Five famous parents,
five tough topics

How W. Kamau Bell, Padma Lakshmi, Mia St. John, Jonathan Safran Foer
and Kimora Lee Simmons turn difficult subjects into lessons for their kids.

SLIDE 1 STORY I wrote you 365 letters. If I drive for you, you get your money. I get sick of myself, so I can imagine how everyone else feels. It just felt meant to be. I relate to these characters because aspects of their personality are like me. I could be whatever you want. For example, the sun goes up and then it goes down. Change moves in spirals, not circles. I could be pensive, uhh... smart, supersticious, brave? And I, uhh, I can be light on my feet. I give you five minutes when we get there.
SLIDE 2 STORY I think American news is pretty tragic in general. The pictures which will be accompanying this interview are basically of me in tight wet T-shirts and tiny leather jackets going around in the rain and pretending that I'm a lot cooler than I am. I won't eat my cereal. It's nice to be around people that have a sense of the world around them, that are, in general, more conscious and conscientious. All my characters are me. My character seems to think that he is, so he would define it. Not to discriminate against budgets, I feel that independent films tend to ask more questions and don't pretend to know as much as the bigger films, which tend to think they know everything. You just tell me what you want, and I'm gonna be that for you. Because I was home-schooled, I didn't have a lot of friends and I did ballet, which was always just girls. I try not to make too many movies.
SLIDE 3 STORY I think American news is pretty tragic in general. The pictures which will be accompanying this interview are basically of me in tight wet T-shirts and tiny leather jackets going around in the rain and pretending that I'm a lot cooler than I am. I won't eat my cereal. It's nice to be around people that have a sense of the world around them, that are, in general, more conscious and conscientious. All my characters are me.
SLIDE 4 STORY I think American news is pretty tragic in general. The pictures which will be accompanying this interview are basically of me in tight wet T-shirts and tiny leather jackets going around in the rain and pretending that I'm a lot cooler than I am. I won't eat my cereal. It's nice to be around people that have a sense of the world around them, that are, in general, more conscious and conscientious. All my characters are me.
SLIDE 5 STORY I think American news is pretty tragic in general. The pictures which will be accompanying this interview are basically of me in tight wet T-shirts and tiny leather jackets going around in the rain and pretending that I'm a lot cooler than I am. I won't eat my cereal. It's nice to be around people that have a sense of the world around them, that are, in general, more conscious and conscientious. All my characters are me. My character seems to think that he is, so he would define it. Not to discriminate against budgets, I feel that independent films tend to ask more questions and don't pretend to know as much as the bigger films, which tend to think they know everything. You just tell me what you want, and I'm gonna be that for you. Because I was home-schooled, I didn't have a lot of friends and I did ballet, which was always just girls. I try not to make too many movies.

Parents walk a fine line between protecting their kids from the harsh reality of the world and preparing them for it. And although countless books, websites and TV shows are dedicated to helping parents talk about the big issues, that “Afterschool Special” script can seem beyond reach when those questions are launched from the back seat in the drop-off lane. We asked five famous parents to share their conversations about racism, sexual assault, mental illness, climate change and financial independence.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Famous Parent Conversations racism illustration (Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post/Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post)

Racism: W. Kamau Bell

In a 2015 “This American Life” segment titled “When You See Racism, Say Racism,” the 46-year-old comedian vowed to do just that with his two young daughters, Sami and Juno. That was shortly after he’d been asked to leave his neighborhood coffee shop because some employees thought he was “trying to sell something” to a group of white women. One of those women was his wife. Since then, they’ve had another daughter, Asha, who is growing up in a family that speaks openly about race and racism.

W. Kamau Bell

The coffee shop has allegedly changed hands. It’s still a place we don’t go to. The kids were with friends who wanted to stop there, and my 8-year-old said, “My family doesn’t go there.” When you’re clear with your kids why you make certain decisions, they’re okay with it. If Disneyland were in there, we might have a bigger problem.

