This two-part piece, or at least the early notions of it, has been swirling in my mind for several months now, perhaps most intensely since the devastating events in Newtown, Connecticut. I’m not even sure it has even really gelled much at all, and I certainly don’t have any definitive perspective or conclusions. But the strands of it keep rising up, almost tentacle-like, such that it seems like I need to start processing it in a more concrete way like this. I don’t necessarily think its applicability is limited to parenting or raising kids, though that is certainly the angle I am offering here.
Part One will focus on the difficulty in deciding how much (or when) we should tell our kids about all that is not right in our world.
Part Two will focus on the mixed emotions we, as parents, can sometimes feel knowing more about tragedies than we ever wanted to.
One morning, while I was packing her lunch, M offered her (unsolicited) opinion about how she only likes the “thin” (deli-sliced) cheddar cheese, and not the “block” cheese because it is too thick. Though her statement sounded like a stern lecture to me, I know what she meant given that she’s only 5½ and still working on nuanced statements like that. So I laughed it off with a joke about how that sounds ridiculously diva-ish, like she’s been reading too many princess books, and fired off a quick one-liner on Twitter about it.
Honestly? I wanted to respond to her, without levity and comedic relief, that she’s even lucky to have cheese to eat on a regular basis in the first place, much less a variety of thicknesses! The modern day equivalent of “there are starving kids in China” that so many of us used to hear as children. The reason I wanted to respond that way is because I happened to be in the midst of preparing for a fundraising meeting I had later that night for the nonprofit board on which I sit.* Considering the core mission of this group is to harvest and provide fresh produce to emergency food providers like pantries and shelters, I am more than acutely aware of how much some families struggle every day, and just how easy M’s life really is. How lucky our family is. How painfully hungry so many other families are. So statements like that get to me once in a while, no matter how naive they are.
But I also feel that I have to temper my knowledge of real world problems with her still overwhelmingly innocent, ignorant and ego-centric view of the world. There are many reasons to do that, and largely, we do. Don’t get me wrong, M doesn’t live in a bubble. We have slowly brought her into the fold that there are many in the world that are not so lucky, for a variety of reasons. From a young age we’ve included her when we make donations (goods and money…some of those things directly from M herself) to various causes. She’s seen some very sick kids when we’ve had to visit Boston Children’s Hospital. She will tell you that I am particularly vocal about the importance of not wasting food, and why. She knows that life has some not so pretty parts.
The question is, where should that line be drawn? I never quite know. Her age complicates things even more, equally straddling the line between babyhood and tweendom. Should it be on a macro or micro scale? Should we enlighten her in a generalized way (when the contextual occasion arises) that there is hunger, homelessness, disease and violence in the world, and vastly so in some places? Or do we just fill her in if there is someone familiar or a localized reason that makes it personal and relevant to her? I can see arguments on both sides here, and none of them being the clear winner.
In a world where there is incessant news coverage, and some of it now out of my control, it is sometimes a challenge to be an effective filter anymore. I was stunned the other day when I got gas for the car and was more or less forced to listen to the small television screen at my pump blaring out the day’s headlines. And here I thought TVs at the supermarket was our rock bottom. Seriously, is this much coverage (and advertising) really necessary?
My sense is that before 24/7 television coverage, the Internet and social media, the lens that is often focused only on the negativity in our world was not as wide-angle as it is today. Certainly the sensationalism was likely less, but also the speed, quantity and scope of this kind of news too. Weather related havoc, widespread disease, famine or political unrest, profound violence . . . it’s not just in our backyard anymore, but global. These tragedies are daily themes and there’s seemingly no end to the hard and fast media frenzy, with catchy slogans and dire lead-in music. This is why I largely no longer watch the news. It’s too much to bear sometimes, though I know those kinds of things existed well before our culture of hyped up media.
But I’m now finding that her age and attending school with a peer group that is not as equally sheltered about some newsy kinds of things (the Boston Marathon bombings being a very recent example) makes this increasingly challenging. That’s not a judgment call on other parents, by the way. Like I said, convincing arguments on both sides. But at the same time, how can I effectively carry out my preference for minimal to no information (if it’s not directly relevant) when the default for so many around is to tell their children about these things? In a nutshell, I can’t. Or at least not without some serious closing off from the world in which we live.
