir crazy boys on a snow day was forgotten. I was filled with a breathtaking feeling of tenderness. Five plus years into this parenting gig and I still get overwhelmed by how much I love these boys. Most days I’m frustrated and whiney and bitchy, but that is all bluster and noise.

I love them enough to put aside sarcasm and my impulse to make everything into a joke for a moment to be nakedly sincere. Since the day T was born my capacity to love has grown exponentially. In the moments when I feel the full weight of that love I can almost see it, it tethers the boys to me. There is a hole in my chest, exposing my internal organs. It makes me feel frighteningly vulnerable and invincible at the same time. My love for them makes me feel fully alive. And I am so grateful.

teeth

He added the little legos and calls them his jewels.

post haircut

Post haircut on a snowy day.

Kindergarten Drop Off Part II

“Mom. Mom. Mom. I don’t want to.”

“Ok. How about I bribe you?” My patience had already evaporated so I went straight for the truth as I dragged a brush through his hair, a complete waste of time performed every school morning to make me feel like a good mom. When he arrives at school the hair is a snarled mess no matter what it looks like as we walk out of the bathroom.

“What does bribe mean?”

“You do something I want and I’ll do something you want.”

“Can I have a Lego minifigure?”

“Are you kidding me? For walking into the school by yourself one time? No way. You can have a marshmallow after school. But! If you walk into the school by yourself for the rest of the week you can have a minifigure after school on Friday.”

“Deal.”

Every morning a police car hides out in a driveway across from T’s school. Every morning it nabs one of the many cars that ignore the stop signs that flip open from the sides of the buses as the kids stream out of the doors. For some reason last Tuesday the police car wasn’t in the driveway, but rather parked on the street. I pulled behind it, hopped out and unbuckled T. As I heaved him out he looked at me.

“I can’t do this.”

“Yup. You can.”

His hand in mine I looked both ways, hustled him across the street, gave him a quick kiss, and told him to walk into school. The car was still running with C inside. I darted back across the street and turned to look for T.

He was like a statue, standing in the middle of the driveway where I left him. The temperature hadn’t yet climbed above zero. He must have been shivering, but he stood like his feet were nailed to the ground.

“T! Go! Go into school!” I hollered across the road.

“No!”

“T! Go! You can do this!”

“I can’t!”

“I am watching you! I will watch you the whole way! We will not leave until I see you get into the building! Go! You’ve got this!”

He had not moved an inch. He was so tiny.

“I’m shy! I can’t because I’m shy!”

We were yelling across the road at each other as kids and their parents streamed by towards the school. The parents were kind enough to avert their eyes. I stood by the door of my car. My car that was illegally parked behind the police car. And I yelled at my kid to walk to school.

“Mom. I can’t! I really can’t! I’m too shy!”

I totally lost it. “IF I HAVE TO TURN OFF THIS CAR THERE IS NO LEGO MINIFIGURE ON FRIDAY! THERE IS NO MARSHMALLOW AFTER SCHOOL! YOU GOT THAT? NOW WALK TO SCHOOL! WALK! GO!”

My tiny son turned around and trudged slowly towards the building. I slid behind the wheel and my throat burned as I watched his snail paced trip to the side door, his little body bent over as his gaze never left his shoes. I felt like a monster. When he slipped inside the school I started to cry as the mess of a scene played over in my head. Him standing stock still in the bitter cold, me yelling, him yelling, the cop car, the parents and kids watching the whole ridiculous performance. Suddenly I was laughing as well as crying.

He earned the marshmallow. And the minifigure. He also lost two his two bottom teeth. It’s been a week full of developmental leaps.

This morning the cop car had already pulled over a stop sign runner by the time we arrived at school. I kissed T, grabbed his hand, and started to run him across the street.

He shook me off halfway to the sidewalk. “Mom. I’ve got this.” He trotted towards the school without a backwards glance. My throat burned again as I watched him.

Could I have handled the drop off last Tuesday better? Um, yes. In fact, it would be hard to come up with a scenario in which I handled it worse. But T needs a push to try new things. A week and a day later and he isn’t just comfortable with the drop off, he is blasé about it. A week and a day later and I’m the one struggling not to walk up to his teacher everyday at pickup to find out how he is doing and what I missed. A week and a day later and I’m laughing at the person I was before parenthood. The one who would say, “I’ll never be a helicopter mom!”

goodbye front teeth

Beautiful boy without some teeth.

laughing with dad

And suddenly he looks like a little kid again.

hogwarts journal

Until the next moment when he is back to being a big kid.

