Talking about Orlando with my 4-year-old

Last week was incredibly difficult. Orlando, as a community, was rocked with several traumatic events, the most severe being the massacre at Pulse nightclub. Personally, I felt a mixture of sadness, anger and helplessness followed by a fierce desire to act. All of these emotions manifested into distraction when it came to my children. And they noticed, my four-year-old son in particular.

At one point, he came and put a hand on my leg as I stared off in the distance, physically willing me to come back to the present and asked, “what’s wrong, Mommy?”

I hadn’t yet decided how I would bring up Pulse to my son or if I would discuss it at all. There were so many factors at play in that horrific event; gun violence, homophobia, endemic violence against LGBTQ people of color…I wasn’t sure how to unpack it all for him in a way that was developmentally appropriate.

But here he was, unexpectedly asking me why I was hurting and I felt a responsibility to be truthful. So I said:

“I’m sad, honey. A lot of people got hurt this week by a person who felt a lot of hate inside.”

“Don’t worry, Mommy,” he replied. “When people get hurt, the boo-boo turns into a scab and then the scab goes away. They’ll get better!” His words made me tear up.

I explained, “That’s often true. But these people are not going to get better. And what makes me really sad is they were hurt because they were men who loved other men and women who loved other women and they had brown and black skin.”

“Well I think they are going to get better. Want to play super heroes?” he asked, again patting my leg in a seeming gesture of reassurance.

My son wasn’t grasping the fact that the Pulse victims died and I let the conversation end there without pushing the issue further. I drew myself back to the present moment in order to play with him.

As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to attend a Racial Justice Leadership Institute facilitated by Race Forward a few days later, and there they introduced the metaphor of the 3-lb weight. When you go back to the gym after a hiatus from working out, if you lift weights that are too heavy, you injure yourself. You need to start light and build strength and endurance so you can take on more weight in the future. This same tenant holds true for racial and social justice work.

The Race Forward moderators confirmed there is no silver bullet to end racism. No individual can solve or combat all of the systems that perpetuate racism; in fact, if try to you take that on, you will most likely burn out completely. Instead, the facilitators suggested that each person think of racial justice work as a 3-lb weight. They encouraged everyone to start small and identify a concrete and sustainable action we could make in our organization or personal life that moves racial justice forward but isn’t overly ambitious.

Since I was not at the conference representing an organization, my mind was drawn to my family when I thought of the 3-lb weight. There are concrete, sustainable actions I can make within the context of my family that will move racial and social justice forward.

I did not cover everything I hoped to with my son about the Pulse shooting in our conversation above. But that’s okay. I have books in our library that provide a foundation from which to proactively discuss homosexuality, gender identity and racism and the intersections that lie there within. We live in a city with racial diversity and a large LGBTQ population, so there are lots of opportunity to interact with people different from ourselves and to name and normalize these differences in appropriate ways. And there is a lot to say about guns, but I’ll save that for a separate post altogether.

I do not have the ability to eradicate racism or homophobia; no one does. But I have complete domain over my family, over the ways we speak to our children and educate them about racial and social justice, over the events we attend, over the parks we visit and more.

For now, how I raise my children is my 3-lb weight.

For additional modeling on talking to kids about the Pulse shooting, see Sachi Feris’ beautiful post at Raising Race Conscious Children.

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