wondering about children and racism

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and I was pulling out of the driveway with NPR on. They were playing King’s famous speech, and it occurred to me that this would be a good teaching moment for Abdullah. He didn’t hear too much of the speech, but what he did hear was that memorable, rolling, booming voice that we have all heard before. After less than a minute after pulling out,  I switched off the speech, we said our du’aas for travel, and I asked him, “Would you like me to explain what he was giving a speech about?”

I hesitated a minute before I began, because this was the first time my son’s attention had really been drawn to people’s skin color, and I wondered if it was a can of worms that should be opened at this time (he is only 3 after all). I opted to give a general discussion about skin colors, and not go into the details about how whites were discriminating against blacks per se. I simply said that at the time that King was speaking, there were a lot of “bad people” who thought that some people were not good simply because they had different colored skin. I said that what makes a person good or bad is what they do, not what they looked like.

We recently learned Surah at-Teen where Allah says in the Qur’an: Laqad khalaqnal insaana fee ahsani taqweem: “We have certainly created man in the best form.” Everyone is Allah’s creation, I told him, whether their skin is light or dark, whether their hair is yellow, brown, black, or red. And everyone is beautiful because Allah, the Creator (al-Khaaliq), and the Fashioner (al-Musawwir) is the one who made all.

I don’t know at what age it would be good to move beyond this general discussion into the historical discussion of racism of light skinned people against dark skinned. I almost feel hesitant to broach the issue, because it taps into such a deep human evil that I am loath to expose my son to before he needs to be. And yet I know that my decision to hold off for now, and only give a limited view of this issue is affected by my own background. I have never felt the evils of being judged by the color of my skin, my family never lived under Jim Crow laws, my ancestors never felt the yoke of slavery, so one could say that I am coming from a position of privilege, which certainly influences how I portray this subject to my son.

Even so, our own Indo-Pak culture has its own subtle racism that our children will inevitably have to confront, when they hear talk of people being identified as “fair” and “dark” (usually with some judgment behind it, as if fair=beautiful). It’s an inherently racist choice of words itself, because “fair” means “beautiful” and that is the term used commonly to refer to light colored skin (don’t even get me started on the “Fair and Lovely” cream that is an obsession in India and Pakistan).

My aunt told me a story about some children in the preschool she works at. A boy was trying to point out a black friend of his to his mom, and he was saying, “Look, he’s the one in the green shirt–he’s holding a lunchbox.” He used no color-related words to describe him. After Black History Month, when a similar situation came up, he described by skin color instead. Children are inherently color-blind to a certain degree, and yet the reality of the world is that it is not, and the reality of our creation is that we are all different. At what point do we pay attention to these differences, which are, in the scheme of things, insignificant, even if visibly dramatic?

The coming years will give us further opportunity, God willing, to delve into these issues, so I still have time to wonder and reflect on how to approach it.

The funny bit is that after giving Abdullah that whole spiel on how Allah created all people beautiful and that deeds determines who is better, his mind was still focused on those dramatic words of Martin Luther King. After all that, he said, “But Mama, so what was his dream about, then?”

Gotta love kids. 😉


My “Spirited” Child

“The spirited horse, which will win the race of its own accord, will run even faster if encouraged.” –Ovid

“Spirit has fifty-times the strength and power of brawn and muscle.” –Mark Twain.

My son “A” is something else entirely. I have been utterly overwhelmed yet at the same time unbelievably impressed too many times to count. There are many words for my type of child–willful, defiant, stubborn, hypersensitive–but I prefer the term spirited. We parents of such children have known that our children are strong-willed, highly resistant to our efforts to coax them, but there is so much more to our children than such pejorative terms as “defiant.” No, our children do not only have iron wills, but they have highly intuitive and sharp minds–where does the word “defiant” capture that?

It was not until I read Raising Your Spirited Child that I realized the array of behaviors that my child was demonstrating was actually a common set of characteristics that tend to define what we can call “spirited children.” Intense, dramatic, hypersensitive, are only a few of the terms for such children. The author of the aforementioned book has a brilliant summary of the spirited child; anyone with such a child will immediately resonate with what she has to say:

The word that distinguishes spirited children from other children is more. They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive and uncomfortable with change than other children.

ALL children possess these characteristics, but spirited children possess them with a depth and range not available to other children. Spirited kids are the super ball in a room full of rubber balls. Other kids bounce three feet off the ground. Every bounce for a spirited child hits the ceiling.

It is difficult to describe what it is like to be the parent of a spirited child. The answer keeps changing; it depends on the day, even the moment. How does one describe the experience of sliding from joy to exasperation in seconds, ten times a day. How does one explain the “sense” at eight in the morning that this will be a good day or a dreadful one.

The good ones couldn’t be better. Profound statements roll from his mouth, much too mature and intellectual for a child of his age. He remembers experiences you have long since forgotten and drags you to the window to watch the raindrops, falling like diamonds from the sky. On the good days being the parent of a spirited child is astounding, dumbfounding, wonderful, funny, interesting, and interspersed with moment of brilliance.

The dreadful days are another story. On those days you’re not sure whether you can face another twenty four hours with him, It’s hard to feel good as a parent when you can’t even get his socks on, when every word you’ve said to him has been a reprimand, when the innocents act of serving up tuna casseroles instead of the expected tacos incites a riot, when you realise you’ve left more public places in a huff with your child in five years than most people do in a lifetime.

On the bad days being the parent of a spirited child is confusing, frustrating, taxing, challenging, and guilt inducing.

How I love this quote: “On the good days being the parent of a spirited child is astounding, dumbfounding, wonderful, funny, interesting, and interspersed with moment of brilliance.” Fortunately my spirited child has settled down quite a bit in the last few months, and so I have been seeing this positive side more often than the negative side. It also has helped that we live with family so his extroverted intensity has been nurtured by being around many people.

