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Trauma, Behavior, and the Brain (part 1)

It has been too long. As I was looking back over my WordPress, I realized it has been over a year since I last wrote a blog. Since then I have had multiple publications, including two books (Difficult Conversations and Not Just Black and White). However, I wan to get back to this, blogging.

As a professor I started teaching a course this semester focused on trauma informed practice. While I have completed research and training on this topic, I feel like interacting with graduate students for an entire semester I will learn from the students. However, since beginning the course one week ago, I have already had great learning opportunities. Therefore, I feel that sharing information about trauma, the brain, and behavior should not be kept to only my students, but that I will share in frequent posts this semester.

The first topic? In Utero or Prenatal Trauma

First, what is trauma? A deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It is unique to an individual. Sometimes it ca be a single event, a series of events, or chronically enduring events.

There has been a myth for generations that some children are just inherently resilient. Research refutes this notion. It is an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (relationships) that help ‘open’ the child to resiliency. So, adults matter. Adults in the life of children can make a different– caring, mutually respectful interactions.

These types of relationships help us as adults understand the child and where they are. Some important quotes:

“behaviors are adaptive strategies to a dysfunctional environment”

“challenging behaviors of traumatized children are driven by fear – not rebellion and defiance. Scared children do scary things because they are afraid and not because they are trying to get on the last nerve of the people who care for and teach them!”

Essentially, trauma leads to fear which leads to manipulative behavior. And trauma can happen at all parts of life– including in utero and in the first years of life during what is known in memory as “childhood amnesia.”

“It was once believed that traumatic memories in the early days of life had no impact on the life of an individual. We now know this is not true.”

So, every part of a fetus, infant, toddler, and child’s life can impact their brain development. A great video to watch is this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-m2YcdMdFw&t=171s which discusses the hand model of the brain.

Look for the next part in this trauma series.

Parents are the First Teacher: How do I keep it going confidently with Remote Learning?

Remote learning, hybrid learning, in person learning with physical distanced, whichever one you are currently experiencing, none are easy and we need to give ourselves a little grace. As a fellow parent, full time (+ more) working parent, and school board member who made the decision for districtwide remote learning, I understand the pros and cons of the difficult decisions both parents and school districts needed to make this school year. However, with my unique view, I also understand the importance of grownups in the lives of our students. Recently, in my full-time role in Illinois, I provided a training that focused on 6 areas to think through as you are helping with online learning now or in the future. Before diving into those areas, it is important to answer these questions. Which of these qualities do you have?

  • Are you a strong communicator?  
  • Do you practice active listening?
  • Do you socialize with others or communicate with others for a goal? (i.e. collaborate?)
  • Are you able to adapt to new things? (i.e. change)
  • Are you able to engage in play or conversations with your child? 
  • Are you able to show empathy when your child is sad or hurt? 
  • Are you patient? 
  • Do you like to learn? And do you like (or miss) traveling as a way to learn? 

How many did you answer “yes” to? Regardless if you answered yes to 1 or all 8, you have qualities of a confident teacher. You embody the best practices to help your child/ren. But I acknowledge it is not easy.

So, here are 6 tips to help.

  1. Designate a space for learning. This does not mean to dictate where the student needs to learn in the house, but providing choice. Think about you as you work remotely. Do you work in the same spot every day? I know I don’t. Some days I want to sit on the couch, somedays at my desk, and somedays outside. Provide that choice to the children in your life.
  2. Limit distractions. Remember, what distracts you may not distract your child. We all have various ways that we engage and learn best. My son loves to tap a pen on the table as he is concentrating and working, but I cannot stand that noise. What are your triggers? Are they the same as your child’s triggers? How can you help your child/ren learn how to manage their own learning space and distractions?
  3. Create a schedule. Just as we create agendas for meetings, it is good to have an “agenda” or schedule for the day. This gives your child/ren a sense of more control and knowledge over their day. 
  4. Check in, but don’t be a helicopter. Create a schedule for yourself to check in on your child/ren. Let them know you are there to support. But remember, if they were at school, they would not have you to problem solve everything throughout their day.
  5. Exercise. Exercise with your child/ren throughout the day. This is part of the schedule, a time to enjoy time with each other, and gives you both a break. These are essentially built in brain breaks for both you and your children. 
  6. Self-care! Don’t let stress zap your energy and patience. It is so important to take care of yourself so you can be 100% for your child/ren. What are your self-care go-tos? How can you fit them into your day? Sometimes it takes some creativity and some to do lists for self-care, but finding time is important for your brain health and your relationship with your child/ren.

