Ask Athena: Parent Plans

Skill sets for positive progeny. 

Baby See, Baby Do

Dear Athena,

I’m white but was raised to believe that everyone is equal and this is how I would bring my own children up. However, the other day a perfectly nice Black cashier said hello to my 5-month-old, and she took one look at him and screamed like he was a monster. It was very embarrassing! I lied that she must be hungry but it was pretty obvious she just didn’t like the sight of him. Is my baby racist? Should I have apologized? What’s a parent to do?  — Mortified Mama

Dear Mama,

Don’t be mortified! Fear of strangers is very common, it’s a normal stage in child development.  Your baby is attached to you, and learning to accept new faces can be scary. Crying is a very common reaction. However, since you bring up race, I will add my 2 cents on that too.

Babies are not inherently racist. Racism is learned. If you feel your baby’s reaction to the cashier was different because of the cashier’s skin color, you may be right. Your baby could be reacting to internal biases you unconsciously project. Let me tell you a story.

One time I had a meeting with a man and I had to have my baby with me.  He was a difficult man whom I disliked. My son started screaming when the man came in the room and did not stop.  It was embarrassing.  My reaction afterwards was that my child was prescient and could tell this guy was trouble.  Upon reflection, though, I think that my baby could tell how I felt about the guy and just reflected it. I wanted to scream, but my baby did instead!

I’m not saying you’re racist, but we all have instinctive preferences for the familiar. Perhaps it’s worth considering whether your infant may have picked up on subtle changes in your behavior when interacting with People of Color? How comfortable are you with others of different races? How diverse is your circle of friends and associates? When you spend time as a family, do you tend to hang with white people or do you seek out multi-cultural events and gatherings?

Babies are watching and learning from us all the time. The best way to raise enlightened, racially-conscious citizens is by walking the walk and taking the talk, ourselves. As your child grows, you have the opportunity to encourage a global mindset by the choices you make every day in your life. Books you read, movies you watch, where you shop, live and socialize.

Sure, when your child freaks out in public – especially over a well-meaning stranger – it’s embarrassing.  Your baby isn’t even a year old yet, I assure you there will be many more times she will make you wish you could disappear under a rock. You might want to have a phrase handy, such as “We’re working on relating to strangers” or “This happens when <name> is over-stimulated” or whatever feels natural for you.

Don’t sweat it, though. Cashiers are humans, too, and indeed many are even parents themselves. Don’t worry, no one’s going to judge a 5-month old baby! Relax and be present for your daughter as she learns to understand the world through your example.

Morning Madness

Dear Athena,

My husband decided our two school-age kids should have no screen time in the morning. That’s fine except I get up earlier than he does (we both work). So now I can’t sit them in front of the TV while I get ready, which means I have them dancing around me in the bathroom, asking me questions, begging me to watch them or help with this or that while I’m trying to get out the door. My husband said he’d get up earlier to help me, but so far he hasn’t. Yet he gets mad when I threaten to turn the TV on, and tells me I need to just learn how to ignore them. What should I do? – Morning Has Broken Me

Dear Broken,

If you need to learn to ignore anything right now, it’s your husband’s bossy mandates. Turn that TV back on for the moment, and regroup. Parenting is team work and – this is important – you are both equal players on the same team. Seems your husband might think he’s the head coach or maybe the quarterback, “Here’s what I’m gonna do, here’s where you come in, annnnnnd break!”

I don’t blame you for feeling frustrated. Your husband’s heart is in the right place: less screen time is a good idea for all young children. He’s correct, too, TV is a mindless way to entertain kids. However, it’s also a really good babysitter. On workday mornings in your household, TV serves an important function in your family’s established routine.

Changing patterns takes work! You can’t just take the TV away and expect your kids to know how to quietly occupy themselves while you get ready. You and your husband need to create a plan. He will probably need to get up earlier to help you, and you probably will both need to make extra time in the mornings temporarily, until you establish a new pattern.

As you phase out TV, offer special books, toys or puzzles instead. School age kids can be very capable, too, you and your husband might come up with easy tasks they can do to help get out the door. Alternately, you might be more OK with screen time if it’s educational – there’s a lot of great children’s content available, it shouldn’t be hard to find something instructive that will also appeal to your kids’ interests.

Do what you need to do to get out in the morning.  Keep the TV on for now while you and your spouse huddle on a winning morning playbook. Go, Team!

Agree or Disagree? Please comment below.

Read last month’s Ask Athena here.

ABOUT ATHENA  When she’s not advising mortals, Athena spends her time on earth in NW Philly with her husband, two sons and a day job where she’s paid to tell important people what to do (naturally).  Send your questions to askathena@nwlocalpaper.com

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