“You spend all of those years trying to teach right from wrong, demanding kindness and manners, encouraging your little ones to stand up against bullies. Yet, I have had sleepless nights lately, wondering if teaching my kids to stand up will get them gunned down.”
As the mother of four kids who now range from age 20 to 14, I’ve wrangled with my share of challenges – navigated the exhaustion of the toddler years, survived the exasperation of middle-school madness, and even found moments of sheer delight within the nearly impossible gauntlet of ‘getting it right’ that is part and parcel of parenting teenagers. But right now, in my journey through motherhood, I feel like I’ve entered the Twilight Zone. Never before have I faced such dizzying, paradoxical terror, as I wonder if the values I’ve always thought mattered most have, in fact, endangered my children’s very being.
You spend all of those years trying to teach right from wrong, demanding kindness and manners, encouraging your little ones to stand up against bullies. Yet, I have had sleepless nights lately, wondering if teaching my kids to stand up will get them gunned down. My 16-year-old daughter recently had a gun waved at her – a threatening gesture aimed at four teens, two black and two white, by a couple of 20-somethings in a truck. They circled back to show the weapon, after a first drive-by with a Confederate flag. She and her friends were filming something outside the recreation center by her school, when a truck filled with racist strangers tore into their peaceful moment. They whooped and hollered, brandishing the same two weapons Dylan Roof embraced when he motored into our town, and massacred nine of our neighbors as they prayed in their church.
I believe my daughter’s impulse to shout back (before the gun came out) was driven, not only by her core belief that one must stand up against prejudice, but also by the fact that just a week earlier, she had been put in a similar situation. Then too, she was one of a small group of kids, this time with her younger brother. They were in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, heading to get lunch, when an older white lady randomly drove up to my 14-year-old son’s best friend, a black girl, and accosted her for wearing a ‘Bernie’ shirt.
In the text I got later, my daughter described the woman in the car as “Cruella Deville.” It was her little brother who told me how this sudden attack by a perfect stranger had scared his best friend so much that he gave her his coat to cover the shirt. My daughter rushed the woman, confronting Cruella with a furious question: “Are you really trying to tell a young girl she doesn’t have the right to express her own view?”
“We have always tried to protect our children from danger,” he summed it up. “But what is most dangerous now is complacency.”
This woman, who’d been so bold just seconds earlier accosting a black child, was, by all accounts, suddenly shaking when a white child called her bluff. “I …I didn’t know she was a young girl,” she stuttered out, as if there were some kind of moral line to her terrifying tone and talk. “She can have her view, and I can have mine.”
“That’s right – good day,” said my daughter, biting her tongue so she would not call Cruella any names as she drove off.
‘We must not become our enemy’ was an expression that our family always had the privilege of treating as a metaphor. Now it feels much more literal, and much less straightforward, as my husband and I find ourselves simultaneously supporting sane gun-control laws and debating a family outing to the shooting range. I have come to understand what a luxury it has been to have our enemies be mostly the stuff of parables and how unavailable that luxury has been for so many other women. For my family, if ignorance has not been pure bliss, it has certainly been undeniably convenient. This point was underscored recently by a conversation that I had with a friend whose young son wants to be in special forces when he grows up. She shared the pain and frustration of having to deny her child the simple joy of a water gun fight – such is the fear and reality of raising a Black boy in this country.
When I was growing up, my father had what he called the ‘three rules’ for his six kids, but the joke was that his trio was actually a single word, and we all recite it to this day: Safety, safety, safety! I used to think I knew what that meant. Twenty years ago, when a nurse put our new baby in my arms and a new life in our hands, it took my husband ten minutes to make sure the car seat was secured properly. The other day, we talked about that feeling of inadequacy and worry, marveling at the sense we have now, in retrospect, of how relatively simple it was to ‘babyproof’ the house. “We have always tried to protect our children from danger,” he summed it up. “But what is most dangerous now is complacency.”