Just remember: “Parents create the environments and experiences in which learning happens, which makes them the first teachers their children will ever have” (and the longest standing teacher their child will ever have).

The ‘Adultifiation’ of Black Children

Black is scary. Black is bad. Black is feared. How many of you grew up with those ideas being part of your socialization? If you are confused or didn’t answer, “Me”, then truthfully, you are not being honest. As Lisa Delpit stated in her book Multiplication is for White People, “we are all racism breathers. “This statement is based in work of Beverly Tatum who provides a powerful metaphor. Tatum explains that in the same way residents who live in highly polluted areas cannot avoid becoming “smog breathers,” Americans who are immersed in the structures and practices of white supremacy unwittingly become “racism breathers”. Many of us may not realize the degree to which these toxic beliefs shape our perceptions and experiences of the world. Unless we have opportunities to unlearn racism, these messages become absorbed and have consequences.”

So, we, as Americans, all grow up as racism breathers learning that black is bad. In movies, dark scenes often indicate something scary is going to happen. Many children grow up being afraid of the dark, which is internalized through socialization. While we all reflect on this concept and, if we are honest with ourselves, we know this is something we consciously work against daily as individuals and a society. Furthermore, research supports this concept—adults have shown that black is negative in their classifications between good and bad.

This brings us to present day. We witnessed another murder at the hands of police of another black person. This brings up back to “Black is scary.” Adding to this is the concept that in America Black bodies are owned. This is the history of America, our history and present day.

This piece of writing came about because of a picture I saw on social media. One that truly spoke to me. It was the picture of a black boy holding a sign asking why society turns their view of him from cute to scary. This happens in the blink of an eye for black children. It is a truth that black children are “adultified” and miss out on the growing years of adolescence where mistakes can be made and people forgive, rather than kill. Black children, in the eyes of Americans, go from cute, to scary in the blink of an eye, when white children get the “growing years.” Remember Tamir Rice was 12 when he was murdered by police bullets. In the eyes of Americans (white) he was “adultified”. He was deemed scary because of the color of his skin. He was seen as an adult because of the color of his skin. Just remember, 12-year olds are 5th and 6th graders. If you are white, or have white children in your life, think about 5th and 6th grade students. They are still children. Their brains are still forming. They are still learning about life. And for some Black children, they may be just starting to become aware of a society that is scared of them, especially because one year earlier they were seen as cute. The adultification of black children moves them from cute children to scary adults and skips the learning years of adolescence and young adult because we are racism breathers.

For some of you this is new information, for some of you this is old information, and for some of you this is information that you knew, but made you reflect. Whichever group you are in you are probably sitting there and thinking—so what can I do? You probably have seen lists upon blog posts about things to do. When looking through these consciously reflect on the information that is being presented. Does it throw up red flags? Does it do something that is beneficial? Is it for my growth, my child’s growth, or for society’s growth? You have to find your level of comfort and then take the next step because the line between comfortable and uncomfortable is where the growth begins. While I do not have the “right” answers, here is what I am doing in my house, with my son, who is a black 11-year-old in America.

  1. Engage in discussions through literacy.
  2. Listening to NPR, that is often child friendly, but also provides warnings if anything is going to be played that is inappropriate.
  3. Having honest conversations and welcome questions. While this is important, it is also important that I am knowledgeable with information before answering questions with false information.
  4. Providing options for social justice interactions with purposes and procedures.

Whatever you do, be aware, be honest, be open, and grow to learn by moving from comfortable to uncomfortable.

 

I also read this live on Facebook. One thing added when I did the live Facebook post:

Many parents, specifically white, say to me, “My children are to young to have these conversations.” My push-back? “The children who are dead were not too young. The children who have it in their communities are not too young. Why do your children get the privilege of ‘being too young’ but others don’t?”

Trauma, the Brain, and Behavior (Part 1)

It has been too long. As I was looking back over my WordPress, I realized it has been over a year since I last wrote a blog. Since then I have had multiple publications, including two books (Difficult Conversations and Not Just Black and White). However, I wan to get back to this, blogging.