Here again are the five characteristics of spirited children in brief and in detail:

  • Intensity
  • Persistence
  • Sensitivity
  • Perceptiveness
  • Adaptability

How do these characteristics manifest in the spirited child?

1. Intensity: Some spirited children are extroverts–they derive their energy and intensity from being around people, where are some spirited children are deeply introverted: they derive their energy from solitude and reflection. The extroverted spirited children are easy to spot, but the introverts can be deeply intense in their desire to internally assess and strategize in every situation.

2. Persistence: I learned the lesson of my son’s persistence when I tried the time-tested advice of ignoring his toddler temper tantrums only to find that he could cry incessantly. Labelled as “stubborn” and “defiant” these children are, in more positive terms, tenacious and firm-willed. The challenge with them comes from channeling their single-minded persistence in positive directions.

3. Sensitivity: “Mama, my sock as a squirk in it.” Off came the shoe, and the tiny fold in the base of my son’s sock was carefully smoothed out before he would wear his shoe. “What is that smell?”…”This collar is scratching me”… “The potty is dirty.” Spirited children are sensitive to the slightest changes in sound, texture, touch, and smell. My son has a highly sensitive gag reflex and will gag and even vomit if the texture of the food is difficult for him to handle.

Spirited children are also easily over-stimulated. These children are also keenly sensitive to changes in other people’s moods and emotions. When my husband and I were having a heated discussion, at one point my son heard my husband’s raised voice and looked at me with alarm, saying, “Why is he talking to you like that?”

4. Perceptiveness: These children perceive the smallest details in things and are often distracted by their careful observations of the world around them. You end up feeling like every detail they hear and see is carefully put away in a processor to be mulled over and reflected on. Often times they are accused of not listening, when in reality they are often times listening all too well–or, their attention has been captivated strongly by something else.

5. Adaptability: Dealing with change is torturous for the parent or teacher of a spirited child. Leaving a playmate’s house, stopping one activity for another, or getting a food different than what was expected all trigger frustration in the spirited child. The struggle has become so expected that when it comes time to leave somewhere, we start our “leaving routine” a good five to ten minutes before we plan to leave, or even better, we prepare him for leaving before we even arrive at our destination!

After reading Kurcinka’s description of spirited children, I felt like half my battle was won because I suddenly understood my son’s temperament better. I could view his negative characteristics as ones that could be shifted towards the positive, and I suddenly had tools for handling his behavior and personality better. It’s also amazing how many children tend to share many of these same characteristics. When I get together with a friend who is also the parent of a “spirited child”  we see these characteristics jump out quickly in our kids and try to help each other with managing the more “spirited” moments. For anyone who can relate to the description of a “spirited child” in their own child(ren), I would highly recommend the book Raising Your Spirited Child.

“He that loses wealth loses much, he that loses friends, loses more; but he that loses his spirit, loses all.”
–Spanish Proverb.

Mama rocks the sling

The other day I was flying alone with A & Z in tow. It was the first time in a long while that I had not used wheelchair assistance to get to the gate at the airport. There were short lines and my tolerance level for walking had increased in the last few months, so I thought to go for it. Plus my brother was able to escort me to the gate. With a double stroller (a hawt red Maclaren at that), car seat hanging off one handle, backpack on my back, and purse slung on the shoulder, I was supermom!

Then my brother left for home, and of course that cues Kitty (li’l Z) to start whining and won’t sit in the stroller without ear-piercing yells.

Never fear, a sling can save the day. After months of not using this thing, I rocked my double-layerobscenelyexpensive-dupioni silk sling with Z up high, backpack in her seat, and hands mercifully free to handle the stroller, jackets, and boarding passes.

Yes, you can get by parenting a baby without a sling, but boy does it make it a whole lot easier if you do have one. I have never mastered the art of walking around doing things with a baby under my arm. No, no, no, I didn’t sign that part of the parenting contract that said, “you will sacrifice use of your left arm for hours at a time because your baby won’t shut up without being picked up.” I get that some babies are whinier and more high needs than others, and so need a lot of picking up, rocking, etc. etc.—but I refuse to give up what I need to do just because I have a baby in one arm.

In my healthier days I have wandered the streets of London on a trip for hours by myself with a 7 month old nursling in tow, tied on my back so I could effortlessly fold the stroller and jump on a bus, or down steps to hop on the tube. When he was fussy, I could nurse him in the sling and catch the bus at the same time.

Nightmarish nights of sickness and teething with my first babe were made bearable by the fact that I could sling him and get whatever I needed done at the time. When traveling by plane, my arms didn’t ache from carrying the sleeping lap baby because I just tied him in the sling and used my hands to read, eat, or do whatever. Public bathroom trips were a breeze because I didn’t have to wait for the handicapped stall (to fit the huge stroller)–I could leave the stroller outside the door and use the restroom with baby perched up high on my back in a sling.

Babywearing rocks.

I’m fortunate in that my second baby was one that didn’t need to be carried and soothed as much, and so the sling was not as much of a necessity because I couldn’t really do it much anyway. So it was a nice surprise for me to be able to pull it off so well the other day. I still have a lovingly gathered stash of colorful and varied styles of slings ready for a future baby…and ready for Z on those rare occasions that we use them.

A sling is a thing….

…..of beauty and love.

Held close and snug, heart to heart, face close enough to kiss… my slings have given me moments of such ethereal beauty and love that are rare to be found in this hectic world. The babywearing years are so short, that sometimes I sneak my elder son into a sling for a few precious moments just for a taste of nostalgia and the type of snuggle that only a simple piece of cloth can bring.