As I approach my fortieth year in this crazy thing called life, I appreciate the little bits of wisdom my mama imparted to me over the years of my youth. She, most likely, gained this wisdom from her brilliant parents; I’ve no doubt. I wish to impart bits of wisdom to my two young boys, too, as I suspect every parent hopes. Here’s the thing about that, though. I seek to impart bits of wisdom through the way I intentionally choose to live my life, centering my belief in our ethical and moral responsibility to one another as human beings. Action is critically important to me, as I suspect it is to you; words stall, actions live. Before I digress too much into philosophical musings, as my philosophy professor grandma was famous for in our family, let me circle back to my mama’s wisdom. As she imparted bits of wisdom to me, one such adage, probably as old as time, was centered recently with a group of brilliant 5th graders in a classroom that I’ve been adopted by, as a researcher, collaborator, and friend.
The adage? Do as I say, not as I do. You’ve probably heard this, right? In our family, though, we don’t believe in this saying nor the belief its core is built upon. It’s wrong. Just plain wrong; for us anyway. At the core of my belief system: I’ve no right to force anyone to do as I say or do; that requires consent, a concept that’s grown to critical proportions for me, as it should be for you, too.
What I do believe is this: I actively choose to live my life centering my values and beliefs in how I want to be in community with others in this world, what I hope my boys see is the strength of character and responsibility to a greater good to see justice and equity live for every child, everywhere. This is big; I’ll center why I seek your reflection around this, right now in your life, wherever my words find you.
I spend much time in collaborating and researching in a breathtakingly amazing fifth-grade classroom in an urban Title 1 school with the most insightful children I’ve ever known; truly. They tackle life with more grace and humility than most adults I know; they teach me more about humanity than anyone else. Recently, Ms. J, the brilliant teacher and my accomplice in this work of finding pathways of creating more inclusive classrooms for all our children, and I were engaged in a read-aloud of Tomie dePaola’s inclusive book Oliver Button Is A Sissy. We chose this book as a way to edge into a conversation about gender equity with her students. It’s one beautiful text in a series of texts we’re using to build a curriculum of inclusive texts that enable us to engage in courageous conversations with children about big topics that live in our world, including conversations around identity, privilege, power, and oppression. If you’ve followed this blog for any time at all, you’re on this journey with me; us really.
That morning, I wrote this centering question on the board:
Then, Ms. J provided a bit of context for the conversation to land within, or so we thought it might land within. Wow, how wrong we were, though; more on that later. Ms. J centered with her students that we’d need to dig deep in this conversation and decenter ourselves from perhaps what we personally thought and expand our minds to what society would say about expectations for boys and girls, men and women. She explained society meant ideas gleaned from social media, ads, radio, billboards, community spaces, the playground, on T.V., and so on. All her students nodded that they understood this would be tough work but they were ready to jump in and try it out. As we had planned, Ms. J read the book aloud, stopping at moments to think aloud, at other moments to elicit thinking from her students through turn and talk moments.
If you’re not familiar with this beautiful book, you need to be: Oliver loves ballet, he’s bullied for liking something society often socializes young children to like or not based on societal notions of gender roles; in the end, he gains the strength of personhood and is proud of who he is and his affinities. A great book to begin a discussion around societal expectations of gender norms and all. This is what Ms. J and I were thinking anyhow. But, as teachers, any amount of planning and intention never prepares you for the reality of what unfolds when brilliant young minds jump into the mix, right?
What follows is how this all played out that one morning this fall and three life lessons I’ve learned from the wise minds of youth. After Ms. J finished the read aloud, she opened up to the class an opportunity to engage in a grand conversation centering their ideas about what they felt society thinks boys should be like and what society thinks girls should be like. Here’s the evolving list they created.
So, it would be an interesting study to analyze what they came up with and why at least for my nerdy researcher brain it would be. But, that’s not what I want to center with you right now in this thought piece. I want to center something that happened in the room that an image or transcribed list could never capture. It truly will be hard for me to capture what Ms. J and I witnessed unfold in words here, but I will do my best to communicate the essence of the moment.
As students were sharing ideas in the meeting area and Ms. J and I were facilitating their conversation as observers and scribes mostly, one young girl said the following:
I think women should have jobs and men should stay home and babysit.
Ms. J and I looked at one another with a look of “we need a bit of clarification on this one.” So Ms. J asked her why she thought this and to clarify her thinking a bit. Her powerful response back was this simple, yet infinitely complex, statement from her lived reality:
Because, most of our dads stay at home and be lazy.
Wham. Ms. J and I looked at one another, eyes wide and hearts skipping a beat. Immediately, half a dozen boys’ hands shot up to respond. As we don’t really believe in hands raising in conversations and try to support dialogue with other nonverbal systems, we eyed one of the boys and he responded:
That has been happening forever. People think boys deserve more than girls, that they are valued more. There’s an invisible wall for girls.