As a professor I started teaching a course this semester focused on trauma informed practice. While I have completed research and training on this topic, I feel like interacting with graduate students for an entire semester I will learn from the students. However, since beginning the course one week ago, I have already had great learning opportunities. Therefore, I feel that sharing information about trauma, the brain, and behavior should not be kept to only my students, but that I will share in frequent posts this semester.

The first topic? In Utero or Prenatal Trauma

First, what is trauma? A deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It is unique to an individual. Sometimes it ca be a single event, a series of events, or chronically enduring events.

There has been a myth for generations that some children are just inherently resilient. Research refutes this notion. It is an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (relationships) that help ‘open’ the child to resiliency. So, adults matter. Adults in the life of children can make a different– caring, mutually respectful interactions.

These types of relationships help us as adults understand the child and where they are. Some important quotes:

“behaviors are adaptive strategies to a dysfunctional environment”

“challenging behaviors of traumatized children are driven by fear – not rebellion and defiance. Scared children do scary things because they are afraid and not because they are trying to get on the last nerve of the people who care for and teach them!”

Essentially, trauma leads to fear which leads to manipulative behavior. And trauma can happen at all parts of life– including in utero and in the first years of life during what is known in memory as “childhood amnesia.”

“It was once believed that traumatic memories in the early days of life had no impact on the life of an individual. We now know this is not true.”

So, every part of a fetus, infant, toddler, and child’s life can impact their brain development. A great video to watch is this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-m2YcdMdFw&t=171s which discusses the hand model of the brain.

Look for the next part in this trauma series.

Do You Want to Meet Him?

After a lot of thought and reflection I feel that this story is important, especially in a world of changing family dynamics and diversity.  While this story is not in my upcoming memoir focused on race and family in America, this provides insight to my thoughts and my experiences. As always, this is my story, however it is possible my story may resemble your story.

Sitting at the dining room table eating dinner Drew said, “We talked about sad stuff today at school. Some people had some real sad stories.”

Both Doug and I looked at each other quizzically and then looked back at Drew. “Oh, why?”

“It was SEL time, Mom. You know, social emotional.”

“Oh yes, of course. Did you share anything?” I asked.

“Yeah. Mine was not as sad as everyone else. Like they had people die.”

“Oh. Okay. Well what did you share?”

“Oh, you know. Like Jay stuff. Like how you guys got divorced and I don’t see him.”

Knowing teachers, because I was one of those teachers who liked to asked lots of questions, I asked, “Oh, did your teacher ask you any questions?”

“Yeah, she just asked if I ever saw him and I said no, not since I was 2.”

“Oh okay. Do you want to talk about it more?”

“No.”

Our dinner continued with talking about our day. However, that night, the next day, and a few days after I replayed that conversation in my head over and over again. When Doug adopted Drew it was not the intention to take away Drew’s biological father, but to ensure that if anything happened to me, Drew would not have his world flipped upside down.

A few days later, when Drew and I were alone in the car, I flat out asked him if he had any desire to see or meet his biological dad, Jay.

“You know I would take you to meet him if you wanted to.”

“Yeah, I know Mom. I don’t want to meet him.”

Somewhat surprised I said, “Okay, I just thought since you talked about it the other day you might want to. I have been thinking about it and wanted to make sure you knew that you could always meet him.”

“Yeah, mom, I know. You tell me that all the time. Do you know who I do want to meet?”

“Who?”

“My siblings.”

“Huh” I said taking a deep breath, “Well, that is going to be a little bit harder. I know you have at least three. One lives in Croatia, one lives in Chicago, but I don’t know anything about her, and then you have a little brother in Wisconsin. To me honest, I don’t know if you have any other brothers or sisters. Maybe when you get a little older we can meet your older sister overseas.”

“Yeah. I knew it would be hard. I don’t want to meet Jay, but I do want to meet my siblings sometime.”

The conversation ended there with more questions circling around in my head.

 

Kids’ minds are curious. Kids’ minds are mysterious. Drew does not share any of Doug’s genes, however he is his dad. He cleans up his vomit. He takes him to superhero movies. He shares a love of Weird Al. He is everything Drew needs in a father and role model.

