We travel to a new city at least once a year and usually alternate driving and flying each year. We do this in part to save money, but also because there is just something so unequivocally American about a good ol’ family road trip. There is such nostalgia in backing out of the driveway before the sun rises and hitting the highway when it’s still dark, car piled up with blankies and suitcases and of course, the snacks required to make an 8-12 hour car trip palatable. And even if just passing through, I think it is so important to show our children life beyond their own backyard if we are to sow the seeds of respect for diversity.
This year our car trip was made extra special by a nice, young Georgia State Trooper who was kind enough to let a sweet, slightly lead-footed family off with a warning. Awww... Elle’s first time getting pulled over. Touching, huh? But perhaps one of the most special moments of any family road trip is that moment where you point at something obscure or random (or imaginary, as in “hey, kids, look at that family of deer”) on the opposite side of the highway in hopes that your kids don’t see “those” billboards. You know the ones... “Turn here for XXX Girls!” or “X-Mart – Next Left” or “$trippers – Need We $ay More – Next Exit!”. How are these fit for prime time???
I kid. Sort of. I really do love the nostalgia of a road trip and truly value showing my daughter how different people live in different areas of our great nation. We have also made some pretty hilarious and invaluable memories on the road. But it does weigh on my heart that even the classic family road trip is not immune to the omnipresent R-rated, desensitized, and oversexualized culture that has invaded us. Our kids are truly battered with images of casual sex everywhere they go – even on the open road in the country.
It’s true that “we can’t shelter them forever” as I’ve heard some moms of three year olds say. But if we want to raise our girls to carry themselves gracefully, they have to receive much more input reflecting dignity and grace and decorum than input that reflects an attitude of anything goes and baring it all to get attention. The fact that you can’t drive down a country highway without seeing overexposed women advertising their striptease services means your kids will see this stuff – they will! But how they will handle it depends on the path you pave for them in the small moments. In how you dress and in how you speak and in what you watch (at least while they’re awake!) There is no denying that every form of media will feed our girls a steady diet of messages telling them to demand attention rather than respect.
So what do you do, day in and day out, to teach them the opposite? Have you developed your “game plan” to teach your daughter to demand respect over attention? If not, start now. Because you can only point at imaginary deer on the opposite side of the highway for so long...
It started about six months ago.
“Are you gonna post that?” Elle asked, hands on her hips and a look of both dread and disapproval on her face, after I snapped a pic of her outside. She proceeded to beg me – nay, order me – not to post it on social media. And then she just laughed it off and I posted it, because it was so darn cute!
Now, she never really held her ground on this issue at the beginning, so I didn’t think it was that important to her. She’s a good kid and is generally compliant, but she eventually became insistent that I not post any pics of her without her approval. INSISTENT. I’m still not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm the mom! I'm in charge here! (Did you hear my foot stomping?) But on the other hand, I want to respect her growing sense of self, especially as the teen years are approaching.
I want my daughter to trust me and to know that I sincerely respect her as the beautiful, amazing, unique, and growing person that she is, not as my subject. I need her to see that she can trust me on the little things, like not posting a picture of her on her bike if she doesn’t want me to, so that she will later trust me with the big things. Don’t get me wrong. Mom and dad are in charge here. But I was really moved by a phrase I saw a few months ago.
Social media is the new permanent record.
So as I watch the lives of so many children being broadcast play-by-play on the internet for all to see, I have started to really question the practice. Social media is such an amazing way to stay connected with family and get to know old friends again and to share in the joy of those that truly are or were once very dear to you. And so much of our joy is derived from our children! But I’ve also started to truly reflect on how much we share about our children and how we would feel if all of this had been shared about us so publicly. Or how our children will feel twenty years from now. I have started to realize that my daughter’s permanent record should not be mine to build. Her life story is not mine to tell.
So I have agreed, reluctantly at first, but now wholeheartedly, to get Elle's permission before I post a picture of her. Like it or don’t, everything we post paints a portrait and leaves a trail. Every post has the power to contribute a story about who we were and who we’ve become. And Elle is not on social media yet herself – we haven’t given her the key to that kingdom yet. So I still have some time to talk and talk and talk and talk to her about the power of social media, the picture you paint of yourself, and the story it can tell. And then, while I pray and rub Buddha’s belly and cross my fingers and toes that she will write a good one, I will let her tell her own story.
Opponents of the other candidate screamed of his gross inexperience, dangerous racist and sexist diatribes, lack of morality in his discourse, and plans to enact policies that would set us back 50 years. Never in my lifetime has there been a time in which it was more challenging to act with grace against the machine.
