Dear Parents: Courageous kindness towards our
kids is a form of social and cultural activism.
My heritage is mixed. It is African American, Native American, German, English and French. I've always felt well accepted by the African American community and by a mixture of other communities, as well. Recently, I've noticed a growing tide of venom in my daily interactions with my American brothers and sisters of European descent. It's been startling.
"Go back to Palestine!"
"You can't play here!"
"You don't belong here!"
"Where are you from? You're not American."
*Real comments made by parents and children on playgrounds, in the store, or on the street by people driving dangerously close to me, my husband and my kids.
Although this hostility is aimed directly at me...I'm in good company. It seems like EVERYONE lately is the target of someone else's hostility. My first reaction to hostility is natural: I feel keyed up. But when I become upset, I'm missing a perfect opportunity to teach myself and my child about WHO and WHAT really matters in a world filled with challenging people. When we experience ugliness from others, we are thrown into a beautiful space, filled with opportunity to build strong, healthy relationships with our children. We can turn the attention AWAY from the attention-seeking attacker and turn the attention TO the beautiful child whose brain is being shaped by everything we choose to do in those moments.
I cannot let the rising tide of world-wide vitriol engulf me. We are more than color. We are more than our ethnicities. We are more than our nationalities. We are greater than one characteristic. We are part of a sweeping, global community of family, friends and importantly, compassionate thinkers.
Our ability to wield integrity and kindness in moments of stress
is a powerful tool. It cuts through the lingering, sticky wounds of
chronic social hostility and gives air to new tissue.
So...WHEN IS A GOOD TIME TO PRACTICE COURAGEOUS KINDNESS?
When leaders at school tell you that your kids (or someone else's) are destined to be failures, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
When shows on television and characters in books regularly depict kids like yours (or others) as the bad guys, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
When voices in positions of leadership tell you that your children (or others) should be man-handled into compliance, or that they are second class citizens, that is the time to practice Courageous Kindness.
Courageous Kindness dictates that when your child has a tantrum and a stranger in the store looks at him as though this screaming baby represents ALL of "his kind," you stay firm in the knowledge that you and your child belong in a museum dedicated to awesome people. Courageous Kindness demands that when even family members make snide remarks about your child, you follow the blueprint. You look inward and say,
"Forsaking all of this, I WILL LOOK AT MY CHILD AND SEE HIS/HER INNER HERO. I will smile AT THAT HERO and lavish grace and respect upon them."
Most importantly, every day, for no reason at all, Courageous Kindness encourages you to look into your child's eyes and SMILE.
Courageous Kindness is about removing our attention from the instigators of emotional and mental violence in our lives...and placing every ounce of intentional, kind attention BACK ON OUR CHILDREN. EVERY DAY is the perfect time to practice Courageous Kindness.
WHAT DOES COURAGEOUS KINDNESS DO?
Courageous kindness flips the expectations of society on their heads. It rearranges power structures. It is a powerful tool. And it works. It works on your brain. It works on the brain of your child. And it works on the brain of any person who is watching you practice- even if they are resistant. We'll talk about what that means in a subsequent lesson. For now, know: Your Courageous Kindness is the start of a tidal wave of societal change.
The Stress of Amygdala Activation in Strangers:
The #1 Reason Diverse Parents Need Neuroscience
My oldest child, who is four, talks back at times (what a surprise). Sometimes he needs help taking turns on the slide. Sometimes, he devolves into a red-faced, screaming tornado. I'm sure this sounds normal and familiar. What is not normal: the people who react as though a major travesty has occurred when they see a four year old practicing being human. Is he any worse than the hundred kids acting exactly like him? But somehow, folks believe that mine is the One who needs a severe intervention.
This is the experience of being the beautifully diverse parent in a crowd of people who feel "the same." By diverse, I mean whatever characteristic of yours that folks feel justified in singling out. Maybe it's skin color. That is typically the most salient. Maybe it's religion. Maybe it's neuro-status. Maybe it's physical appearance. Maybe you have an accent from a different part of the world. Or maybe you wear high heels when everyone else is wearing gym shoes. I don't know.
Whatever it is, people are drawn to you like a shining star. They stare. They make faces. They get attitudes. They notice you. And that's when you know: here come the comments, the judgements, the rejections, or worse, the physically or emotionally violent assaults.
This is not an exaggeration. It is truth.
-Let's interject some Neuroscience
Neuroscience gives some perspective. There is something called the "us" and "them" effect that we humans are really great at. We separate the world into people who look like an us and people who look like a them.
When we see an us, we assume they're pretty great. We feel that interaction with them will be pleasant. When we see a them, our amygdala activates. I'll be talking about the amygdala- what it is, where it is and what it does- in my first video installation for this series. For now, know that when the amygdala activates in the brain...it can herald a fearful or hostile interaction to come. When the amygdala lights up, our inner hackles rise. We feel that we just don't trust "that" person.
