Stevenson soon learned that a public elementary school canceled her event. According to her publisher, a parent had raised concern that iconic LGBTQ activist, Harvey Milk, was featured in the book. He is portrayed as a little kid who had a passion for listening to opera in different languages and is in good company with young Martin Luther King, Jr., Alexander Hamilton, Helen Keller, and Malala Yousafzai.
I learned of the last-minute cancellation when Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens shared an interview with Stevenson on her Facebook page.
A school administrator explained that it wasn’t the content itself that concerned the school — or the parent who called to complain— but poor timing in not giving parents information about the speaker or the book early enough.
Early enough for what?
As one parent wrote on social media, “I strongly believe that parents should be given full notice of what speakers are coming to our children’s school, what they will be advocating for, and what their history is. It is very difficult to be a parent today, and schools are making it more difficult when it comes to any conservative values and morality. With this notice, I would have seen all this information … would have had a pre-discussion with my children about the topic, and then given my permission for them to attend. ... Then they can learn and form their own opinions. Unfortunately, we normally find out after the fact and have to parent defensively rather than being proactive.”
Given the usual heat of online disagreements, particularly when the words conservative or liberal enter the mix, I thought this parent and others remained polite and thoughtful on the matter. I do, however, think logic fails when it comes to this job descriptions for parents.
Leaving concerns about values aside, I responded with my take on how we as parents can best help our kids in a situations where someone may present a child with ideas we haven’t explained or evaluated yet.
“To be a good parent, you don’t need to know everything someone might say to your kid, and have a pre-discussion before they hear it from someone else, or before they come to conclusions on their own," I suggested. "First, you’d have to be clairvoyant to do this. Second, even if you were, what’s the point of beating everyone to the punch? Good parenting is creating a relationship with your kid that says, ‘If you want to talk to me about anything, whether it confuses, or angers, or excites you, I’m here for it.’ This notion that parents need to investigate everything thoroughly first so they can pre-process it all sets parents — and kids — up for failure.”
I’m not sure if it’s always been this way, this need to chew up the ideas first and then feed our baby birds what we think they’re ready to digest. I’ve been a parent for 19 years, not long enough to see firsthand how this fully evolved. During those years, though, I’ve witnessed a sharpening of our fears around raising kids in a digital age where people, information, ideas, and other vague, unknown dangers feel like wolves at the gates of childhood. Terrorized by just the possibility of exposure, we monitor. We read every text in case our kids or their friends are using bad words or being mean or feeling depressed or planning a party or ... who knows? Do we even know what we’re looking for, or is our collective anxiety causing us to confuse monitoring with protecting? At least, we think, I’m doing something?
Monitoring only lets you know after something has happened. Yet, we feel irresponsible if we don’t at least try to anticipate and guard against all the ways kids can get hurt, from stranger danger, to depression, to — now it seems — beliefs different from our own.
I’m not suggesting you go full que sera sera! in your parenting approach. The future may not be ours to see, but there are ways to keep your nest safe while letting your little birds spread their wings. (I promise. I’m done torturing this metaphor.)
First and foremost, if you discover your child has encountered a new situation, ask what they think. Did you have a speaker at school? How was it? Do you agree or not? Want to know my thoughts?
We don’t process food before we eat, nor do we process new ideas before we experience them. As parents, we make it so much harder on ourselves by trying to reverse the natural order of events. If your kid thinks of you as genuinely curious, even-tempered, and respectful of varying perspectives, they’ll come to you when they hear something they need help understanding.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for a school speaker to come your way to practice talking about controversial topics in your family. There’s an impeachment inquiry happening now. John Legend got voted the Sexiest Man Alive. The Little Mermaid Live was half cartoon. And a handful of you are going to find out your kid is vegan at dinner tonight right after you set down the beef you lovingly slow-cooked. Some of you Democrats are raising Republicans and some of you Republicans are raising Democrats, and we’ve got some Libertarians in our future, too.
Worst-case scenario: Your child develops a belief system you never wanted for them. Your religious, spiritual, political, and social values don’t evenly closely align. It may be hard to imagine your kid turning out different from how you hoped and intended, but only because you’re seeing it from too close a vantage point. If you pull back, you’ll recognize that kids have done this very thing since the beginning of time, in families around the globe, no matter the parenting style.
Best-case scenario: Same thing as worst-case scenario. Only you have made it clear to your child that even if they are different than you, you’re still there to listen with an open heart and mind. You stay close. Because you’ve shown you can do it with others, they believe you can do it with them.
Thanksgiving is here. As you gather with whatever crew you’ll share your meal, take a moment to look around and notice it isn’t like-mindedness that binds you. Enjoy your bird, or tofurkey for that handful who were surprised by their new vegans, and relish the thought that everyone is eating and thinking for themselves, yet here you all are, together, in gratitude.
Michelle Icard is the author of ‘Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years.’ Her next book, ‘Fourteen by Fourteen: The 14 Essential Conversations to Have with Your Child before They Start High School – and How to Have Them’ is forthcoming (Harmony/Random House 2021).
Ready for the holidays? Come chat with us for a special conversation with Meghan Leahy about parenting through the chaos.