There’s something to be said for living optimistically, seeing only the good and turning a blind eye to the bad. There’s something to be said for acknowledging the dark underbelly of our world, and, more to the point, helping out where we can. There’s also something to be said for us, her parents, controlling the flow and source of information. Achieving a workable balance between all three is the challenge. We don’t want her to be scared of the world just as equally as we don’t want her to be blindsided either. If there were ever a time where I felt like the sands of parenting were shifting beneath my feet, it is certainly now. The magnifying lens that is Kindergarten, which comes in just a few short weeks, only intensifies the heat of this uncertain terrain.
Of course, what ends up happening for us is something of a cobbled, case-by-case nature, like most parenting decisions. And not all of them are sound choices, often realized in retrospect.
But some are. And as she gets older and inserts herself more readily into a society, with viewpoints that are as varied as the people within it, I get increasingly antsy that some of this information should come from us first. Mainly so that there are no surprises and she is not caught off-guard on the playground, but also so that she can get accurate information, ask questions and have any resultant anxieties tempered a bit.
At the end of the day, I don’t want her to be jaded and carry the weight of the world on her shoulders so young. But I also don’t want her to grow up to be oblivious to the realities around us either. I think having an understanding of the vastly different life landscapes around us gives—or someday will give—her a deeper appreciation for her own situation, will help shape what direction she wants to live her life and ultimately identify what things are important and, ideally, help foster the sense of compassion and empathy toward others that I can already see she has. Distilled to the most purest of intentions, this is perhaps what guides me most. Not that she gain an appreciation for what she has, but that she understands the diverse lives of those around her and within the community in which she lives. Through this lens I hope that she can view the world and contribute to the good news we are all so desperately waiting to hear.
* I am on the board of directors of the Boston Area Gleaners, Inc. www.bostonareagleaners.org
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
I was going to write about something completely different today, but I’ve got something that I have been mulling over in my mind for the past 24 hours or so, so I think I’ll go with that since I’m distracted anyway. It might seem like a preachy political rant, but really I am thinking about it all in a way that encompasses the kind of world that I want M to live in, and the kinds of priorities I want to instill in her as she grows up.
Yesterday I attended the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network (MNN) Conference and Expo. There were hundreds of predominately Massachusetts-based nonprofits represented by the attendees present. I was attending (on my own dime) in order to sit in on some seminars that will help me with the fundraising that I have begun to undertake as a board member for the Boston Area Gleaners.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Rising Beyond the Challenge”. The keynote speaker was Ami Dar, founder of idealist.org (those of you in the nonprofit world, especially job seekers, will know this site well). He was truly inspiring, and I cannot even do justice to his overall message. But the gist was that there are so many great ideas in this world, and we have such amazing technology at our fingertips–much of which could be used to find and talk to each other about solving these issues, if not solve them in its own right–yet we still remain largely unconnected, and, further still, continue to have homeless people, schools without adequate resources and places in the world without clean water or enough food. How can this be?
During that speech, I happened to sit next to a woman who works with foster kids and getting them the mentoring they need throughout their fractured lives. I was stunned to learn that less than 4% of foster kids will ever complete college–this is largely due to the lack of financial, emotional and other support systems for these kids after they “age out” of the foster care system. It hurt my heart to learn this. (Later, on the ride home, it also made me think about how much I write about M here and on Facebook, and that those kids likely do not have someone similar championing them, memorializing them, in any way at all, much less through today’s technology. The sadness of this thought cut through me for a good while sitting in traffic.)
During lunch, I sat next to one young woman who works at a nonprofit that makes grants to various kinds of programs. One grant that they had recently approved was the result of a Boston school teacher applying for funding so that the school could offer algebra classes to its 8th graders, because they were finding that most of the kids were not able to keep up in high school due to the lack of this class being offered at that grade. The school simply did not have enough money in its budget to fund a teacher to teach algebra, even though in many other school districts algebra is par for the course and fully funded in 7th and 8th grade. So some teacher, probably in her own spare time, took the initiative to do this. The question is, should this even have been necessary to begin with?
