A bathroom disagreement

I had a nerve-wracking incident come up the other day – an email from the school counselor expressing concern about something my daughter did. Very simply, in a hall bathroom she shared a stall with another student. They each went to the bathroom and then proceeded to play around in the bathroom instead of going back to class right away.

This warranted a discussion with the principal for both kids. My mind immediately went to work and I created a narrative of what they must be thinking. And I got angry. And quickly. In my head, I was sure that the main issue had to be that they peed in the same stall together. That this is inappropriate. That goodness forbid kids participate in a non-sexual activity as non-sexual beings in a shared space.

As a sexuality educator, trained curriculum developer and an advocate for the rights of kids and adolescents in a shunned sexualized world, let me be clear about a couple things here. I assumed that these kids were seen as bad for peeing in the same stall because in this society, naken bodies are wrong. And it’s not because these kids were inherently doing something out of their development, it’s because society assumes they are. As adults, we have lived past childhood into a sexualized world and body. And we can’t seem to unsee that, even in our kids. What they did was completely normal, but we still make it so much more than that.

After talking with my kid, it was even more evident that these two kids were incredibly respectful and responsible in the space they shared. There was an invitation to share a stall, without pressure. With consent. And they respected privacy boundaries by each turning their backs while the other actually used the toilet.

To me, the issue was that they broke a school rule. There is only one kid per stall. And they are not to play in the bathroom. This alone is not a principal needed response. It’s a simple discipline response, a reminder even, to not play in places you shouldn’t.

But I was led to believe that there was a larger issue here, that I should be concerned and that my kid is at fault because she invited the friend into the stall.

How often do we as parents share a stall with our kids? How often do siblings share stalls? Young friends? My kid and the friend have shared a stall before, on playdates, under parental supervision of myself and the other parent. And they respected and set personal boundaries there as well.

I know that the school needs to take things seriously because there could be a parent on the opposite side of me – seeing this through a sexualized lens and panicking. But isn’t that the problem? The system is failing us here. If this is not handled correctly, she may in fact feel shame and confusion about why it’s not ok to be around a friend in a bathroom when she did all that she has learned to establish her own needs and boundaries. Why is that not enough?

This morning, she said to me that she’s never been to the principal’s office before because she is not “usually bad.” I told her that she did nothing bad, that she broke a school rule and that they want to be sure she understands. But she doesn’t understand how she’s in more trouble than usual. I tried to explain that sometimes people get nervous and upset around bodies and that this might be the case here. I want her to know that many rules are set because some people believe that kids can do bad things, that we in this family believe are not bad at all. And instead are normal kid things to do. And that sometimes, these two don’t match up.

I told her to remember that I always have her back. That when I think they are wrong at school, that I will tell them. And she plans to apologize for playing around in the bathroom and not following the stall rules.

I fully realize that as you read this, this may trigger you. You may disagree with me or how I have handled it. I invite you to challenge yourself on this. What is coming up for you? How would you handle it? How would you protect your kid?

See there isn’t really a right way or a wrong way for us in this. But we can work together to be sure that our kids do not experience shame around their bodies. And that their normal stages of development are not mistaken for deviency. Kids are explorers and in fact so many behaviors that we deem as sexual among adults are simply play among kids. Playing doctor. Showing body parts. Touching one’s own body parts. Making dolls share a bed together or be naked together. Kids are understanding the world around them. And failing to let them explore a completely natural and normal part of their development can be harmful. It can lead to shame, silence, and a lack of communication when they do participate in sexual behaviors. I am not willing to take that risk. I know that feeling all too well. I think we can do better. My kid deserves better.

Follow Up: I did speak with the school and the feeling is mutual that their reactions are often rooted in the fear of the parents. I understand and also I don’t. I challenged them to consider that this might be the larger problem. And I asked that when my kid is spoken to that they are careful not to create a sense of shame. They assured me that this would not be the case.

I also spoke with the other parent involved. And I think it’s important to note that so many of us parents are in this together, but we often don’t talk about it. We can ask more of these schools. We can make it so our kids are not shamed as a result of worry of what a parent might do. We can make it so that being a kid is normal and that when parents struggle with an incident or what’s happening with their kid, then we work together through the situation among the adults, not through our kids.

I do dream of a world for this. And look forward to when we get there. Reaching out to the other parents is so important folks. If the other parent was not on the same page as me, I could have used it as an opportunity to connect on what’s best for our kids and to be sure that both kids are safe, loved, and able to move through this. To create a stream of honest communcation when normally there is so little. And we could have still disagreed and it would all be okay.

