My heart aches as my head panics. My child came home again from school with a play-by-play of sideline reporting from recess. Depending on the day, a peer got picked on for looking different, acting different or sounding different. Again.
This feels like a conversation between a child and a 1939 war-torn Polish mommy. Not a veteran-Jewish-educator-by-profession mommy of 2022 in the Northshore. I shouldn’t have to have this conversation.
Recess. That post-lunch unstructured time when the watchful eye of a teacher is at half-mast taking a break from the realities of classroom vigor. Recess. It’s when the students write their own lesson plans. Recess. It’s when there is no bouncer checking ID cards by the playground swings, which is unfortunate because it turns out racism, homophobia and ableism know no age minimum. Hate is not an ageist.
In the synagogue school classrooms, I teach my students to be upstanders. Not bystanders. Don’t sit by and watch quietly as a peer gets picked on. Pick yourself up and speak up. In my Religious School classroom over the years to drive home the point to my students I have brought into the Anti-Defamation League and Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Relations Council. I’ve paid a hefty price tag to get trained on anti-hate curriculum. Read blogs, books and articles. Listened to podcasts. I’ve armed myself and my students with the tools to stand up to hate. Easier said than done when it’s my own child involved.
My own child knows the right thing to do. He tells me himself when we regularly debrief his latest hate-filled anecdote in vivid, heart-cringing detail. He feels bad for the latest target. “I should go over and say something. I should go to the recess monitor and ask for help. I should tell the principal. I just can’t do anything about it.”
But the frustrating portion of the conversation is always the same response from me. I’m scared for you. I don’t know what to tell you to do. You’re Jewish and you’ll be their next victim. Lots of material to use against you. Grandma always says, “your health and reputation are the two most important things.” Words we live by. Both would be threatened if you snitch or intervene.
When it comes to parenting, I am never a bystander. I am an upstander who stands up for my children. But how do I make order out of this personal act of speaking out of both sides of my mouth? I’m modeling for my children to speak up but then again, maybe don’t say anything. As I sit with my own struggles, I do what I can to not sit idly by on my parenting obligations.
Ask. Listen. Empower. My three-word action plan.
ASK at the dinner table. As my father says, “Little pitchers have big ears.” He says this as a warning to watch what I say but I see this as a charge to choose my words purposefully. As we settle down to dinner and plates start getting passed, my husband kicks off the conversation with, “how was your day?” The children share anecdotes of all flavors. With an audience of five, it’s an opportunity to process, wonder, delve and be curious. Our upper safe space.
LISTEN in the car. Schlepping in the car to basketball practice and Hebrew School we transform all that dead airtime into lively conversation. During our car chats, everyone is held captive and can’t walk away from the conversation. I can’t make that uncomfortable eye contact with my children when my eyes are fixed on the road. We have established the car as a place for brave sentences to begin with, “listen to what happened today, Mommy.” Our caring car culture.
EMPOWER at every opportunity. “You got this.” These three little reassuring words are my regular parenting mantra that I always hope packs a big punch. The dialogue we have as a family may not provide all the answers of what to do in the moment. But I hope my own short and sweet parenting advice builds the confidence to act on whatever action plan my children decide to play out. Our empathetic environment.
It’s not an easy world we are raising our children in today. We all do the best we can. We are in this together to ask, listen and empower. You got this too.