Drew has no desire to meet a man that walked out of his life. Drew, at this point as a 4th grader, does not have the desire to meet an adult in his life that shares his genes. Who does he want to meet? The individuals in his generation that he shares genes with. He does not have any half or full siblings on my side. So, I can understand his need to make a connection to individuals who share genes. One day that connection will be made. However, right now, I can only offer him to meet a man who Drew does not view as family, or his extended family. But honestly, I hope someday he does ask to meet Jay. Why? I am not sure. But I feel like at some point in his life it would be important. But am I going to push it? No.

As families continue to diversify through marriage, adoption, foster care, blended families, divorce, or any other combination if family dynamics, what “family” means continually expands and evolves.

Why do we have to have these conversations with our children?

This morning my husband and I were talking about the news. He was standing in the kitchen making lunches and I was sitting at the table with two of our children eating breakfast. Before we got too far into our news conversation I stopped and turned to our children: 8 year old boy (3rd grade) and 6 year old girl (1st grade).

“Did you guys talk about the school shooting at school at all?”

My son responded, “Yeah, we talked about what to do. We sometimes have soft lockdowns because of things happening in the neighborhood, but never a hard lockdown. We talk about what to do though.”

“Does it make you scared?”

“Kind of.”

“Yeah, you know your school is safe and your teacher wants to keep you safe. But, sometimes things happen where we can’t all be safe. What do you think you should do?”

“We are told to hide in the corner of the classroom.”

“Yes that is a good idea and be very quiet. Sometimes people say that you should also play dead. You know like a dog might play dead then the person with the gun will leave you alone.” Turning to my step-daughter: “Do you guys ever talk about what to do at your school?”

“We practice if bad guys come to our school. But we haven’t ever had one.”

“Yeah, that is good. I hope that it doesn’t happen at a school again. Your school or even my school. You know they happen at colleges too?”

The conversation might seem “too mature” for a 6 and 8 year old, but my husband and I go by the rule of being completely honest with our children. If they ask us how babies are made, we tell them about the anatomically correct situations. And, we do not sugarcoat it with “you fall in love and…”. Sometimes babies happen when two people don’t love each other, but that does not diminish the love for that child. I view our parenting and conversations with our children as being real. Everyone has their own view, and everyone has their right to their own view of parenting. My children know that what we talk about at home doesn’t necessarily need to be shared with peers because their parents might want them to know something different, something will less “adult language” as some might view it.

The conversation about the school shootings continued on to the topic of guns. My husband and I do not own guns and to be honest I am not really a “gun” person. I respect people who want to have them, but it is not something we have in our house. I have seen one too many people die or have life changing experiences from gunshot wounds (see previous post). Since our children continued the conversation onto guns, my husband and I continued also. We had the conversation about never playing with guns and if you ever see a friend or peer playing with a gun you tell an adult immediately. There is no reason to be messing around with a gun. Too many accidents can happen when guns are involved.

School shootings and guns: I do not have all the answers, as no one really does, but as a parent, former classroom teacher, and current college professor I am confident that changing our gun laws will protect our children. It does not matter if their school has locked doors, it does not matter if you believe “it will never happen here”, it does not even matter if you believe everyone has the right to bear arms. I have gone through one too many practice intruder drills and every time my mind races, “Will I actually do this if there is an active shooter or will my motherly instinct cause me to react differently. How do “they” know this is the best way to behavior if there is an intruder?”

Every teacher has personal stories about students they love, they call their own, and will protect if the time comes. But that should not even be on our minds. The idea that we need to protect other people’s children from guns should be the least of our worries. School is a place meant to be safe. A place we trust will provide education and safety to our children.

So I ask, do you want a flag flying at half-mast because your child was killed while at school or because they saw their teacher killed in front of them? I don’t. I don’t even want to have the conversation with my children about what to do if an active shooter ever enters their school.

An Open Letter: Dear Ms. Reese

Dear Ms. Reese,

Thank you. Thank you for your wisdom, your songs, your stories, your ability to raise my son, your willingness to be a mentor, and a person I could rely on in a time when there were few other people within a 30 mile radius to help me raise my son.