And sure, the other parent could have been mad and asked for punishment. But also, I am not responsible for other’s reactions. We can only hold our own and offer up love and support along the way. The goal is not to be the same, but to communicate. And to take care of our kids as we see fit. I am responsible for ensuring my kid’s behavior ensures both her own and the safety of others. And sharing a bathroom with another 6 year old, with consent, and with agreed upon privacy, is not a safety issue.

Small steps

The other day, I saw a post on facebook that I decided to share with my daughter. Here is the picture.

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I quickly noticed the issue and wanted to see if she did too. I showed her the picture and we talked through what it said. I asked her what she saw. She noticed that happy and proud seemed to be associated and that sad and angry were too. I asked her if she noticed the race of the kids in the picture and she said yes.

“What do you think about that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

So I offered her more, “What do you think about the fact that the black kids are angry and sad and the white kids are happy and proud?”

“I think that’s probably right,” she replied.

Patiently, I asked her why.

Her response, “White people don’t treat them so well, so I think they’d be angry and sad.”

Such a moment, in both validation, but also in missed teaching on my part. I told her that she is right, that they have every right to be angry and sad. And then I tried to explain to her that people already think black people are angry and sad, all the time. And if someone seeing this picture didn’t know so much about how black people are treated, then they might think that all black people are sad and angry for no reason at all.

I could see her confusion. And the complicated nature of trying to explain this was bouncing around in my brain.

I chose to simply say, “There are messages everywhere about how people are and this is an example of how we can pay attention to those.”

“Can I go play now?” she asked.

“Of course,” and she ran off.

I quickly realized an important piece of parenting that I am thinking about how to approach. I have taught her the reality, what exists. That is easy for her to grasp. In fact, she’s even pointed out things she sees as wrong or biased. But I haven’t taught her how to see it from a neutral perspective, or to see it in something that isn’t so obvious. And I’m wondering how to even do that. She is 6 years old. I cannot expect her to see this page in a book, raise her hand, and say “Um, teacher, this is racist.”

She actually encountered something similar recently when a book was read in class. It was “If I Ran the Zoo,” by Dr. Seuss. That book came into our house this part year because my parents brought a big pile of things from both mine and my siblings’ childhood. This book was included. When I read it with her, I pointed out all of the racism and stereotypes. We talked about what to do with the book. I wanted to throw it away. She wanted to give it away. I told her that if we gave it away, then the racism in the book would still be around and others might not recognize like we did.

We actually still have the book on our shelf. I’ve left it, it sits unread, for no reason other than we haven’t decided what to do with it. (Update, yesterday she brought me the book and asked me to throw it out. “It’s trash,” she said.)

Two days after they read this book in class for the celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday, she came to me and told me they did.

“Mom, we read the zoo book in school,” she said. She eyed me up, looking to see what I would do.

“Did you say anything?” I asked.

“No, we’re not supposed to talk during read aloud,” she said.

She waited two days to tell me because she was worried her teacher would get in trouble. With me, I presume. I told her I’d talk with her teacher and tell her that we think the book can be hurtful and that we want them to not read it again next year. That no one was meant to get into trouble. Instead, our goal is always to help other people sometimes.

So we reached out, and it all went well. I suspect the book won’t show up again for either teacher. I told my daughter the same and she seemed good with the outcome.

But in full honesty, I wish I pushed for a different outcome instead of just removing it. Because I actually think that this book is useful for a classroom full of nearly all white kids. It’s a teaching tool for anti-racism. But it’s not an easy request to ask a teacher to read the book and also point out the racism and harm. Without deep conversation and understanding between all of the parents and the kids. In this system anyway.

When my daughter saw that picture on facebook several months ago, I was worried about how to teach her to speak up. But now I’ve seen she has. She is still learning to find her own voice, and certainly under the thumb of authority in the systems she is now in. But she told me.

And I acted. As a parent, I am working to live as an example for her. A example of how we can make change in the world even in the small spaces we’re in like reading books in class or before bed. One thing I am learning is how going smaller can have a big impact. I’d like to think that her voice was maybe shared with a classmate, or that this post will make some of us check our bookshelves. Small ripples towards our freedom. And I’m also reminding myself that taking small steps also need to be steps towards the larger goal of liberation. For all of us.

