There are three core values that I thought I’d impose as a parent, which I’ve found I have no interest in “imposing”–if that can be done successfully with values.
First, I imagined we’d be a screen-free family, or only watch Sesame Street. Ha.Sesame Street scares the crap out of my daughter. “Mario’s Nightmare” on youtube does not. My only explanation of this is that it has something to do with being overwhelmed by eye contact and emotional expression in more typical movies. In the meantime, I scare away wonderful, well-meaning parents when I say my four-year-old has mastered multiple Mario video games. I have posted about this before here and here.
Second, I imagined my kid would have a thorough and intensive social justice education before kindergarten. That I’d check out books by racially diverse authors that dealt with struggles like slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, housing discrimination, and immigration as well as diverse religions, arts, histories, geography. Instead, I’ve realized I can’t force her to read things and neither she nor I have time to read things that some blog listed as the most educational book about diversity. I still try to get diverse books in, but they look more like Chris Raschka’s goofy series of jokes, Moosey Moose and Crabby Crab. This then brings us to his Yo, Yes and The Hello Goodbye Window, both of which use subtle social interactions tinged with grace to discuss with Black/white American relations. Yo, Yes for example deals with shyness, which is how my daughter understands her difficulty with social interaction. It promotes interracial friendship but not in the facebook meme, stunted reading of “I Have a Dream” kind of way where two cute babies with different skin tones hold hands. Instead, it so gracefully grapples with the difficulty of interracial friendship via differences in language (Yo and Yes), demeanor, and style. All of which contribute to miscommunications but can be overcome and can enrich the friendship. The book is so rich because my daughter identifies with shyness and understands a bit about whiteness, but when she’s happy and confident her style of communication resembles so much the brash “Yo!” that starts the book, the sudden and simple way boys make friends:
I also thought that we would protest together for women’s rights, for Black Lives Matter, for Native land rights, to end war. I brought her as a baby but even as a baby she’d be overwhelmed by the people. Then it got too hard, and by the time she was three I realized I needed to respect her sensory needs, that a protest was too much. But lately that’s begun to shift again. I don’t lecture her about politics, but I did tell her I was sad about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, that they were hurt by police because the police thought they were scary because of their skin color. I told her I was sad about war in Syria and we watched a video of kids painting a bus in Aleppo. And since my husband and I fought and cried after the US election, and I could barely function for days, I found obvious need to tell her about the “mean” president who doesn’t like people because they are different than him. And how people think women can’t be president even though women can do all the things men can do.
In the week after the election, we were walking through our neighborhood and saw a peace flag with a hand-written note on it, saying “My name is ___ ___ and I did not vote for Trump.” For whatever reason this warmed my heart. To begin to speak and protest, to say no publicly and begin to say no together. And since I stopped and gazed at the sign, I told my daughter why, that the sign was a kind of protest against the mean president. And since then she has wanted to protest. We even made it, baby and all, to the electoral college protest. Amazingly, she was motivated and not afraid, enough that she was able to march herself for a few minutes and sit for a few minutes among all the people. Those ten minutes of involvement mean so much to me, and to her, much more than the hours I would have put in had I taken her to protests where she was overwhelmed and wanted to hide.
Finally, I thought we would be healthy. My husband and I eat a ridiculously healthy diet with loads of vegetables. My daughter eats bread and cheese and a few vegetable fragments. Yet while I’m trying to use whatever playful, therapeutic resources I have to help her feel comfortable with new foods, I also know that I don’t want to make food a point of stress or guilt or dejection.
My husband and I also hike and want to be out in nature as much as possible. This has been a surprising roller coaster as parents. Camping and being in nature are in many ways the best thing we can do for our daughter. The world becomes her playground, social rules don’t apply in the same way. The ground is not a blank surface to be cleaned but a treasure trove of materials (sticks, dirt) for her imagination. There are no walls, and in some ways she needs to create a safe nook (the picnic table and tent provide security and stability) but in other ways this is comforting. Still, our romantic tradition of hiking every other weekend has radically changed since she got too big to carry all the way. I thought I would be like a friend of mine and just keep hiking, forcing the kid to tag along. I thought I would insist on physical effort in exchange for treats and vistas and the value of nature. Instead, we’ve found that we have no desire to force her to hike, and the result is that it’s rare if we go a mile out. We can still pick her up but not for long.
For the past couple years not forcing her to hike has meant very little hiking. The constant change in environment makes her shut down rather than be motivated to continue. Until now, because now there is Mario. Suddenly she is hiking and it’s because of screen time. When we start walking anywhere–around the neighborhood or in a forest–she wants to play Mario (identified by a specific game, because the titles “New Super Mario Bros. U” or “Super Mario 3D World” are hugely important). Once we have our assigned roles–Bowser, Mario, Princess Peach, Baby Luigi–she runs down the trail or sidewalk for miles. Because we’re throwing electricity at her, because she’s got a one-up, because the whole world becomes her playground.
If last year was about embracing her autism and not imposing expectations, this year is about learning what she is capable of, beyond and completely separate from the things I imagined before I had kids. I had boxes to check off before I had kids–literacy education, social justice, health–and I thought I knew what that would look like: PBS, protests, hiking, and nature education. Now, I still have the same values but I respect that her learning–rather than me teaching–those values means they are put through the kaleidoscope that is her self: her autism, her desire to be “girly” combined with her so often brash demeanor, her coming of age in this political climate, her digital world where she watches us on our smartphones and knows that messages from grandma come via screens. There is no way I could have predicted or anticipated or imposed what the values in her world should be. Instead, she’s teaching me, and she’s challenging herself not because I check out the right books from the library and force them on her. Not because I drag her out for a 5 mile hike at 7am. Not because I turn off the screen and make her go outside. But because the world is fun and challenging. Because she enjoys a battle between Mario characters and the different shapes of an oak leaf. Because she wants to read goofy books and is upset that war and racism hurt people. Because she loves signs of all kinds, about water drains or traffic or politics. Because she loves to draw in the dirt and have her tablet charged for the whole camping trip.
I sometimes wince at reconnecting with old friends who’ve had babies. I’m pretty sure that when I was a new parent, if I’d met someone like me now I would have thought they were nuts. Video games, a diet of cheese sandwiches, so much less diversity education than I imagined and wanted, autism: these are things I was afraid of. These are now things that have shattered my white upper middle class snobbery and made my life beautiful.