WWYSD? (OR: What Would Your Saint Do?)

A confession:  we didn’t name our children with Catholic saints in mind. Ella is Ella in large part because of those 2 secular saints of modern jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Ella Mae Morse (and if you don’t know Morse, you really, really should listen here & here).  Finley is Finley Patrick after my mother and her grandfather.

However, they go to Catholic school, so they are encouraged to know the story of their saint and to understand that they have a personal connection with their name saint. Every saint  has a feast day, and families are encouraged on their child’s saint’s day do something special in honor of that saint and the growing faith of the child: light the baptismal candle, say a special prayer, do an act of charity, etc.

While it’s hard to forget St. Patrick, it’s St. Isabella who has recently proven remarkable in our family.  St. Isabella (which is Ella’s full, given name) was a real princess (a fact which came in handy in preschool), who loved the poor. She married a man who did not so much love the poor, but she would sneak out of her castle to feed the poor and do acts of charity anyway. As her story goes,   once, when her very mean husband caught and confronted her, the bread she was hiding in her apron was miraculously transformed into flowers.

Usually, we forget St. Isabella’s feast day. This is disappointing to Ella, every year. But now that I have my new iPhone, complete with a calendar (that I use) and an alarm, St. Isabella’s feast day will be noted in perpetuity.

This year, to honor St. Isabella, Ella decided to donate to a local food bank, but on the way into the store to buy the food, we realized that Ella’s school was ending the drive for the food bank served directly by our parish/school, and we knew that this food bank and the families it serves were in great need.  Also, the mass to honor this group/food bank was the following day, so we decided to give the food directly to them.

Ella also decided to donate flowers in honor of St. Isabella, so we loaded up on tuna fish (she gave $2 from her savings, I gave $20), and she chose flowers which we wrapped, and Ella enclosed a very sweet note explaining who St. Isabella was and the story of her miracle, and the next day she offered the flowers during the offertory.

Of course, I am not suggesting that you become Catholic, or even Christian (my husband is neither) nor that you go find a Saint to imitate.  But what is instructional, generally speaking, is the way that the story of Isabella helps take Ella out of herself and think about how she can, quite literally help other children.  St. Isabella encourages Ella to think about how she can sacrifice (a little bit) to help others and also to bring beauty into other people’s lives. It was empowering and gratifying for her, though she would never admit these things.

I suspect there are very many role models to choose from in this respect. The point is to find a story that is meaningful for your child and then to encourage them to understand a role model in a personal way.   It’s an act of imagination, really, that can lead to real empathy and, ultimately, to action. It’s another way of understanding how even the smallest acts of children can matter on a much larger scale.

NO!

 

In light of the recent war toys debate, here, which has not faded in our house in spite of my son’s new addiction to LEGO (which does include lots of swords and whips and guns, accessories which I painstakingly pulled out of all his earlier sets but now wouldn’t think of editing out…), I wanted to share an anti-war book for kids.

NO! by David MchPhail is exactly the kind of book that can help define the difference the between real and imagined violence and further complicate the discussion about the consequences of aggression.

Dedicated “to teachers everywhere,” the near-textless book relates the story of a young boy living amidst war and occupation.  There are overtones of the Third Reich and, for me, of occupied cities of Belfast, where young children really did see, everyday, heavily armed solidiers and tanks on the streets of their neighborhoods. Many of the images are disturbing (soldiers kicking down a door, dogs chasing and biting a foot, billy clubs). On his way to mail a letter to “The President” the boy is bullied, and responds with an emphatic, “NO!”

In the wake of this powerful the bully relents, the dog is pacified, the soldiers lay down their guns, presents are exchanged on the street, a war plane parachutes a bicycle, the smoke from the bombed cities is transformed into clouds.

On the one hand, the book might be naive & sentimental dreaming. On the other hand, the poetry of the illustrations and the elemental narrative make this a profoundly moving book.  It demonstrates the visceral horror of war, which is something we actually do discuss with our oldest. I have not shied away from conversations about September 11, Osama Bin Laden, slavery and the Civil War, and, most recently, Adolf Hitler and the reasons for the Second World War.  I try not to frighten, but I do not shelter her.  This book presents war and violence as the reality for some young lives, and it shows clearly that violence and aggression against others might be a matter of degree more than of kind.

But most important, it shows the power of No, which is the refusal to participate in what is wrong, harmful, and unjust. This refusal might be as simple as standing up to a bully on the playground or as complicated as becoming a conscientious objector–or anywhere in between. It’s a book which gives children a voice and begins to show them how they might use it to make a real difference in their very own lives. And this, I would submit is the difference between teaching your children what is right and wrong and allowing them to play imaginatively with light saber on a ship bound for the high seas….

 

Ella & the Bears

Before Ella was born, a friend gave me/her  a small stuffed Polar Bear. It was one of those cute soft toys you throw in the crib and see which one the kid clings to. As it turned out, the Polar Bear became attached to her hip, arm, mouth, hand…you name it.  The bear was a part of her, and because it got so dirty, I bought 2 more to keep in rotation. But of course it didn’t take long before she sussed me out and all three took up residence in her crib.  Now, even though one has been around the world only to be returned, good as new, by Santa, Snowy, Icy, and (the one whose name I forget) are still the most essential bedtime companions. Snowy, the original and most loved it totally thread bare and flattish, but no matter.

