I Want to See Who He Is

The night that the grand jury announced their decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson was a night I put T1 to bed with red-rimmed eyes. In the weeks since the shooting I’ve tried to read the articles and blog posts from black Americans detailing their experiences in America and I’ve tried to face down my own personal prejudices and biases. Katherine is right, racism is not over because Barack Obama is president or because Oprah gave a room full of people new automobiles. We still have a long way to go.

T1 saw my red eyes and asked me what was wrong. I told him that someone had been mean to a boy because his skin is a dark color, and that it made me said because I think we should be kind to everyone no matter what they look like. I said the boy had died and I felt sad for his mommy because she missed her boy so much. I know this explanation is reductive, and leaves out many pertinent details, but it felt like the appropriate amount of information for the stage he is in. He can explore the nuances with me in future discussions as he grows older and his cognitive capacity increases. T1 hugged me and said he wished that the boy’s mommy didn’t have to be away from her son. I agreed.

Since then T1 has brought the issue a few times, and this morning he picked it up again while watching The Colbert Report over breakfast. He asked me “Can I see a picture of that boy?”, and I was touched by his desire to find a connection with this figure he had been hearing about. I showed him this photograph and he said “He looks nice, I like his jacket.

I wondered, in that moment, what it would be like to approach every new person without the baggage we adults carry around from the things we’ve personally experienced and the things we’ve heard from other people. I think having more conversations with our kids about these difficult topics can help them continue to respond in this way, to look at a picture and see the person first, and the issues second.

How are you talking to your children about Ferguson and issues related to race in America? Tweet with me, @jennacole, or leave your thoughts on the That Wife Facebook page.

Diversity in Our Picturebooks

When Christmas shopping begins I try really hard to stick to the “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read” precept that a reader introduced me to a few years ago. When I started to consider what books to get for the kids, I realized that I wanted to use this opportunity to start building up a more diverse library of children’s books. Specifically, I would like T1 (a boy, in case you’re new) to read more books about kick-ass girls, and both kids to read more books about people of different ethnicities, cultures, and races.



For the Christmas of 2014, the something to read T1 will be opening up is Rosie Revere Engineer. Not only is it a book about a girl doing something awesome, but it has a storyline that focuses on a character persevering through failure and discouragement. This is something that I see him struggling with right now, and I want him to see how someone pushes past that feeling of can’t and makes it into a success.  Continue reading

The Line Between Embracing Mediocrity and Accepting Reality

What if we bowed out of the parenting rat race and found a way to accept that our children are going to lead wonderfully average lives? They won’t end up in jail, but they also probably won’t end up with a Wikipedia page either. 

The “rat race” in this context is defined as the modern American parenting model that fills a child’s schedule with sports, tutoring, classes, prep courses, and camps. Soon it will be about logging hours spent on Khan academy, Coursera, and writing reports on Ted talks. Jennifer Senior points out in her (phenomenal) book All Joy and No Fun that parents used to prepare their children to be a blacksmith, a farmer, a baker. Within the past 75 years there has been a fundamental shift when it comes to thinking about what our children can become, and the possibilities are presented as endless. How are we supposed to determine the best preparation for our offspring if we don’t know what we are preparing them for?

A few months ago I made a note about developing this idea into a post, but the thought wasn’t mature enough to write it out here. A recent Slate article titled “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” has renewed my interest in the topic. If you aren’t going to read the Slate article yourself I’ll give you a quick glossing. After Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers made a splash* popular thinking shifted toward the idea that everyone could be successful if they put in their 10,000 hours.  I think this idea drives the Tiger Mom/Helicopter Parent culture that we see in America today, with parents devoting more time than ever before to setting up a successful foundation for their children. The Slate article highlights some recent studies which move the thinking away from the “effort theory,” toward a combination of genetics and dedication. This approach is especially important when we are thinking about how to address social inequality; for many/most people their circumstances are not due to a lack of effort. For me the most striking point in the piece was the suggestion that instead of testing for IQ and then promoting those who are advanced into the best schools, we should be identifying those who are struggling the most and funnel them into the best learning environment possible in order to give them the kind of boost that their higher-IQ peers got from their genetic makeup.

When my kids were younger I had a sort of a Harvard-bound mentality. I wanted them to dream up unbelievable goals and put in their 10,000 hours to achieve them. I blamed my own average achievement level on a lack of resources and information due to a sort of birth-location lottery. My parents don’t deserve any harsh words for this, they did the best with what they had in a small farming town before the Internetz. I wondered what I would have achieved if my childhood had happened 20 years later,  in a 10,000 hours focused household operating during the Information Age.