You are a rock. You are a matriarch. You are a woman who has protected, raised, and watched over “your kids” for generations. I still think back on your stories you used to tell me about coaching all the neighborhood kids baseball, running the streets and making them all play, and ensuring that “your kids” stayed out of trouble. I admired your frankness with keeping a rod iron crowbar behind your door for the “crazy people in the street.” I can still see my young infant/toddler son light up when he saw you, ate your Ritz crackers, and chewed on a chicken leg while you sang, cooked, and made him feel as if he was one of yours. I also can still remember the devastated look on my son’s face when his father did not show up in the morning to watch him. However, I knew you were my constant. I knew no matter what you would take my son that day, love him, and help him forget about his deadbeat father.

We educated each other. You taught me when to add rice cereal (probably a little too early) to my son’s bottle and I taught you the NEED to put sunscreen on a biracial baby’s skin.

Since the day I met you, I knew I wanted to be a women like you in my older age. At 72 years old I still want to be able to get on the floor to show the young ones how to dance and stretch, but also be as wise as you. A women who helped single moms, moms in distress, moms who didn’t understand what the hell the men in their lives were doing. You let me leave my son at your house overnight when I just needed “me time.” You only made me pay $20 a day (a steal for how long he was with you). You helped the poor, single, stressed out, young moms that needed someone to be there for their kids and for them, and you were. I don’t think I can ever repay you enough.

I still tell people that my son is so smart because for the first 18 months of his life he was constantly talked to, loved, held, sang to, and pushed to be the best. And he is the best.

Over the years we have lost touch, but I think about you often. You left a mark on my life and I want to say “Thank you.”

Sincerely.

Chapter 3: What’s in a name? A lot!

What’s in a Name? A lot!

“Anni, are you sure you want to use that name? Don’t you think there would be a better name to choose? Don’t you think you might want to pick a different name?”

“Yes. Ahmad is going to be his name. We decided on names, and this is the name he is going to have when he is born. He is going to have my dad’s middle name, but Ahmad will be his first name.” I was beyond annoyed at this conversation.

Soon after I found out I was having a boy the above conversation occurred. I was 22, had been living in Chicago for about a year and a half, and had just started dating my soon-to-be baby daddy and husband. At the time of this conversation I had just returned home from my first ultrasound. My fiancé, a musician, was not home nor did he go with me to the appointment. I was sitting in my garden level Chicago apartment in Boystown. I truly believed I was going to save the father of my child from a life of poverty, drugs, and alcohol.  We were going to build a life together. We were going to be happy. He was going to be the dad I had and the father he never had growing up.

When I found out I was pregnant I was living and working in Los Angeles for the summer. I remember calling him on one of my breaks and telling him that we were going to be parents. I was ecstatic, but also had some mixed emotions. He, on the other hand, was less ecstatic. This would be his second child and my first. He had another child (girl) who lived in Croatia from his time traveling the world as a musician. I was ready to be a mother. I was ready to be a wife. I was ready to move on with my life and grow up.

When I got back home from my summer job in Los Angeles we went to a chain restaurant to have a nice meal in the suburbs. During this dinner we decided on baby names. It was easy, it was simple, and there was nothing climatic about it. We decided that he could pick a boy’s name and I could choose a girl’s name. Whatever the gender, we had the name picked out.  If we had a girl she would be named Ava and if we had a boy he would be named Ahmad. I loved that name. When I lived in Kenya I lived in a predominately Muslim community, where women were fully covered and men prayed five times a day. The name was not something I thought twice.

In March of 2009, just 4 months after the United States elected their first black president, Ahmad was born. At the time of our naming discussion my husband was a self-proclaimed non-practicing Muslim. While Ahmad is a traditionally Arabic name meaning, much praised, my husband also stated that he chose the name because of a famous musician, Ahmad Jamal.

“You know he is going to have a hard time as he gets older with that kind of name.” I still didn’t understand.

So, I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, you know. A Muslim name such as Ahmad, well, don’t you just think something else would be better?”

“No.”

At the time of my son’s birth I had life experiences, but very few around the prejudices based on one’s name. Since my son’s birth I have become acutely aware of the prejudices that exist. There have been events, mindsets, and statements about people with names that sound like or are Ahmad’s name. Admittedly I have, at times, contemplated changing his name to Drew (variation of his middle name), just to make it ‘easier’ for him. But then I question this thought, “Why change who he is to make everyone else feel comfortable? If he chooses to one day in his life, I will support that but I am not doing to make the decision for him.”