My 5-year-old recently found a book about the Loving couple. Our Latina babysitter explained to our mixed-race kid about the couple who made it legal for black and white couples to be married. Juno said, “You mean, my mom and dada wouldn’t be able to be married without that couple?” The next time she was walking by the coffee shop, she said, “Is that why they kicked you and Dada out, because you’re married and they didn’t want you to be married?” Kids will let you know when they don’t understand things — because they don’t understand a lot of things — but they really do understand things more than we think. She understood what happened there. Basically it’s true: They didn’t believe the woman I was talking to could be a member of my family.

After the “This American Life” piece aired, I realized I actually had to do the thing I said I would: talk about racism, not just race. I went to the Internet and looked up kids’ books about racism. I got a biography about Harriet Tubman for kids, one about Martin Luther King Jr., a picture book that mentions slavery and how black people could be sold “like a sack of potatoes.” It was a good way to get into it, and then as a parent, I could annotate and footnote, knowing what my kids could handle. A lot of it is making sure the media they take in is having the conversation and represents families like ours. It doesn’t mean that’s all they watch, but they’re definitely in the rotation. I’m famously pro-“Doc McStuffins,” but there are plenty of shows like that now, not as many as there should be, but more than there used to be.

Every parent — not just parents of color, who I feel are already talking about it — should be having a version of this discussion: “You’re white and here’s what that means.” White parents need to be talking to white kids about white privilege. My 8-year-old has the typical mixed-girl, light brown, “Erykah Badu would be jealous” Afro. The first time she wore it out to her new school, kids wanted to touch it. And some did. Even though the kids don’t see it as such, for me, that’s an act of white supremacy, just thinking you have that access. My daughter stopped wanting to wear it out. I get that. I couldn’t be like, “You’re going to wear your hair out because you’re black and you’re proud.” But when she did start wearing it out again, I was like, “Yeah!”

Juno is significantly more light-skinned. In her eyes, she’s the same color as my wife. We have to explain, “Yes, you’re light like Mama, however, you’re black, because Dada is black.” It’s confusing. We have to go over it a lot. But it basically becomes, on some level, an issue of life or death. I want her to know that she’s connected to the old black lady who says hello to her on the street. It’s about making sure she recognizes that connection, even though she’ll likely be in situations where people think she’s white.

I recently went to Juno’s kindergarten, and they had the kids draw self-portraits. She colored hers with a brown marker. Okay, she’s not that color, but what I saw was that she was taking in all this information and she understands her identity is not necessarily linked to what she looks like. Mission accomplished.

Famous Parent Conversations Sexual Assault illustration (Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post/Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post)

Sexual assault: Padma Lakshmi

The “Top Chef” host, 49, doesn’t mince words on- or off-camera — especially about issues in which silence has for too long been the default. During the Brett M. Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings last year, she wrote an op-ed about being raped at age 16 and keeping silent about it. In the piece, and since, she’s emphasized that her most crucial audience member was her 9-year-old daughter, Krishna, to whom she’s determined to give the strength, conviction and voice to say what she couldn’t.

Padma Lakshmi

I took the position very early in Krishna’s development to talk to her about sexual assault and sexual molestation, even as she was going to preschool. At that time, there were people who questioned my decision because they love Krishna. I understand that reluctance. It is something that’s sinister and not on their radar. I want my daughter to fend for herself when a family member isn’t there. I’m someone who found myself in a sticky situation and didn’t have the words or knowledge to protect myself. So while I do want to shield my daughter from knowing about all the atrocities in the world earlier than she needs to, I prefer to arm her. If there’s a choice between shielding or arming her, I choose to arm her.

As a child, you don’t even have the language; it’s not even in your consciousness until it happens. You’re so used to adults picking you up, carrying you to bed when you’re tired, telling you when to eat. You’re taught to just be quiet and put up with it. You have so little control. That’s been my goal with Krishna: to instill a sense of possessiveness of her body, of full dominion. And by the way, it happens to boys, too, so regardless of gender, I want to underscore that children have to know that their bodies are their own.