Now though, I don’t think I want to set my kids up to think that they can do absolutely anything they set their mind to. The last few years as I’ve had all good choices opened up to me I’ve found myself frequently mourning the paths not taken. I get caught in these sad little whirlwinds of negative thinking and I forget to focus on the many ways that things are going right for me, and the myriad of opportunities I have**. This is one of the drawbacks of telling people that every good choice is theirs for the taking. It’s a good thing I’m thinking about these things now, while my kids are really young. That should give me enough time to fine-tune these qualities in myself so I can teach by deed, and not just by word.

Last year I heard an NPR report about a family who had decided to structure their family life around baseball, detailing the time commitment it took to keep their kids excelling in both school and sports. The kids weren’t just playing baseball, they were aiming for the majors with each and every swing. As the audio streamed I felt overwhelmed by their schedule and I’m not even the one who is living with the commitments they have! I don’t want to structure my life that way, and I’m not sure that I want either of my kids pinning their life on such slim possibilities. At T1’s last end-of-school concert the graduating kindergartners all stood up and named what they wanted to be when they grew up. When the third or fourth child named their goal as being “doctor and president” the crowd responded in a rather dramatic fashion. The following kids quickly realized that if they wanted a similar reaction they needed to name something over-the-top as well. If a child hears that over and over I wonder it must be like to one day realize that the best they personally can hope for is something that no one would ever receive applause for at their kindergarten graduation?

Instead of telling my kids to dream impossible dreams or make them think that I value the Ivy League and career/monetary success over all else, I’d like them to think about values. I want them to have a strong work ethic, to have integrity, to be self-aware and pragmatic about their potential, to view their own potential in a straight-forward way that isn’t blurred by the potential and opportunities that their peers are able to grasp. I don’t want them to encounter the parenting “rhetoric-reality gap” and think that I say I want them to be kind, but mean that I want them to be successful. I think praising our kids for their effort instead of their results/intelligence is the first step we are taking in encouraging this mindset. It’s a little bit scary to think about walking that line though, because telling them they have to aim for the stars means they will at least reach the moon. What if I don’t tell them to build a spaceship, and they one day grow up feeling, like I sometimes feel, that everyone around them is learning to fly and their mother never showed them how to spread their wings?

*Someday I will post about how reading Outliers was a springboard for my departure from Mormonism. Reading it was a pivotal paradigm-shift moment in my life

**Many of which are completely unattainable for those in different circumstances

The Loneliness in Motherhood

There are weeks where I go for long stretches of time without seeing anyone except my children, husband, trainer at the gym, and the preschool/daycare staff. On Monday morning I tell myself that this is what I want (so much to do and look at all that time I have to be productive!), but by Friday evening I find myself feeling melancholy and rather lonely.

I wonder how common this loneliness is among mothers, especially in the early years when it’s so much work to get the kids from point A to point B. A few weeks ago I tried to address this by posting on Instagram that I was looking for someone to meet up with in my area, someone who would be interested in looking for a nice spot and taking pictures in the sunshine. I left late (sadly, a standard practice for me) and then took a detour because I saw the clouds rolling in and I so desperately wanted to find a spot that wasn’t overcast. I really crave that golden light of the morning and evening.

 As I wound my way back toward our meeting spot I started to cry. I was crying about the gloomy weather, but even more than that I was anxious thinking that I had missed the chance to make a connection with someone that could turn into a genuine friendship. And then I cried even more thinking about how strange it would be for her to meet up with some woman from Instagram who showed up 45 minutes late with red rimmed eyes and flimsy explanations about what was going on.  Continue reading

Like, Aren’t We A Bit Early For This Milestone?

If I asked T1 to title this post, that might be how he would write it out. Last week my four-year-old came home from preschool sounding about a decade older than he really is, introducing every other sentence with “like.”

We saw this a few months ago with even. “Even I had a nightmare last night.” “Even T2 wants the milk.” “Even I drew this for you at school.” I used my default approach for these little quirks and didn’t draw attention to it, hoping it would go away. The even overuse seems to be something he’s moving past, but the introduction of like makes me nervous because it’s so pervasive throughout our culture. We, his parents, use it all the time ourselves, though not as often as I think the generation below us does (how much worse is it going to get for those who will be in college in 20 years?). It is hard for me to describe an experience I had with Person A to Person B without peppering my speech with “I was like” and “She was like” and “It was like, the best thing ever.”

My understanding is that there are two basic schools of thought when it comes to linguistics:

  1. There are rules, and the only correct way to speak and write is to obey the rules.
  2. Language is a product of the environment it is spoken in. Dialects and linguistic trends become valid over time as they are regularly reproduced in everyday use.

If the second description is true, then I don’t need to worry so much about T1’s new habit. The old guard will fight against it, kids will be marked down for using it in their speeches in class, and eventually it will become a generally acceptable practice. He will need to learn boundaries and try to curb it enough to match societies expectations in order to achieve his personal goals, but I don’t need to assume this is going to hold him back in a permanent way.

If it’s the first description then… what do I do? Like, what are the other parents out there doing?