The political stronghold in this nation has long been called “a machine”. It seems to many an impenetrable world, and one in which our national values and expectations are to be reflected and enforced. For as long as I can remember, this machine has been devoid of the values we want our children to develop, embodying greed and corruption and promotion of personal agenda instead, sometimes with dark and unspeakable consequences. “He's such a politician” – a phrase that many parents use, tongue-in-cheek, when their child is less than honest, connives to get what he or she wants, or plays two ends against the middle.
So with this general disenchantment with our political class having woven itself into the fabric of our society, many are pleased with the election and believe we needed to change by any means necessary, even if extreme. Still others are enraged, defeated, afraid – unaware of what to tell their children when the soon-to-be leader of their country projects the opposite of the tolerance and grace that they wish to instill in their children. To whom can we look for moral leadership if not to our President?
To you. To me. To every mommy and daddy across this nation. In this world. It starts at home. So how will you act against the machine? Will you act with grace or rage? Your children are watching you much more than anyone else. And many, many, many more times than not, they will do as you do.
As I sat in church with my husband and daughter today, I couldn’t help but observe the two little girls sitting in front of us, sisters, I assumed, about 9 and 12 years old. And unlike most parents, mom chose to let them sit together, and she sat to the left of the younger sister. Interesting choice.
Throughout much of the mass, the younger sister clung to her mother with almost palpable sweetness, while the older sister tried to either get her attention or get her in trouble – not sure which. The older sister poked at her, drew on the wooden pew in front of her with a little golf pencil, and just generally acted as a nuisance. Regular sister stuff. This went on for about 30 minutes of the 60 minute service and I was supremely impressed with little sister’s sense of do-right-ness and ability to shrug off her older sister’s efforts to get her to goof off in church. But then, big sister pulled out the ultimate weapon. Cheetos.
For some reason, mom had left her purse between the two girls, and in it was a small Ziploc baggie full of Cheetos. Little sister’s sense of church manners went out the door and for the next twenty minutes or so, I watched as both little and big sister snuck skinny, orange cheese puff after skinny, orange cheese puff out of mom’s purse in stealthy slow motion. I must admit it was slightly amusing to watch each girl slither one little Cheeto out of the bag at a time, throwing a sideways glance at her mother, then her sister, every time before placing it in her mouth, and then chewing ever-so-slowly in order to muffle the crunch. It seemed so choreographed and something told me they had done this before. When my daughter caught sight of this little spectacle, she looked up at me with her fairly well-worn can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that look of disapproval.
See, my girl is a rule follower. She’s not a perfect angel. But she is, generally, a rule follower. And ever since pre-school she has been casting these can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that looks at her peers. She has tattled on one occasion or another, but mostly, she gives the look.
So as we sat there in church, I forced myself to be aware that I was alternately projecting looks of amusement and disappointment as I watched these two girls. And after church, when Elle verbalized the question her face had already so clearly posed – “Mom, can you believe those two girls were doing that in church?!” – I forced myself to be very aware of my response. Because I knew my daughter was very aware of my responses to everything. And our children will respond as we do.
So in those fractions of a moment before I answered her, I thought back to being 9 or 12 years old. I reminded myself that given the opportunity, I might have snuck a cheese puff or two out of my mom’s purse as well. I reminded myself of the 30 minutes that the younger sister had taken the high road, rather than the oh-so-low (not really) road of her elder and more jaded, cheeto-bearing sister. And rather than condemn the girls for their behavior, I asked Elle what she thought of what they were doing. She instantly softened when she found I wasn’t going to be a co-attacker of their manners. She did assert that they shouldn’t have done that, and I agreed. But I asked her if she had ever done anything – anything at all – that she shouldn’t have done. So she said of course she had because nobody is perfect. Then I asked her if she should steal Cheetos from my purse and eat them in church. And she said no, and we both laughed. And I asked her if, in the grand scheme of things, eating Cheetos in church would make a huge difference in the lives of these girls. And she said no, and we both laughed.
But I also reminded her that every time we see others doing something wrong, we have a decision to make. We can try to stop it. We can talk about them and attack them behind their backs. We can simply ignore it and refrain from engaging in the behavior. And of course, the decision to join in is always there as well. So the Cheeto-stealing church sisters provided us with a springboard to discuss how every moment offers us a choice to get closer to or further from the person we want to be, and that we should never sacrifice what we want most for what we want in a moment. And I reminded her that despite their Cheeto thievery, they were probably otherwise very nice girls, as I believe most people are. So leave it to me to turn something minor into a drawn-out teaching moment. But I know that these regular little, but really very big, conversations will shape her as she grows and help her to make the right choices, especially as the wrongdoings she witnesses will undoubtedly morph beyond Cheetos in church.
And if I may offer some advice, sit between your children in public places whenever possible.