Regardless of my parental fears or maybe even my white fears of who will discriminate against him not only for his skin color but also for his name, my parenting style is one of choice. There are things in life that he does not have choices on, but he does have a choice on his name. That is who he is. That is his identity. That is how he knows himself. I have left it to him to decide who he wants to be. How he wants to be known. And, what is the identity he wants to build for himself as an individual in a racialized America.

 

So, my ultimate question. What is in a name? A name provides identity. A name provides context. A name provides a history. My son was named by his father, after a beloved musician, and a middle name after my father. Names have a history. However, names also provide an avenue for outsiders to make judgments. When people hear or read a name, conscious and unconscious judgements are made. Even though judgments are based on our internalized stereotypes, it is always good to question, to reflect, and to ask yourself if the judgment you made is a fair judgement to make. And I can tell you from experience, it usually is not.

Now, many years after my son has been on this planet, I view names differently, his name specifically. I can tell when people question his name. I can tell when people truly try to get to know him and learn how to pronounce his name. If you do not try to say a name correctly, his or someone else’s, it is disrespectful to the history, the identity, and the person who embodies that name.

At times, if I am honest, I like to make people feel uncomfortable around the idea of a name. When people are put in an uncomfortable position they are more likely to remember the situation, the feeling, and the message. I want people to question their idea of a normal name in America, which often comes down to the idea of a Eurocentric sounding and spelling of a name.

 

Chapter 1: Small Town Iowa

“You know he is black, right?”

The Reverend was sitting in his office on a Thursday afternoon when Betty marched into the church. He saw her put the umbrella down that she was carrying. She placed it by the door as the water dripped off of it to make a puddle on the linoleum. He then saw her walk up to the secretary and speak to her about the rainy morning. Finally, Betty made her way into his office and sat down in the big brown chair that many parishioners had sat in before. When Betty sat down the Reverend knew she was settling in for a long conversation. He did not know if it would be a pleasant conversation or a conversation full of complaints and demands, but either way he was ready.  In his head he was thinking about all the things that might have gone wrong over the last week. Maybe she wanted something fixed around the church. Were the coffee hour volunteers showing up on time and doing the needed work?  Were the Wednesday night youth club kitchen volunteers not washing all the dishes again or putting them back in the correct places? Or, maybe she had a question or complaint about his sermon? Whatever it was, the Reverend had his usually jolly smile spread across his face to welcome her into his office. “Good afternoon Betty, how are you this rainy day?”

Betty was a short, sassy, older women in the church who made sure everything ran smoothly. She was in charge of the kitchen when the kitchen was being used. She was in charge of organizing and making the lunch when there were funerals. And, she was in charge of making sure people were doing what they were “suppose” to be doing. Betty took this all on herself. She was also a mentor to multiple middle school youths throughout their time in the youth (confirmation) program. She viewed herself as a Godly woman doing the work of the Lord in the church. All of her actions and comments came from a place of love, however sometimes her actions or comments got her in a bit of trouble with other people.

Betty was of an older generation. A generation before school integration. A generation when Blacks and Whites did not converse, work, or even look at each other in polite company. She carried with her an older, outdated mindset based on the history and experiences she had as a child and young adult. That was her background and mindset when she entered the minister’s office that rainy Thursday afternoon. The first thing she said when she sat down was, “You know he’s black, right?”

The Reverend had an idea of what Betty was talking about, but he decided to probe a little deeper into her comment. “What do you mean? Who are you talking about? We have many Black people in our community and they are all more than welcome to attend our church.”

Betty huffed and said, “Well, Reverend, I am talking about your daughter. You know that boy she is dating is Black, right?”

“Oh, I see,” the Reverend calmly responded to Betty. Although his exterior was calm, his head his mind was racing. What is the right thing to say? The first thing he said was, “I understand that you see him as Black. But, I want to point out to you that is mother is White, she lives right by us. They are a very nice family.”

