So remember that children’s book we received in the mail (the one from the previous post with the fabulous and playful packing label)? Well, I wanted to write about the impact that book had on my oldest son (because obviously my youngest was far too caught up in the packing label to care about the new book). Anyway, when we opened the shipping box, we found a beautiful hardcover children’s book titled, “Chocolate Me”, written by Taye Diggs and illustrated by Shane W. Evans. I knew exactly who it was from, and that it would be a conversation starter.
This gift could not have come at a better time, as just the sight of this book took me back to this past summer when I held my 6-year-old son in my arms as he cried soaking his soft flushed cheeks with tears and wearing an innocent pain only children can name. He sobbed about this inner curiosity, this insecurity about his skin complexion (which I tell him all the time is beautiful). He talked about his “darker” skin as being “different” (he said he didn’t understand why his skin was so dark). “Why is my skin dark?” he asked innocently. He talked about how everyone around him: me, his brother, the kids at school are not as “dark” as him. And while this is not exactly (literally) true, this was his truth. And in an intense emotional moment like this, it’s difficult to take my adult reasoning and try to convince my 6-year-old that his pain, his feelings, his own youthful reasoning were not real to him, were not valid. When he looks in the mirror his way of seeing himself in this world is not something I can try to convince him isn’t real. What I needed to do back in that moment was listen, hear him out, take his pain seriously, address his questions as best I could, and most of all–hold him as he cried. I needed to honor how he was feeling and help him talk through and face these feelings. I remember as I listened to my son speak, that moment hit me in my heart as my own eyes welled with tears. This kind of pain is what I’ve held my breath for, hoping he would not have to deal with serious (or painful) matters of identity until much later in life.
As a parent, maybe naively I had hoped I would not have to bridge complex identity issues with my children at such a young age. I had hoped this subject would not come up until they were ready, able to express their ideas, their feelings in more complex ways. It’s difficult when your child is crying in your lap, but sometimes those tears are the only common language, the only way to express what needs to be said. I remember that moment as profound. And I remember feeling that it was hard to begin to explain, to help him understand the complexity of identity. In that moment, it was difficult to reassure him that it was o.k. that he looked “different” (from his friends, even from other family members), especially when what I felt he was looking for at that moment was reassurance that he was indeed (literally) just the same as everyone else.
I think that’s why this story reminds me of past experiences in thinking and talking about identity with my oldest son. This book, while it is super simple in plot (after-all, it is a children’s book), uses metaphor to help this abstract concept of difference and identity appear more concrete. However, it’s important to remember that this story is just an entrance, a bridge into conversations about difference, a way to allow children to ask questions safely, innocently, and creatively. This story (among others) also allows me to teach my child to look at literature critically and to ask questions of the narrative (we don’t have to agree with all that is said in books we read, even if they appear as endearing stories).
As I think about the issue of racial identity, I honestly don’t know when, how my 6-year-old began questioning his own identity, and even more specifically questioning his skin complexion. I know he’s encountered social situations of varying degrees, and I’m curious whether this comes out of those situations naturally or if there is something else more inherent in children that again naturally drives them to ask these kinds of questions of themselves and others. In our home we don’t teach divisiveness in difference. We teach peace, empathy, and understanding alongside natural, healthy teachings about our own cultural/ethnic heritage. But just as much as we teach about our own ancestry, we also celebrate the curiously brilliant differences of people all around the world. Somehow this kind of balance feels important as I raise my children in an increasingly interconnected global community.
My sense is that this questioning of identity is something innocent, natural, and comes from children discovering their myriad physical and internal differences. I think that discovery is natural, and my hope is that as teachers, parents, and those that are helping to raise and prepare children for this world, cultivate a hopeful spirit, and have a comfort with talking about and accepting difference just as much as sameness.
And so now back to the book. After that brief surge of memory from my son’s experiences this summer, I was back and present in the moment with this new book. We opened it and I read it aloud to both of my kids; then sat it on the table without incidence. Moments later, I noticed my 6-year-old grab it, curl into a ball in the corner, and read it silently. I watched him turn the pages slowly, staring at the little brown boy on the page, thinking about the metaphor, questioning what this book was saying. I saw him thinking, processing with a serious brow. So after a while I sat down next to him:
“What do you think about this book?” I said.
“I like it,” he said.
“What do you understand about it?” I asked.
“At first the boy wanted to be just like his friends but then he thought it was o.k. to be different, to be himself,” he said.
“Do you think that’s o.k., to be yourself even if you feel (or someone else) thinks you look different?” I said.
This was again one of those moments when all we could do was sit in silence and just be together. I know this won’t be the last time we broach this topic, but I do hope that each time we do, I will remember to listen, allow room for tears, and even more room for understanding.
Thank you Maggie for understanding Mason, for helping him talk about his pain, and helping him do this in a healthy way. As parents we do our best to reinforce what is beautiful and special about each of our children but sometimes the world around us can help reinforce and sometimes challenge those notions and teachings. There is a lot of pressure to just be like everyone else. I’ve been watching Mason work through this for about a year now. Thanks for listening Maggie and for knowing what he needed and when he needed it. I love that there are people in our lives that love and care about our children just as we do. I’ve come to realize that we can not parent alone, and we are reminded everyday that we are not alone in the raising of our children. It takes this village around us near and far. Thank you.