My dear friend D and his family took a vacation in Orlando. He sent me the awesome Hogwarts journal from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Thank you again, D. You really made my January!

Anti-Anxiety Vignettes: #1

The past week plus can pretty much bite my ass. That bitch anxiety has moved back in to the house. Actually she has been around all fall, but I’ve been doing a pretty decent job of coping. Suddenly I wasn’t coping anymore.

It’s scary when the physical symptoms come roaring back. They feel new every fucking time. I’ve been doing my damnedest to act as normal as possible around everyone in my life. But I’ve noticed constant self-criticism escaping from my mouth before I can stop. It drives Z crazy when I say bad things about myself. He thinks I sound like I’m digging for compliments. I’m not. Really. I’m just informing everyone I know that I’m in on the secret. I know I suck, too.

It’s a fantastic way to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

So. Four migraines in a week. IBS….let’s just say it is very active. Like active enough to wake me with stomach cramps in the middle of the night. Pretty consistent low grade nausea. Two pregnancy tests taken even though I’m on the most effective birth control out there. Crying. So much crying. And pretending to be a normal person when I leave the house.

I’m exhausted. Z doesn’t know what to do. A call to my shrink will be placed today.

——————————————–

C is a hustler. At three years old he uses his sweet and beautiful face to get what he wants. I know, I know, of course I think he is beautiful.

sweet faced c

But he really is. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith.

He’s a drama queen who knows how to work it.

cranky pants leonard

See? Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith.

More than a year of speech therapy has paid off tremendously. He is still working hard on enunciation, but he can express himself beautifully with words these days. It is pure pleasure to finally discover what has been going on in that mind of his. Mostly. Wasn’t so great when he told me he didn’t love me at nap time yesterday. But seriously? He did express his frustration verbally so it still felt like a tiny victory. Ok, a tiny hurtful victory, but a victory all the same.

When we drop T off at kindergarten C darts into the classroom and over to the teachers distributing breakfast. He often cons them out of a container of cereal. This morning it was Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I settled him back in his car seat for the quick drive to his school as he opened the little bowl and started chowing down.

Five minutes later I called hello to a fellow mom before bending down to unbuckle C. His lips had a thick coating of cinnamon and sugar, it was like he was wearing glitter lipstick. I burst out laughing. He smiled up at me. “My face is very cute!” he informed me.

It has been a shitty week. So the wave of joy almost knocked me on my ass. My eyes filled with tears for all the right reasons. It felt so good.

And his face is, in fact, so very cute.

It is not my boys’ job to save me. I cannot and will not depend on them to do it. But man, they keep doing it anyway. They bring joy and frustration and delight and rage into our lives on a roller coaster of emotion. Concentrating on them helps me get my head out of my ass. Having kids is obviously not necessary for happiness and a full life. But for me? It is the best thing I’ve done.

Our family made the front page of Syracuse.com last Thursday! C is in a sleigh that was used by Z’s grandmother who was born in 1908. We have used it every winter, it works like a dream. Photo by David Lassman

Drop Off

“So remember, I’m not going help…”

He cut me off. “I know, I know, Mom. I am going to put my stuff in my cubby myself. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy!”

Easy-peasy lemon squeezy is something his most excellent kindergarten teacher says.

T has changed so much in the short time he has been in kindergarten. He is growing into his own person. It is messy and exciting and wonderful and sort of heartbreaking. I looked over at him this morning while I was strapping his brother into the car seat. His hair was swept up under his winter hat which was framing his face. I saw the baby, the hilarious and bald baby, that he used to be. Man, I miss that baby. I looked at his face and start to laugh. He looked back at me and laughed himself.

“What?”

I smiled. And sighed. And suddenly was blinking back tears. “Nothing. I love you.”

We looked at each other and started laughing again.

I’m pretty much the definition of over-sharer. I know, understatement of the year. But many of the moments involving T that crack me up, or teach me something, or drive me up the wall are starting to seem like his stories. He should get to choose to share them or not. He isn’t going to disappear from the blog altogether, but I’m going to do something very hard for me and try to have some actual discretion when it comes to him.

At the beginning of November I told T we would work towards me dropping him off at school in the morning rather than coming in with him to get him settled. His teacher said he was ready. He panicked.