I thought about that…and then I thought about the graphic I saw last week in Time magazine (10/29/12) that showed that Americans are expected to spend $8 Billion on Halloween this year. And that’s a 10% increase over last year. Of that, in 2011, people spent $310 million on their pet costumes, and it’s projected to be $370 million this year.
I love animals. A lot. But it blows my mind that I am living in a country that is OK with spending their discretionary money on a hot dog costume for their dog, yet there are kids who are not even able–through no fault of their own other than geography or having parents that are no longer fit or present to be their caregivers–to get a fair shot at what so many of the rest of us have and take for granted. How can such a financial majority of us be OK with spending $8 Billion on candy, clothes and decorations but balk at helping out through charity or otherwise supporting tax increases that allow for programs that level the playing field.
Incidentally, did you know that people who make more money, tend to give less to charity? Take a look at the most recent stats available from The Chronicle of Philanthropy. How can this be?
I often wonder why so many aren’t more sympathetic to others’ plights? I wonder why Donald Trump doesn’t just skip the step of asking our President to produce his college/passport papers and just donate the $5 million to any charity. I wonder why the asshats mentioned in this L.A. Times article don’t take that $20 million they raised in just the past few days and put it to better use than some lousy commercials that almost all of us mute or change on TV. And for the sake of fairness, I’m going to call out these guys too.
It seems so timely, of course, because of the election frenzy we are in, with people bickering about taxes and spending and programs. No matter which side of the political party coin you fall on, at our core we are all humans. Despite this, why is it so hard for people to see past their need for more “stuff” and not want to reach out and help their neighbors (literally and figuratively) just to acquire the basics? How many gadgets and toys and new shoes do we all really need? Why aren’t there more mentors available for that woman to pair children with?–that doesn’t even cost money! I just don’t understand this willful blindness that takes place so frequently these days.
Yes, of course we all have our own priorities within our own four walls and at our desks, but isn’t there some way that more of us can give back? And if we won’t do it ourselves, then yes, we do need someone else–paid staff of nonprofit agencies, government employees–to pick up the slack in many cases. Otherwise, we are going to leave a lot of people hanging in the breeze without a lifeline. The places that that can lead to are not pretty and none of us would want to end up there. Yet many of us think we are immune from these things and so don’t give it a second thought.
But that is kind of my point, I guess. Using our own families and people we actually know shouldn’t be the litmus test for deciding whether to help out. In a community or neighborhood or country, we are all tethered together. Shouldn’t we be working collaboratively to support one another and lift each other up to our individual, highest potentials? Shouldn’t we make sure that we are all clothed, fed, educated and safe so that we can otherwise contribute in our highest capacity to society? For some, that may be going to work and finding ways to engineer bridges and roads that last longer. For others it may be just living day to day and staying out of trouble while trying to remain drug-free. For some, it may be finding ways to resist destructive behaviors and find an alternate path, one that takes perhaps years to unearth. And for others, it may mean just being able to live pain-free or free from worry in the last years of their lives, just being able to hang on as a valuable and loved member within their family or apartment building. The 200+ nonprofit groups in that room yesterday were a testament of how we can get there, together.
I want so much for M to grow up in a world that allows her and the kid sitting two desks over, who might not be from a similar socio-economic or family background, to feel like they can each pursue their ultimate dreams some day, that there are no barriers. That they are true equals. A world where people will start purchasing their homes because of the location or the kind of landscape and amenities, rather than by school system rankings–why should the kids in any town have less than another when it comes to resources, teachers and support? Shouldn’t there be good schools everywhere?
I’m not even sure where I am meandering with this post, which has already run on too long. I guess it just really gets to me when I see the kinds of things that people own and want to own, the kinds of money being thrown around under the auspice of “free speech” and yet there is so much better we could all be doing with our money and time (and I’m not even suggesting all of it) instead. There are so many people who need really not all that much, but can’t seem to get there without the rest of us ready to lend a hand. I think it is going to require a fundamental shift in the mentality that so many people have of “I go to work, I pay my taxes, I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do.” And while those things are true, it doesn’t erase the fact that there are always going to be people who cannot, for whatever reason, follow that very same path. That doesn’t make “them” less, and, more importantly, it doesn’t make “us” more.We have to start prioritizing each other when we think about ourselves.