The Reverend was a white, middle class, educated 40-something that had been the head minister at this church for several years. He and his wife, the other minister in the church, raised their two daughters in the community. The Reverend grew up as an only child in a Central Illinois city. He was poor as a child. His parents had limited education and both received their GEDs later in life. The Reverend however, had a strong foundation that allowed him to graduate college, not one time, but three times. He received his professional doctorate in his mid-30’s. He was able to leave his neighborhood to attend college, see other parts of the nation, and widen his view of people.

On this Thursday afternoon in his office the Reverend was taking his knowledge and experience of living in poverty, along with knowing different viewpoints to engage in the conversation with Betty. He understood that the people of the church, especially older women in the church, feel it is their duty to make sure the preacher’s children are taken care of and raised “right.”

The conversation with Betty continued. “But he is Black,” Betty said again as she whispered the word black. “You are not going to let her keep dating him are you? Do you know what that means? She is dating a Black boy. You don’t want black grandchildren in your family do you? That is disrespectful to let your daughter date that Black boy. I don’t care how nice he or his family is, it is wrong.” The Reverend could tell Betty was getting more and more agitated as she sat in his office telling him how to raise his daughter.

Very calmly the Reverend said, “Betty, I thank you for coming into my office this afternoon, however I support my daughter in her decision to date him. The color of his skin does not matter. He is a nice young man who makes her happy. But, again, I thank you for voicing your opinion.”

Betty was now fully agitated. How could the Reverend not agree with her? She said again, “But Reverend, he’s BLACK.” The Reverend appeared unfazed by this attack on his family that rainy Thursday afternoon in the early 2000s. Betty’s eyes locked with his and, as he explained it later, he could see Betty finally understand this conversation was not going to end how she had hoped. She changed the subject to her frustrations with the volunteers in the kitchen, and the afternoon conversation continued from there.

I heard this conversation relayed to me by my mother nearly 10 years later as I was helping clean out boxes upon boxes of my childhood memories during one of my mom’s famous “mass clean out, get rid of everything” sessions. I held up one of my favorite baby dolls from when I was younger. It was the size of my palm, hard plastic, black curly hair, and brown skin. On the upper left chest there was a small button that stuck out in the shape of a heart. When it was pressed, the baby doll said, “I love you. I love you,” in a small, sweet voice. This baby doll was my pride and joy growing up in a white, rural Iowa town. While I was listening to the story of my father and Betty, along with other childhood stories told by my mother, I continued to clean. When the story of Betty came up I stopped cleaning and looked at my mom. I was in shock. Betty had been a mentor of mine when I was growing up. Once I asked questions and got a better understanding of what happened that Thursday afternoon I began to feel quite upset that the conversation even happened in the first place. I was also mad that my parents had never told me. Yes, reflectively I can understand why they never told me. I was a moody, feisty, outspoken, stubborn teenage girl. They were probably afraid of what I would say to her if I had found out while we still lived in that town or while she was still alive.

After learning about the conversation between my dad and Betty from years prior, I kept digging. At the bottom of one box that was filled with toys, baby dolls, clothes, and all my pocket rocker cassettes I found my one and only American Girl Doll. My grandmother had bought her for me many years earlier. She also took the time to make and sew many pieces of clothing for my beloved, and expensive, American Girl Doll. The doll I asked for as a child, and still have in my basement as an adult, was the Addy Walker doll. The Addy Walker books describe the life of a nine-year-old girl who was born into slavery and escapes to freedom with her mother during the Civil War. These books intrigued me as a young girl. They made me think. They made me question. And they made me begin to look around at my surroundings and constantly think about the history of people and their lives.

I pulled Addy out of the box and said to my mom, “I think I had more Black baby dolls than I did White baby dolls growing up. All of those White dolls were my sister’s.” My mom quietly laughed and said, “Yeah, you always wanted the darker skinned baby dolls. Your dad and I didn’t care either way. We did not have a lot of money while we were raising you, so if you wanted a doll that made you happy, we bought it for you when we had money.”

I kept digging through the boxes and thinking. I was in a point in my life where race was something that I questioned and wondered about a lot. I had just returned from living in Kenya for a few months (more on this later).  I had my first experience as a minority. I was questioning many things. As I continued to think a memory came to me clear as day. I looked up at my mom and said, “I remember when I saw my first Black person in real life.”

My mom laughed slightly then looked at me surprised and said, “You do? When was that? You must have been pretty little.”