When I first explained to her about sexual assault when she was a 4-year-old, I said: “Mommy doesn’t want to scare you, but not everybody is a good person, even if they seem that way. It happened to Mommy, and I didn’t know what to do at the time. And I want you to know. Nobody has the right to put their hands on you — unless someone is trying to push you out of the way of traffic or your shirt is on fire.” Even when we go to the pediatrician, I’m in the room with her and the doctor. There’s never an occasion when our daughter is alone with an adult. But I cannot be with her at all times, nor do I want to be, because then I’m not raising a self-reliant human being.

Every September, starting with pre-K, I’ve said — and I try to say it in an age-appropriate way — “If anyone touches you — whether they are your teacher, principal, policeman, nurse, friend of your dad, relative of your mom, anyone — or makes you touch them in your privates or their privates with their mouth or their hands or somehow makes you feel uncomfortable, you immediately say ‘No!’ really loudly and go and tell a grown-up who you feel safe with.”

It’s gotten to the point, just this past September as she was starting fourth grade, that when I say to her, “Now remember,” she’ll say, “I know Mom. I know.”

I tell her: “You have to know that as you get older, it will happen in more subtle ways.” We’re starting to talk about puberty, and that’s happening earlier for girls. She’s full of questions. She has no reluctance. She’s very bold. I’m confident that if she had any questions, she would ask me. And there’s a point that I can’t make enough, no matter how tired she gets of me saying it: Even if you’re wrong and you misunderstand someone’s intentions, Mommy won’t be mad. I have your back. You will not get in trouble for standing up to an adult for doing something that you feel is not okay. You will not be shamed.

Famous Parent Conversations mental illness illustration (Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post/Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post)

Mental illness: Mia St. John

A former world champion boxer, the 52-year-old knows about getting knocked down and bouncing back. But in the past five years, that resiliency has been tested. In 2014, her son, Julian, committed suicide after suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And earlier this year, her ex-husband and “The Young and the Restless” actor Kristoff St. John died of hypertrophic heart disease. Since Julian’s first symptoms, she’s become a champion of mental health reform.

Mia St. John

I started talking to my kids at a very young age about addiction and mental illness. Paris was probably 10; Julian, 12. I told them about my own addiction and fight to stay sober. I told them they can’t use drugs, smoke marijuana or drink alcohol because addiction runs in their family. I wanted them to understand that drugs can be a trigger.

I talked to them in the car on the way to school, on the way home, at breakfast, at dinner. Of course, there were times when they were like, “Oh, Mom, don’t worry.” But that’s not my personality. I’m a strong-willed person, and I just felt that anytime was the right time.

They never thought it would happen to them until it happened to them. My son started smoking weed. He’d been an active, happy kid, an artist who played sports. But at 14, he quit everything. He was sleeping all the time. I had a background in psychology, so all the alarms went off. We took him to doctors and therapists, but I felt like we were fighting to get him what he needed. His teachers, other adults, I think they just thought his reclusiveness was part of him being an artist. At 17, he had his first psychotic break. He was hearing voices and thought people were out to get him. We were able to get him into a psychiatric hospital.

You have to educate yourself. I’ve done so many interviews, and when I ask, “Do you know what schizophrenia is? Do you know what it looks like?” People don’t know the true definition because we don’t focus on mental health. You can look very normal and still be suffering.

And we have to listen. When my son was telling me he was hearing voices, I kept telling him the voices weren’t real. I wish I would have acknowledged his reality. I wish I would have told him to stand up to that voice, to fight it. If your kid tells you they’re depressed, don’t say, “Oh, come on, you got this. What do you have to be sad about?” We all can suffer, and when no one believes us, that only makes us feel alone. Don’t try to talk your child out of their feelings.

When you have one sick child in the family, all the attention goes to that child. My daughter, Paris, has suffered greatly because of this, and we’re still dealing with the repercussions. But we’re closer than we’ve ever been. It takes all my energy to take care of her, so I have to ask for help. I have to be well to focus on her now. I see a therapist, go to support groups, I constantly meditate. And all the time, we talk about resilience. I have learned to listen more and have more empathy. I’m the fighter. I want get out there and do something, but sometimes your child just wants you to listen.