Dear Ms. Huff-and-Glare:
You were probably only mildly annoyed the moment I sat next to you. You thought you would cruise into the city with an empty seat between you and whatever scourge of the general public might sit nearby. Looks like I spoiled your commute. I know, because I used to be like you.
I remember those days well. Thinking I would just commute to work in my perfectly tailored black suit, snag the end seat near the train door, hoping that no one would fill the empty seat to my right. This was my time. Anyone who disrupted my reading on the way to work, what with their loud cell phone talking or music seeping out the sides of their headphones, would get more than a muffled sigh and peeved glance from me. And children? A subway train during rush hour was no place for children, so they’d better be quiet and only there for some important reason, like going to the doctor.
So when the young woman—who probably made you uneasy merely because she looked nothing like you, with her too tight tank top, tattoos coursing up her shoulder and her obviously uncomfortably short cut-offs—walked in pushing a stroller with an unhappy toddler inside, I knew exactly what it meant when you shifted in your seat and sighed. You were pissed because you knew that her son was not going to give you the peaceful ride you thought you deserved for the next twelve minutes until your stop.
You were right, too. He screeched and banged his fists in protest. He wanted out of that stroller. But his mother held firm and calmly told him “no”, over and over. He put up a good (and loud!) fight, but it was clear he was not going to be the victor that morning.
You were probably thinking to yourself, “why can’t she just take him out so he’ll shut up already?!” You probably thought that all of the glaring that you did in their direction was somehow helpful to the situation. A situation that that mother clearly did not want to be in, now that more than half of the train had quieted down to stare at her and see what was going on. Call me crazy, but I imagine you are a strong proponent of these new “no children” policies that airlines are touting.
Five years ago, I would have thought and done those very same things. But since that time, I had a daughter. My self-importance, much less my opinion about public spaces and the folks who use them, has done an about face.
When I was in your shoes, I wasn’t compassionate enough to realize that no parent or caregiver wants to create a noisy scene that disrupts others going about their daily business. I wasn’t patient enough to understand that everyone has bad days, as adults and as kids. I wasn’t seasoned enough to know that sometimes the only way for a two year old to get his point across—even in the most communicative, structured and loving of homes—is by growling like a distressed lion simply because he does not have the language to express himself like we do. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that this situation had nothing to do with proper discipline but rather that he was just very young and having a stressful moment. I wasn’t empathic enough to appreciate that maybe she is, in fact, taking her son to an invasive or heartbreaking medical procedure and she has no other way to get there. Or, even still, that her young son knows what’s in store for the morning ahead. That maybe she is trying to get out of a stressful living situation or has a mother who is dying, and that that train ride to wherever she was going was the first hands-free respite she had to herself all morning. I wasn’t sensitive enough to think that maybe her son has some involuntary, sensory-based aversion to loud noises or motion. I wasn’t humble enough to realize that I may have screamed exactly the same way more than thirty years ago when I was unwillingly strapped into a stroller.
I wasn’t kind enough to give either of them a break for those twelve minutes.
I am not sure if you have children or not, like them or hate them. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not saying we have to be doormats or put up with aggressive or abusive treatment by others, but the fact of the matter is that we all have to learn how to be a little more forgiving of each other when sharing our world, even when—especially when—it is uncomfortable.
Whether it is at the grocery store, on an airplane, a restaurant or on the subway, we have to learn how to put up with each other a little better. Nobody is perfect, not even prim and proper well-heeled professionals like you. The kids who cry and scream (for whatever reason) and the parents who submit to it for the time being (for whatever reason). The folks among us who talk or move a little slower than we’d like them too. People who are entirely rude beyond reason, but have not been able to process their troubles in a more productive way. We are all guilty of having our less than finer moments. It is what makes us human.
So I hope you will remember this the next time you are near a noisy, unhappy kid or some other person who has rattled your otherwise peaceful day: these are all mere moments in time, nothing more than a few minutes or, at worst, a couple of hours. What better time for you to dig a little deeper into your reserves of patience and empathy, and offer it as a gift to the other person, knowing that you made the world a little more peaceful that day, even if they couldn’t.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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