I went on to tell her the story, as I remembered it from the view as a young girl. “There was one day that your friend Tom came over. I don’t remember if he was visiting for the weekend or was just stopping by for dinner on his way to somewhere else. But, I remember seeing him. I remember thinking he was the coolest person I had ever seen or met. I felt like our family was on top of the world as we walked with him around the town square (in our town of 2,000) to the pizza place for dinner. I wanted all my friends from school to see me with that man and our family.”

My mom stared at me blankly for a few minutes. She finally said, “I don’t remember that, but I know who you are talking about. I think that was the only time he came to visit. I haven’t seen him in years. But you know what? I think around that time is when we got you that baby doll that says ‘I love you.’

Reliving my childhood through the boxes I was cleaning out with my mother that day was therapeutic. My reflection and therapeutic feeling continues to this day.

What do you think about ‘Muffins with Mom’ and ‘Donuts with Dad’ events?

In 2011, when I began teaching in Central Illinois (after teaching in the Chicago area for 4 years), I began hearing buzz of two upcoming events in our district: Muffins with Mom and Donuts with Dad. What was this event? The titles threw up some red flags for me, but I wanted to learn more about them (and experience them). Essentially, they are two different events, both occurring in the morning. One is for students to bring in their mothers and have muffins and the other one is for students to bring in their dads to have donuts. Apparently these events happen all over the United States in different regions.  Overall, the events were nice, but something was not right in my mind.

I became a single parent at a young age and I wondered, what would my son do for Donuts with Dad events? (My dad would go, but not everyone has that advantage).

I began to ask myself and discussing with some fellow colleagues:

What do single parents do? What do children do who have lost a parent? What do children do who have an incarcerated parent? What do same-sexed parents do? Regardless of the event someone, some child, some family is going to be left out. And more often than not the question will be, from well-intentioned individuals, “Hey, why didn’t you come this morning?”

“My dad is in prison.” “My mom is in prison.”

“I don’t have a dad, I have two moms.” “I don’t have a mom, I have two dads.”

“My mom works and couldn’t make it. She is gone a lot.”

“My dad is very sick and can’t leave the house.”

“My mom and dad are getting divorced so my dad didn’t know about it.”

The responses could go on and on… and all of them put the child in a place of explanation, awkwardness, and/or shame.

While well intended peers and teachers might ask the question of “Why didn’t I see you this morning at Donuts with Dad,” the question is intrusive and can be prevented.

How to prevent these questions? Stop having the events that marginalize the ever diversifying family dynamics of the American society. Have a Fruit with Families event or an Eggs with Everyone event or even a Biscuits with Big People event. (In my research I learned from a participant many years ago that the way she addresses the family dynamics of students is to call the adults in the child’s life their “big people.” Big people could be older siblings, the neighbor, an aunt or uncle, or even mom’s boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend. Whoever is there to greet you at night and send you off to school in the morning is a child’s big person.)

This year I missed Muffins with Mom because my son and I were flying to be in a wedding of one of my dear friends and her wife. So, when Donuts with Dad came around my son asked me if I wanted to come too. Sure, why not? I was curious. I like donuts. I like spending time with my son and husband. And, I wanted to see what was different than the muffins with mom events I have been to in the past.

First, the attendance was less. My husband told me this was normal for Donuts with Dads events. (Which makes the points of children missing the event because of working, absent, or busy fathers). Second, I got the question from people in my life, “Why are you going? You aren’t his dad.” True. But, my son asked me to go and there is no reason why I shouldn’t. But then I started to think of this response/line of questioning more. I felt self-conscious and I am a heterosexual, married, confident woman/mother. But what would single mothers think or lesbian couples or mothers who have traveling husbands think to these questions? Not only are children marginalized by questions, but whole families can be also.

Recently in the news I saw a story of a single mother who tried to take her daughter to a Daddy Daughter event. She thought it would be fun to dress up like a man (drawn on beard and all) to take her and help her daughter feel included in an event that was not meant for her. They were refused entrance. What does that tell you about a welcoming environment?

There are plenty of ways to engage parents and families. However, events that marginalize children or families are not worth the emotional strife in our ever-changing family dynamics. Times are changing, therefore mindsets and the “we have always done it” events need to be redesigned to include all families.