*The picture at the top of the page was posted by a local Boston organization called Wee the People. They do such rad work and actually work with young kids to talk about racism. They also do parent workshops on how to take books and use them as learning tools even when we don’t like the content. Check them out, support them, and go to their workshops if you’re nearby.

“But I’m a good white person, right?”

“But I’m a good white person, right?” my kid asked me the other night. As we were sitting in her bed, I wanted to show her a video of a chicken greeting its owner at a school bus stop because I knew it would make her laugh. In the process of scrolling through my social media feed, it was inevitable that his face would show up. She always says his name the same way, with a scrunched up face and a grunt, “Donald Trump.” She also asks what each picture is about and in this case it was about his comments on “shithole” countries. I explained that he said something racist and upsetting, referring to places where many black and brown people live as bad places to live.

She wanted to know why, so I shared that he believes that how white people live is better than how other races live. I also shard the irony in this belief as here where we live, it’s the white people that make it not such a nice place to live and especially not for black and brown people.

This is then when she said, “But I’m a good white person, right?” She has said this before, and I am quickly realizing the conflict she experiences. As a white family, with many white friends and white people in our lives, she is struggling with the little kid notion of “good people” and “bad people.” At this age, she is not in a place to understand that the system we live in is the problem, not an entire race of people, and certainly not herself.

My answer to this question has remained the same: “Remember, there are no good people and bad people, but instead just people who can do good or bad things. We and our family are working to make good choices to try to get rid of the bad things people are doing.”

This time I went a little further to test her understanding, “The place where we live, this country, has made it so white people get more things than black and brown people. And it’s unfair because we as white people didn’t do anything to deserve it. Imagine if you went to a school where all of the white kids got cookies every day just because they were white, but none of the black or brown kids ever got them. That’s wouldn’t be fair right?”

“Right,” she said, “but that would only happen to **** in my school.” I hesitated in response, as what was interesting about her awareness is that the kid she mentioned  presents as white, meaning I believe society reads their body as a white. In full honesty, I do not know their race or their ethnicity, and I named this for her and she was confused. I explained race a little further saying that we don’t know anything about this kid’s ancestors or what stories were passed along to them from their parents (we explain DNA as stories, from the book “What Makes a Baby” by Corey Silverberg) and that most of the time we can’t know unless they tell us. But it was so interesting to me, that she, even at 4 1/2 years old, has picked up on the possible differences in ethnicity among her classmates. I suppose I should feel good that she is being racially explicit, but my inner white socialization feels some disappointment in how she already has categorized her friends. I am doing some personal work to push myself beyond this statement to remember that I need her to see race and differences, or she will never see the differences in treatment or inequities within our world.

It also spoke to me clearly of the lack of representation in her school. I too have mixed feelings on this. I do wish that her school was more diverse, but I also recognize that it’s in a district where mostly white folks live. We as parents have made a conscious decision to expose her to other races of people through our friends and family, TV, books, toys, etc. We have no intention of enrolling her in a school simply for diversity. We recognize the inherent harm that already exists with her whiteness and that we are not in this to create “exposure” to other people’s lives to learn. We have the tools and methods to teach her and besides, the core work for us is with other white folks to change the system. On her own, she will develop deep relationships with people of color, I have not doubt in that.

Next year, she will go to kindergarten which will shift her experience on race. Here are a few things I have already learned about this town I live in. The school she is districted in, is mostly kids of color, more than half in fact. Every other elementary school, all 5 of them, are majority white kids, with some as high as 80% white. I also learned that to be in all day kindergarten, the fee is $3,500 for the year. If you live within two miles of the school, the bus is not free and costs $235 a year. More than 37% of the kids in her soon to be school have more than 9 unexcused absences in a year. Remember, I am talking about 5-10 year olds here. I live in a town that is racially segregated. Most of the kids of color live within her school district and within 2 miles of her school. Clearly, I have a lot to work with as an invested parent in pushing the school system to do better.

As she preps for kindergarten, she is so excited to go. I know she will find so much joy, but will also have so many questions as she will see some of these inequities. She already points things out regularly to me when she sees them. It’s also going to be a new challenge as a parent to explain how these inequities also impact her. This will open the opportunity to really talk about structural racism and how it impacts all of us. I know she will go to school next year with love and intention. And I have no doubt she will make change with every step she takes. So no, we’re not “good white people.” But I know she is a good human who wants this world to be good for everyone. If I can continue to uplift that inner desire in her heart as she grows and learns, that’s a win for me. It’s also a win for our future.