How to raise children in deeply troubling times
Why I refuse to shield my kids from the world's burdens
In the past few months, my children have asked me a series of questions that paint a heartbreaking picture of the world they will inherit. They asked if wildfires will burn down our house, why so many people live in tents in our city, if they'll get taken away from me and my husband like the kids at the border, and whether there will be any water left in the world when they're grown. (We live in California, where drought or near-drought conditions currently affect 93 percent of the population.)
Then there are all the horrors my kids don't even know to ask about. A former co-worker's niece was found murdered in Iowa. The president tweets us close to the edge of nuclear disaster. Colony Collapse Disorder among bees threatens our food supply. Coral reefs are dying. Sex trafficking.
Such darkness can drive a person to tear her clothes and howl; to beg for clemency for the Earth and all of us; or to get stuck in nihilism (humanity deserves this fate) and apathy (why even bother?). As a parent, these feelings are multiplied. How do I raise my kids with optimism when things feel so undeniably dark? And how do I answer their questions? I've heard it said that kids shouldn't know the world's burdens too soon, that their innocence is paramount. Should I shield them from the truth?
No, I choose not to shield my kids. I don't share every detail — not yet — but children can understand more than we know. I can't believe you talk to them about that, some have said to me when I bring up things like slavery, racism, environmental disaster, the hate trans people face for using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
But I'm raising children now, and I no longer have the luxury of nihilism or apathy. We have to face the realities of today if we are ever to realize the possibilities of tomorrow. My children deserve — as all kids deserve — viable hope. And they inspire me to it: Their inventiveness and kind hearts bowl me over. When I'm down, or tired, or sick, my 5-year-old daughter smooths my hair and reassures me that it's all gonna be okay. "Anything is possible, Mama," she said recently. "Anything." My son builds foosball tables and humane mouse traps out of cardboard, duct tape, and small motors. During the scorching end-of-summer days, they generously took turns fanning one another while spitting watermelon seeds in the backyard. They are good, and their goodness gives me hope.
Their existence is in itself a small sliver of proof that people can build something beautiful after participating in something incredibly ugly. I am the granddaughter of a man inculcated in the dogma of his time and place. Born in Germany in 1923, my grandfather lied about his age so that at 16, he could join the German navy and fight for Hitler. I grew up many years later (in Hawaii, of all places) listening to his diatribes against Jews — as well as African Americans, gays, and more or less anyone who wasn't exactly like him.
Then I fell in love with a Jewish man of Israeli parentage, many of whose relatives died in the Holocaust. Eventually, I converted to Judaism and Avi and I hosted a wedding where Israelis, Americans, and Germans danced the hora together. A few years later our children arrived: blonde like me and curly-haired like my husband. Their hazel eyes suggest a mid-point between my Teutonic blues and Avi's dark brown ones.
With my children, a visceral urging rises from my gut. To protect them, yes. To nurture and help them become who they are meant to be, of course. To see past the responsibilities and aggravations of everyday life as a working parent who's stressed out about money and health and everything else, in order to look into their luminous hazel eyes and really see them, absolutely.
And even more than all of that, for their sake and for mine, I must keep hope alive for the future of our world and their place in it. This impulse springs from both humanist and spiritual sources: the conviction that small actions matter, as well as Judaism's tikkun olam (repair of the world), and Gandhi's be the change.
So, I teach my daughter that she isn't my property or her dad's. We are privileged to guide her and her brother through their childhoods, and we will make many decisions for them while they're still growing. But she belongs ultimately, and only, to herself.
So, I teach my son the same, because boys' bodies are also turf over which coaches and clergy and advertisers may try to lay claim. I hope he feels at home in his skin so that one day, when he holds his own power, he uses it only to uplift.
And we try our best to resist nihilism and apathy in favor of empowerment and hopefulness.
Even though it's not easy, our family pays more for local and organic fruits and vegetables because food grown without pesticides helps bees and other living things. We compost. We walk the mile to and from school most days instead of driving because that's 10 miles a week, 360 miles a school year, and 322 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions to warm our planet. All small things, yes, but our own forms of empowerment and hopefulness.
These days, I don't let my kids use plastic straws because of the well-documented damage they wreak on waterways and marine life. It's a miniscule sacrifice, a somewhat awkward change in habit. Though they fight me on this occasionally (it's just a straw, Mama!), and though my resolve has wavered once or twice, I've mostly stuck with it. It's another something we can do — a low-hanging fruit. So, I persist.
When my mom visited a few weeks ago, she bought dozens of deodorant sticks, toothbrushes, handy wipes, snacks, and rolls of toilet paper. Then she oversaw while my kids allocated the materials into bags with handwritten notes like, "I hope you find a home soon." My kids don't know that, if you're homeless, finding a home isn't the problem per se — it's passing the credit check and mustering a deposit, accessing transportation to and from your job, and all the rest. And while giving out care packages makes no dent in the immense problem of homelessness, it reminds us that even though our family struggles to afford a lot of things, we are more fortunate than many, and so we have a responsibility. My kids say that it feels good to see a small bag of toiletries and food make a difference in someone's day. I feel it, too.
Another act of empowerment and hopefulness I strive to apply may be the hardest one of all: practicing kindness in my words, even when it comes to people of different ideologies, and about leaders whose actions jeopardize the future. Not because I have one iota of tolerance for the policies they support or enact, but because we humans need to do better. My family knows people — relatives included — with vastly different viewpoints from our own progressive ones, but I try to tell my kids that I disagree with them, and why, while also pointing out their good qualities. If, in fact, I want my kids to be the change, I've got to extend my compassion even to those for whom it's the hardest. And I remind myself and my kids that we all have blind spots and that I might not (gasp) be right about everything.
I've slipped countless times, believe me. But I keep striving to live by my ideals to the extent that I'm able, and to teach my children to do the same.
These efforts may have a miniscule impact, but I must believe that they have some impact. I know that consumer choices alone can't avert environmental disaster. I know that helping a few homeless people with care packages isn't going to solve the deep socio-economic problem. I sign petitions and call my representatives and show up to rallies, too.
I also choose to see the good in the world. There's a lot of it when you know where to look. This organization raising funds to meet immigrant mothers' bail bonds and reunite them with their children. These volunteer efforts to restore a heavily polluted beach in Mumbai that is now seeing the return of nesting sea turtles. This ingenious technology for cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This L.A. restaurant providing access to healthy food for lower-income people. An organization dedicated to compassionately listening to people, no matter their station in life or the magnitude of their problems. The student activists from Parkland.
One day, I hope my children will be part of the solutions we'll need to survive. As my daughter would say: Anything is possible.