We decided we would take the month to slowly get used to the big step and have him ready by December. December came and I was no closer to dropping him off. Even though it meant C was late to school every day. Even though T’s teacher said he was ready. Even though I knew deep down that T was ready. Because it turns out I was not ready. I like walking him into the building and having the opportunity to check in with his teacher. I like feeling involved with his school life. I don’t want to let my boy go. When I think of dropping him off outside…it is another 10 minutes of his day that I’ve lost. I feel left behind.

I feel left behind. And when I realized that it became very clear that it was time to make the drop off happen. I can’t keep him close because it hurts me too much to let him go. It would be a different story if he needed me for a while longer, but he doesn’t. I’m holding him back. My job is to let him go. It is the best job I’ll ever have. And the hardest. I cannot tie my happiness to him. It isn’t fair to either of us.

It might seem early to start worrying about letting him go, but if I don’t start now it will be impossible when he is grown. If the idea of letting the kid walk to the door of his school, without crossing a street, with me watching him the whole time is tearing my heart out how is going to feel when he is ready to go to college? I need to get used to him growing up and away and into himself. Because it will happen in a million tiny steps between now and when he is a man.

So we started the work on Tuesday. I told him he needed to get his stuff settled without me, but I’d stand nearby. It didn’t work. He told me he couldn’t do it and begged for help. We talked more about it Tuesday night. He did better on Wednesday. I thought we would struggle for a few more weeks, but this morning he was all “easy-peasy lemon squeezy”!

He didn’t struggle this morning. I did.

skinny jeans

I mean, look at him! He is an honest to god kid!

floris hoodie

Hamming it up in a hoodie I wore to kindergarten at Floris Elementary a million years ago.

inside the lego table

Brothers in the lego table. Not allowed anymore. Because it is now falling apart, probably because the boys were sitting it in….

Broken Lightsaber

The rule is C walks or he rides on my shoulders. He always chooses to ride. I should be making him walk, he is three. But he is my last baby which means he’ll always be my baby. Also we run late every damn morning. Hoisting him onto my shoulders means the walk from the car to T’s school takes half the time. He often begs to be carried. I tell him he is a big boy (nothing like mixed messages!) so he can walk or he can do the shoulders, being carried isn’t an option.

And yet, on the way back to the car this morning I found myself carrying him in my arms without really knowing how he got there. His head was nestled into my neck and it just felt so good. I ignored the strain on my back and enjoyed the feeling of holding him close.

“Mama?” his muffled voice came from my shoulder.

“Mmmhmm?”

“I broke my lightsaber.”

“Mmmhmm.” This morning he did break his lightsaber. Broke it beyond repair.

“It was my fault.”

My heart stuttered and I held him tighter. I thought back to this morning. The rule in our house is if you break or lose something that is it. The thing is gone. We aren’t buying another one. The boys need to take responsibility for their actions, even as little kids.

On C’s occupational therapy evaluation it was noted that his inclination to be destructive towards books and toys and basically anything he can get his hands on is tied to the fact he is seeking sensory input. When Z and I read the report earlier this fall we were relieved. It was in line with the evaluation C received over the summer and it provided a reason behind some of his more frustrating behaviors.

Not only has preschool special education explained some of C’s behaviors, it is providing an opportunity to improve those behaviors. He is starting O/T this week. Z and I are attending a two night class on using sensory strategies with preschoolers that starts Wednesday. We aren’t expecting a magic bullet, but we are ready to do the work.

C has an extra set of challenges, but that does not mean he is off the hook when it comes to behaving. We will support him and give him some latitude, but at the end of the day his difficulties cannot be an excuse for him to do whatever the hell he wants to do.

My heart stuttered, not just because he was facing hard things, but because I was simultaneously flooded with joy. Weird, I know. But hear me out.

I have never heard him take responsibility for his actions before. He simply hasn’t had the words to do it. Speech therapy has done wonders for him. Just over a year ago he was basically non-verbal. He is a different kid these days. The leaps in verbal development are positively influencing his social and emotional behavior. He is engaging in imaginative play with his peers, he has special friends that he seeks out at school. His teacher actually used the word blossoming to describe his progress. It meant so much that I had to blink back tears when she said it to me.

He broke a toy this morning. And he articulated that it was his responsibility. I am proud of my kid.

sweet yoda

Fourth year one of the boys has been Yoda. We sure got our money’s worth out of the costume.

Blast Off!

me and my boy

He is a snuggler.