But these beloved animals have actually made her care about real polar bears, and provided a nice way to talk about the bears, their habitat, the dangers of global warming and pollution.   When we talk about turning off lights and recycling and when she donates her lemonade money to saving the arctic funds, it’s sort of like taking care of Snowy’s relatives.   Let’s just say I try to make it real for my kids when I can, and sometime the real world is connected to the fantasy world by the most tenuous of threads.

So, in honor of Snowy and empathy inspired by endangered species plush toys I offer you this:

Email President Obama and see the World Wildlife Fund for more information on how you can help. They’re a terrific, kid-friendly group. Donate even a small amount for your favorite cause, and let your child write the letter.

War Toys for All

Not so long ago, my son, my daughter & I had one of those backseat of the car conversations that provide invaluable  fodder for growth.

As it transpired, we got into the usual discussion about boy colors and girl colors, boy toys and girl toys, boy backpacks and girl packpacks, boy jobs and girl jobs…you know how it goes.

Both parroted back the usual assumptions: Camouflage? Boy.  Blue? Boy? Army? Boy.

But when it came to Pink? I was roundly chastised: “MOM, NO ONE in my class likes pink anymore.”  And as for Princesses, well, they’re really embarrassing because of, well, the whole kissing thing.

(It has been true for us, that left to her own devices, and not oversaturated with licensed merchandise, Ella’s princess phase passed definitively, with no long-lived damage.)

But when I questioned more specifically, the foundation crumbled.  Ella’s favorite color? Blue.  Did women serve in the military? Yes.  Hilary Clinton? Nearly President.  Donald Trump? Pink ties.  I had a host of counter-examples at the ready, and it didn’t take much at all to untangle their knot of assumptions around gender-based bias. Which come in very large part from the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue.

Of course, there are clearly and scientifically measurable differences between boys and girls.  See the really excellent The Female Brain, which I think should be close to required reading for parents of girls.  Girls and boys do tend to play differently, to engage in slightly different play strategies, to gravitate toward different categories of toys. And yet, this tells us nothing about the individual.  My 5 year old boy colors for as many hours as he plays LEGOS. He absconds with his sister’s baby dolls almost as often as he attacks her with his light saber.  He has been known to cry over truly sad moments in his picture books.  He is as empathic as he is aggressive.  And his sister?  Ella loves LEGOS and K’NEX and unit blocks as much as her brother, and is as engaged in her club soccer team as she is in this year’s Nutcracker rehearsal. She packed a sword with her pirate costume this year, and did battle on the sidewalk with her friend, also a girl, also a pirate with a sword.  Girls and boys might tend to gravitate toward traditional gendered activities, but these in no way have defined my children or even governed their play life.

Most of all, while I actually do believe that gender based differences exist (whether we attribute them to nature or culture or both…) I don’t want my children to believe they are defined by these nor–and maybe this is more important–to define other people by gender-linked traits.  This is a more nuanced position than even a very intelligent 7-year-old can understand, so for now I stick with the old-school feminist position.

That said, Finn has taught me a lot about aggression and boys.  There is  a clear difference in his mind between real guns and swords, which hurt people, and the toy ones he plays with.   He has pointed this out to me over and over again since he was 3.

Still, the former peace activist in me resisted for a long time, for all the usual reasons, and although we still have a no gun policy in the house, I have roundly relented on swords and light sabers. I’m not at all sure, categorically speaking, that there’s a difference between a fake gun and fake light saber or a fake gun and fake sword.   I suspect the knee-jerk reaction we parents can have to toy guns is that we see so much real-world gun violence all around us, everday, that as a result fantasy play with guns is that much more disturbing than, say, Darth Vader chopping the head off of Obi Wan Kenobi in a Galaxy Far Far Away.  There’s a mythology of nobility and honor and old fashioned good vs. evil in the Star Wars universe, and most kid pirates have no idea of the real brutality of what’s happening off the Somali coast.  Such play appears to be at such a distance from reality that it is harmless.

I have been utterly compelled watching my daughter duel with light sabers and swords with her brother, her father, her friends. I like the confidence and sense of control it gives her. I like that it makes her feel powerful.  I realize this might be very, very wrong, but neither of my kids are violent or aggressive in real life social situations.  Their fantasy play can be a different story, and I like that it gives her space to safely act out and control her physical aggression, power, assertiveness.

So, on the one hand, while we are raising our kids to believe in and work for peace, to understand the devastating nature of war in precise and horrible ways, to protect the environment, and to protest unjust war, I am also no longer convinced that banning all war toys and all forms of “war” play is necessary to creating a culture of respect and peace in the home.  I, for instance, who had water guns etc. grew up to be a war tax resistor. And maybe we need to take a lesson from our kids and believe them when they tell us they know the difference between real and fantasy violence.