Polarizing images in the media have contributed to effectively sectioning people into us-es and thems. You would think this wouldn't affect average interactions on the playground but it does. Why? One reason: media images manipulate the reality perceived by our brain.
Another reason: many people have caved to viewing the world through the lens of "us" and "them." They believe that they are individuals. They believe I and my son are part of a group. They're threatened by that group.
When it is safe, I take the time to educate people like this. I educate their children. I remove my Little Guys from their presence. I talk. I advocate. I assist in raising these people to a higher level.
But inwardly, I admit I sometimes cringe when I see these folks coming. I can sense the tension in their eyes, mouth and body from the moment they see me- which, by the way, is when their amygdala first fires. Most studies on this topic have been conducted from the viewpoint of Europeans- in other words, people who identify as white. Science has identified that when many folks who identify as white lay eyes on rich skin tones, alarm bells sound in their amygdala.
The next time their amygdala fires is unfortunate- it's when I make eye contact, smile and say hello. Eye contact is a distinctly human crossroads where we determine friend or foe. In a world where friends and foes are predetermined by stereotypes, eye contact can simply be a battleground. People who live in an us and them world can view eye contact with a them as a direct challenge.
Even the nicest, most average person can be a bully to people outside of his/her racial or religious or handicap or gender or sexuality paradigms. They may become even more aggressive if those "thems" are ALSO intelligent, well off, confident and fearless (like me). How dare a THEM act like an US?
It is hard to thoughtfully parent when I'm dealing with people like this. My mental resources are taken up by gauging the level of hostility these folks carry. These folks are my neighbors and community members. And I admit to a certain level of wishing that I could sway them with the power of good intentions.
However, the danger is sometimes too real to attempt friendship. There have been times when other parents have over-reacted on a grand scale to my toddler-the-enemy-in-their-minds. By over-reaction, I mean these adults engaged in sudden, full-blown screaming, crying and/or grabbing, wrestling, yanking, or pushing my child.
Some of them actually engaged in acts of violence that I won't discuss here. These folks became so entangled with their illogical sense of threat from an "other," they lost the ability to behave like rational, moral adults. They lost the ability to interact with others, even a mother and very small child, with something very important- integrity. These formerly very nice people are no longer safe neighbors.
(And before you ask-yes, I took care of these people and kept my kiddos safe.)
The point- When our minds are engaged in the work of deciphering threat, we lose some of the ability to decipher the integrity of our actions. This is so important.
When we are focused on surviving,
we cannot focus on thriving.
Think about this. It doesn't just apply to my illogical neighbors. It applies to me and you. When my neighbors are so focused on threat, they can't interact safely with me or my children. When I am focused on surviving around my neighbors, I can no longer see myself or my children for who we truly are. I can only see the danger. I fail to practice the "scientific, attachment parenting" that I so adore.
I correct my kids more quickly/sternly and try to "keep them in line" rather than teach them, guide them and continue understanding who they are.
I'm quite literally focused on keeping them small and quiet so I can protect them in this cultural war.
"Honey, don't do that."
"Sweet guy, no."
"Hush, baby. You don't need to cry about that."
This is the point where I've discovered the usefulness of moving through life with a strategic plan. I call it the Courageous Kindness blueprint. I adhere to this blueprint as though it's a battleplan. And I follow it with the knowledge that my kids will be strong, confident world citizens because of it. I know there are other parents out there, just like me, on my team, in my troop, who are practicing the same things, themselves.
We know that change begins with us. We are changing the world.
We are the instigators of change.
My Courageous Kindness blueprint is based in what I call Neuroscience for (Diverse) Parents. Maybe I think like a scientist (because I am one!). Maybe I'm an optimistic intellect. Or maybe I'm a parent with the best interests of my family at heart. Maybe I'm a community member who would like to see positive relationships in society as a norm rather than a surprising gift. I believe diversity of thought, diversity of looks, diversity of being is a beautiful part of a happy, productive society. I believe we CAN use Courageous Kindness in our daily interactions with our Selves, our children and with others to shift culture.
We are the powerful ones. We are the bringers of change.
Please join me. If you would like to receive my free, monthly series, Neuroscience for Diverse Parents, and learn more about Courageous Kindness as a form of activism, sign up above.
Be courageous. Be kind.
1. Martins, Nicole & Harrison, Kristen. (2012). Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study. Communication Research - COMMUN RES. 39. 338-357. 10.1177/0093650211401376.
2. Myers, H. F., Wyatt, G. E., Ullman, J. B., Loeb, T. B., Chin, D., Prause, N., … Liu, H. (2015). Cumulative burden of lifetime adversities: Trauma and mental health in low-SES African Americans and Latino/as. Psychological trauma : theory, research, practice and policy, 7(3), 243–251. doi:10.1037/a0039077
3. Sapolsky, R. (2015) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, NY: Penguin Books
4. Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.