What’s Not Better Left Unsaid

I want to tell you a story about my oldest son, a family vacation, and a white rental car.

When my oldest was about four years old, we took a family vacation to visit family on the east coast.  We flew into Philadelphia and rented a car, spent a week with my mom on the Jersey shore and then drove up to Connecticut to visit my husband’s brother and his family.  It was a great trip, full of the kinds of memories you make when you travel with two little ones across the country.

A couple of years ago, we were reminiscing about that trip and my son (at this point 8 years old) says, “I remember that white car.” 

“What white car?” I ask, not remembering the fact that our rental car had in fact been white. 

“The car you and Dad stole from the airport.” 

My son thought, for four years, that his parents were car robbers. 

Hilarity ensued as we realized what he was referring to, and we laughed as we explained how car rentals work and sorted out in our minds how he possibly could have thought such a thing.  He was at baggage claim with me while Jason worked out the rental, he never saw any monetary exchange, he has not been in a rental car since, and most importantly, he didn’t ask, so we didn’t explain. 

The bottom line is, he’s a child, and in the absence of factual information from trusted sources, children will create their own answers to their unasked or unanswered questions. 

Most adults that are parenting right now were raised, in varying degrees, in a culture that said there are things better left unsaid, or there are things you just don’t talk about.  While this approach might prove useful when you don’t love your neighbor’s taste in yard ornaments or you are tempted to share information that truly is not yours to share, it has had devastating consequences when applied to difficult topics like race, sex, money and power.  Entire generations came of age carrying deep shame about things that should have been brought into the light of day.  And while we are doing better in some areas, we’ve got a long way to go in others.

I still have conversations in which I hear “we’re raising our kids to be color blind”  or “my kids just don’t see color.”  These words are usually spoken by kind and wonderful women who are trying to raise their children with intention and care.  This idea, that children don’t see color, has been passed down now for a couple of generations with little question to its validity.   But it’s just not true.  Children see color.  They see age, size, gender and every other physical identifier a person carries.   In fact, research shows that babies as young as six months can discern differences in race.   What they do with the information however, has to do in large part with what we say and do as parents. 

And it turns out, a lot of us aren’t doing anything. 

According to one study, almost 75 percent of white families are not discussing race with their children at all.  I know that this often comes from a place of good intention.  I know these families think that by not pointing out or over-emphasizing our differences, their kids will focus on what we have in common instead of what makes us different.  But the subtle message that is also sent says that our differences are bad and have to be ignored in order for people to be accepted.  It says that we should love and respect one another in spite of differences in race, rather than affirming that YES humans come in different colors and we love and respect one another because all human lives are inherently valuable.   If you want to read more about the kinds of answers kids come up with on their own, take a look at this excerpt from the book NutureShock.  For me, the young boy who says to his friend,  “Parents don’t like us to talk about our skin, so don’t let them hear you” sums up the impact of our silence.

We have to do better than this. 

This epidemic of silence extends far beyond race.  Any conversation you choose not to have with your child is a conversation you choose to subcontract out to someone else.  Moreover, you don’t get to interview or hire your subcontractor.  If you skirt the answers to your child’s earliest questions about sex, there is a very good chance he is going to seek out answers somewhere else next time.  If the thought of discussing your household budget with your kids makes you uncomfortable, she’ll form her own conclusions about how money is earned and spent and you may not get to decide if she chooses Dave Ramsey or the guy offering her a free t-shirt with her shiny new credit card on her college campus to inform those conclusions.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of watching one of these really important conversations go down.  My friend’s 17 year old son came to us with questions about the rioting in Ferguson.  This young man had the humility to begin this conversation by saying, “I don’t know anything, and I’m trying to understand.”  Friends, I truly believe that anytime we are willing to start with “I don’t know anything” we set the stage for learning and understanding.  I won’t go into the details of the conversation that followed, but I will say that I have watched this family parent this child since he was very young and have seen them build conversation currency.  I’ve seen them lean into uncomfortable questions and difficult conversations time and time again.  If you want a 17 year old that turns to you for answers, you have to start answering the tough questions when they are tiny because it takes time to build that kind of currency.

I’m not sure how often I’ll delve into parenting on this blog.  I’m far from a parenting expert. I’m only ten years in the trenches and my wise mentors ahead of me tell me that I’m just getting started.   Some days I feel closer to the diaper days then the driving days even though my calendar tells me that’s not true.  I’m not even an expert at this stuff with my own kids.  I have a seven year old who knows exactly where babies come from but also believes in Santa Claus and thinks he might be a wizard.  I struggle with the balance between honest and age-appropriate and I’m not about to offer advice on how to have these conversations.  I only suggest that you have them at all.

In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, at-your-fingertip internet,  and constant connectivity to friends, our kids will seek and find answers to their questions.  Unless you intend to seclude yourself deep in the woods in a like-minded community without access to technology or the outside world (by the way I’ve seen that movie and it did not end well)  it is likely that your kids will have access to information you don’t provide.  This is not all bad.  Sometimes you’ll seek outside answers right alongside your child.  In fact, that “I don’t know anything” phrase is also a currency builder with kids who love a parent’s willingness to learn alongside them.  (Equally powerful currency builders include “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry”.)  Outside information is not the enemy but without the guiding context we provide as parents, it can lead kids to draw conclusions we never intended or imagined.  Take it from me, the grand theft auto mom.   When it comes to the tough topics, we have to decide as parents if we want to be one of our kids’ primary resources or not, and if we are silent on these matters, our silence makes the decision for us. 

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