Moreover, whatever we believe about any given war or military service in general, I think now that I owe it to my daughter to teach them that women do serve, with honor and distinction, that women can and do handle guns and fight.  Some believe this is a dubious achievement in the fight for equality, but I am more pragmatic.   I want Ella to know that women can be very strong in more ways than one.  So I give her swords and light sabers and, this Christmas,  I suspect Santa will be stuff both my children’s stockings with atomic ray blasters.

I have no good pictures of Pirate Girl + sword, but I can leave you with the high point of our Halloween party, in which Finn and his Clone Trooper friend did endless battle with the Evil Fog Machine.

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One Year Later

The need for involvement remains as strong as ever.

Child’s Play

This weekend the NYT Magazine ran a piece about the Obama marriage that quoted Obama on the significance of his election. When Michelle Obama asked him during the primary season what would distinguish his Presidency from that of other Democratic candidates Obama replied,

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied.  “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

Certainly, Obama’s Nobel Prize, controversial or not, has proven the latter part of his statement to be true.   I don’t think we’ve even begun to register in this country the profound shift in international attitudes and climates that will result from this Presidency.

But I was especially gratified to read the first part, because before I read this statement I wrote in an essay:

During the Primaries, I knew that whether we elected Clinton or Obama, either would signal a new order, one which concretized academic theorizing about diversity and identity politics.  In one historic ballot, many more children would be able to look at the person inhabiting the highest office in our country and say the President Looks Like Me.  And for them it really would mean that anything was possible.

So, when my daughter professed her single-minded Clinton love, I understood exactly what having a woman President would mean to the rest of her childhood (and probably the rest of her life).  If Clinton were to become President, not only could Ella play softball, or football, or run a Fortune 500 company or innovate a new technology, but Being President would become a Viable Career Option.  A Clinton Presidency would be, for my daughter, a revolutionary fact.  Perhaps not quite so revolutionary as getting the vote, but certainly it would signal a seachange in the national female psyche.  It would be a vision, a game changer, something akin to Phillipe Petit’s dance in the air.

And in the wake of the Clinton run and Obama’s victory, it has proven true that my privileged, middle-class white children do see politics differently and more importantly than they did before.  Mostly, since the election, we’ve had a long, quiet spell & a busy summer (no posts here you may have noticed).

But last week, Finley announced, “When I grow up I want to work for the President. I want to work for Obama.” Ella pointed out,  of course, that this would not be possible, but that he could work for a different President, a career which he roundly embraced.  Ella, too, announced that she shares this ambition, and this weekend, they set up a White House in the back yard, and played President. This didn’t involve much of all except imagining that they inhabited that space.

And that imagination, for both my boy and my girl, can be the beginning. It’s the beginning of being involved, of believing that democracy matters, of understanding a wide range of public service.

But most of all, it’s the beginning of possibility.

The Future

I’ve been reading and teaching Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, a difficult luminous book about the daughter of a Communist revolutionary hero in apartheid-era South Africa.  After her father dies while serving a life sentence, Rosa Burger is freed to explore what it really means to be Burger’s daughter. Will she inherit the extraordinary discipline and responsibility of Party life, a forgone conclusion for many of her friends, or will she pursue the more personal, intimate life of a more ordinary person? After seeking out both ways of living, in South Africa and abroad, Rosa returns to her homeland to take up the mantle of suffering because political suffering, well, that is the one kind of suffering she can do something about.  Her reasons are neither her father’s nor the Party’s. But as she sees her friends grow old, sick, suffer from the inevitable ravages of time, she understands that a meaningful life, for her, must be to being to put an end to the suffering she can do something about.

The book haunts me.

I have known people like Rosa and her father Lionel (inspired by the real life revolutionary South African Bram Fischer), people of extraordinary discipline and commitment.   People for whom the public life and the commitment to end suffering has been the major work of their life.   And I look at the small circle of my family, and the small ways that we contribute to our children’s education about the world and our small donations and community service and think it is not nearly enough.  Rosa and her compatriots believe in The Future, in radical revolutionary change and their is a seamlessness between their lives and their actions. They are willing to accept consequences, even prison, as a matter of fact.   They are devoid of what Rosa calls bourgeious sentiment.  Things are the way they are.  Sentiment is not to be indulged.    And their is a final freedom of Rosa’s acceptance of her beliefs, a joy even in her imprisonment.

Rosa is relevant not because I think I should become or be training revolutionaries, or engaging in civil disobedience or going to jail over health care reform…

But the book has forced me to I ask myself with renewed urgency:  To whom are we responsible?

And then:  What will I do about suffering? And how will I teach my children that the suffering of the world is their job?  We may not have directly caused the social and environmental problems (or we may have) we are concerned with, but does that make us any less responsible?

Can we face injustice, poverty, hunger, racism, pollution with a cold eye and do the job we need to do? Can we raise our kids with a fundamental awareness about how their lives are linked to others in their community?And then teach them to live in a way that acknoweldges those links and responsibilities?

Such thinking quickly becomes overwhelming.  And so I return again to the impulse to start with small and local actions and behaviors.  But the challenge is not to stay small and local, but to look for ways to make a difference so that activism in not an extraordinary, heroic gesture toward life, but one of it’s fundamental facts.