Bam. Half a dozen girls’ hands shot up to respond and Ms. J and I immediately found ourselves witnessing one of the most breathtaking debates about roles of women, girls, men, and boys from the perspectives of ten and eleven-year-olds that would rival any adult debate in recorded history. Why? Because of the raw honesty of what we heard. Wow. To our adult folly, at one point we foolishly tried to steer the conversation back to the idea of socialized roles of boys and girls that we had intended to center from the text. We quickly realized her students immediately circled back to their debate on adult roles in the family structures they were familiar with and experiencing in their own lives. Quickly, we just let go and focused ourselves on bearing witness to the unfolding moment. And really, who were we to hijack their conversation with our intents? It was about their thinking and pathways of synthesizing and hearing one another that was critical; is critical. It was not about us, but wow, it was about adults a big way; truthfully about her students’ perspectives on the adults in their lives. Synthesizing the experience we witnessed through three lessons I’ve learned seems the most concrete pathway for me; this is going to be raw and I hope not too personal, but such is life. Welcome to wise children, my heart, and why I believe the old adage Do as I say, not as I do, is, well, bullshit. (Yep, language expresses thinking and I went there. No apologies.)
Children Speak Truth. Get out of their way. No, truly. Get out of their way. Get out of their conversation. Get out of their head. Get out of providing sentence stems that box children’s thinking in. Get out of feeling the need to control by steering the conversations in the ways you want it to go. Why? Once you do, the brilliance of children’s thinking will shine through. This sounds harsh and I’m guilty of doing all of these things in the pursuit of academic conversations, centering skill and standards work, of “doing deep academic work” with kids. Please stop that need all the time, though, friends; I am. Consider the context and purpose. If your purpose is to truly open up big conversations about critical issues we face in society and you want children to have safe spaces to engage in real talk, real conversations, that center real thoughts, and perspectives, then get out of their way and create the conditions where this can happen. Truly.
Children Hear and See All. Once adults are out of children’s way to express their honestly raw thinking, we’ll learn genuinely insightful, innovative, wise things. One glaringly raw thing I learned from this moment, and honestly, from working alongside children and teachers for nearly two decades, and as a mother for nearly a decade myself: children see and hear all. All. Of. What. We. Do. And. Say. And. Don’t. Do. And. Don’t. Say, adults. They get things so innately. They see it even when we try to hide “adult” things from kids. Yeah, you’ve been there before I’m sure, they pick up on it. When the young girl who lives with her single mama and siblings said, “Because most of our dads stay at home and be lazy” she was speaking from her lived reality. When the young boy, who also lives with his single mom and one sibling, commented on the oppression women have been experiencing forever, their devaluing and their invisible wall, he was speaking from personal lived experience traveling with his mother, in some very hard times that I am not under consent to speak to. And really, that’s not the point. The point is, as parents, guardians, and adults with children in our care, in our families, in our community spaces, they hear and see all. Be ready for that reality, friends. I’m learning that the painful way right now in my life.
We Are Our Children’s First Teachers, Do Right by Them. Now that we can agree on the reality that children hear and see all, what are we going to do with that knowledge? My assertion: live our lives in a way that we do right by children. I am actively choosing to live my life centering my values and beliefs in what I hope my boys see is a person of immense strength, that takes actions upon the injustices I see perpetuated upon others, especially upon the souls of glorious children by adults who often mean no harm but do not perhaps know the grave effects of the choices they make in their shared spaces with children. I am eternally flawed and hopelessly naïve, but I seek to continuously grow myself, grow my knowledge, grow in my action, and grow in my love. It is not easy, immensely painful at times if I’m honest with you, but it’s what being alive means; change. My thoughts for you: be that person for the children in your life, whether as a teacher, parent, guardian, family, or community member, or however you come into shared spaces with children. The way we choose to live our life models exponentially what it means to be a person in our world in service to others. If you believe in inclusion, equity, and justice, then live your life in an inclusively just way that centers equity, in all you say and in all you do. It’s the model of your living and process within which you choose to navigate through life that children truly learn from.
So, here I find myself not quite sure how to end this thought piece, and that is kind of rare for me. Perhaps it’s because much of this is raw for me and hits close to home, perhaps because much of what’s on my mind and in my heart I would not be able to center here with you right now, or perhaps my words are really not the way to close. Perhaps it’s the words of children that need to close this thought piece. In that realization, I’ll leave you with this last lingering thought, from the mind and heart of a wise fifth grader, that I hope you sit with for a long while in your heart and mind. It’s a reflection that created a smile upon my face as it simultaneously slashed my heart in two: “Our parents are our first teachers.”
Published with permission from two educators and parents in our advocacy network. -C