Famous Parent Conversations ClimateChange illustration (Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post/Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post)

Climate change: Jonathan Safran Foer

The 42-year-old novelist is best known for his 2002 breakout “Everything Is Illuminated.” We spoke while Foer was on a book tour for “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast,” his second nonfiction book focused on animal agriculture, our diet and our moral obligation to do something about the climate crisis. When the audience is his two sons, 13 and 10, however, he prefers to lead by action, skip the moralizing and just let them just be kids.

Jonathan Safran Foer

I’m sure my sons started talking about it before I did. That’s the incredibly sad nature of this crisis. They’ve had a growing awareness of the student movement. And they’ve always been vegetarians.

I don’t talk about it more than the amount that feels right. The Post co-sponsored a poll that found that more than half of teenagers are scared about climate change. It’s one thing to offload the responsibility, but we’ve also been offloading the emotions of this crisis to our children. That’s terribly unfair. So when I do bring it up with my kids, I talk about it in the context of what we can do. I try not to make them cynical about adults or orient the conversation toward fear but toward empowerment — which is not quite the same thing as hopefulness but instead determination.

I don’t think they’re actively scared. For most people, kids and adults, climate change feels distant. It feels geographically distant and temporally distant. It’s a thing that will happen one day, somewhere. The problem is that the solutions feel distant. So it’s my job to make decisions knowing this is something happening now.

So many of the choices that happen in a family, kids aren’t aware of and they don’t need to be aware of. If we decide to take a train on winter break instead of a plane, we can just have a wonderful vacation without making them scared to take planes because of the carbon impact. And they don’t need to judge other families who take planes.

My sons know I’ve taken this on. They understand that Dad had to miss the first day of school because he was doing a book tour about the climate. They know I am doing all this, making sure people care about the future — their future.

The most important thing is to model good behavior — not just to say the right things, but to do the right things, and perhaps even say fewer things while you’re doing the right things. If treating the planet well is just how your family behaves, your kids will grow up modeling that.

Famous Parent Conversations financial independence illustration (Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post/Josée Bisaillon for The Washington Post)

Financial independence: Kimora Lee Simmons

This year, the designer and model retook the helm at Baby Phat, the ’90s fashion brand she launched with ex-husband Russell Simmons, and sent daughter Aoki Lee off to her freshman year at Harvard. Aoki Lee and her older sister Ming Lee will be creative directors at Baby Phat. Although it’s definitely a family business, Simmons, 44, isn’t about to let her four kids ride on her hustle. Or as she says, “You can’t check off under occupation: “Mom’s gonna cover it.”

Kimora Lee Simmons

I’ve been working since I was 11. I was getting a check for modeling where I could: Purina, Target, getting paid by the hour. So there’s always been that idea of being fiscally responsible. I’ve always watched what I had and appreciated what it took to earn that money. That turned into me paying my bills, even paying my mom’s bills and putting myself through college. The kids always say to me, “Mom, it’s so bad, everyone thinks we’re so rich, but really, we’re the broke-est ones on the block.” Good!

My oldest, Ming, is in her second year at NYU, so she’s living in — and furnishing — an apartment. I tell her all the time: “Stop ordering stuff from Bed, Bath and Beyond.” It must be some rite of passage for college to buy every plastic spatula at Bed, Bath and Beyond! I just told her: “You’re not really living like a college student; you’re living like you’re on ‘Sex and the City’!” All kids need to get that message: that Mom and Dad will be there for them, but Mom and Dad’s money isn’t theirs.

The girls do both have a platform: modeling, blogging and getting sponsored on social media. But that’s not the same kind of working I was doing. With all the opportunities of social media, there are also more risks and a different level of scrutiny. You have to be careful where your bread is buttered. Young girls are willing to do anything to be Insta-famous, and that will come and bite you in your butt. You have to know your own worth.

I have a very close-knit relationship with all my kids and talk to them a lot about this, even my youngest, who is 4. I always give them a bit of tough love. You are not a rich kid. You were born into this life, and anything beyond that you have to earn. If you aren’t serving up that humble pie to your kids about the value of work, it’s going to smack them in the face. Someone else is going to teach it to them, and they’ll wish Mom and Dad had told them they weren’t all that.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. You can sign up here for our newsletter.

onparenting@washpost.com

Share