I am not going to lie, most of me is terrified to become a parent. My fears are partly practical, but mostly because I feel like there are so many ways to screw up kids these days. Perhaps there always has been. However, I will say my fears about having kids immediately escalated the moment my suspicions that we were having two boys were confirmed. I will be the first to admit I don’t know what to do with boys. I grew up with two sisters. I feel like my parenting skills would be pretty well-matched to raising strong, tough girls, who don’t view emotion and concern for others as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of strength.
I am more confused about how to do things with right with boys. It isn’t because I think that at the core, raising girls is different from raising boys, but because society and things like my religion still perpetuate both rigid and subtle gender stereotypes, I feel like you have to have something in your parental arsenal to respond to those messages that boys receive every day about what boys are meant to do and be. I have an arsenal full of responses based on my own experience as a female, less so for the other side.
A little before I found out I was having boys, I read this short article about how to each empathy to boys. In the article, there are particular descriptions of how I want my children to be able to relate to the world – I want them to be deeply empathic towards others who suffer, to have courage to stand up for what is right and for helping others, and to be able to not only relate to people that are different from them, but to be able to work in teams with people who are different from them and be problem solvers. I want my boys to understand that helping other people and being able to relate to their suffering (and feel things deeply) is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Last night, I was reading in Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s Book of Forgiving, something else that really hit me hard about values I hope to transfer to my children. Tutu recounts the work of Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory in the 1990s who completed research that found “The more children knew the stories of their families’ histories – the good, the bad, and the ugly – the more resilient their children turned out to be.” In fact, knowing those stories turned out to be “the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” Going along with this research, neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel also found that the best predictor of how well a child will be attached to his or her parents “is whether the parents have a clear and coherent story about their lives and the traumas they have experienced.”
I think that what I read last night is just another way of talking about teaching boys empathy. I think about it in my own life, how much closer I have felt to my family over the years because of things we have endured together, but also in understanding the stories of what family members have done to overcome particular instances of trauma or suffering. I think about it in the way that I am so defensive of the state of Mississippi, even as it continues to exhibit a lack of empathy to its poorest and most vulnerable residents. I care about it so much because its history of traumas is tied up with one half of my family, and I want desperately to make it better (of course, the same can also be said for the North Carolina side of me too, because our state isn’t much better than Mississippi in terms of public policy that takes care of our most vulnerable citizens these days).
I think authenticity is an important value to inculcate in children these days when so much of the world of middle class America is based on superficiality. I am going to try to do it both ways – by encouraging my children to care for the welfare of others and to be honest with themselves about who they are and where they come from. I can only do that by being the most authentic version of myself around them and by not being afraid to share with them the things that have come so very, very hard as well as what has come easy.
This once again may just be Leslie the idealist speaking out of turn from a place of ignorance, but it really is the best that I can do.