I had two profoundly opposite experiences watching white dads and their white sons last week. They both stuck with me; for in both the healthy and the unhealthy there are lessons to learn.
One father told me about how his son befriended a boy at swimming practice who is going through a rough time. I could tell that he was touched by his son’s emotional sensitivity that tears welled up in his eyes in the middle of the library. He didn’t apologize that he was crying. He was proud, and he was glad that his son, learning to work through his own limitations, sees situations where others need to feel accepted and included.
Another father interrupted my lesson with his son, in order to place a brand new MacBook Pro in front of him, and said to me, “This is here, just in case he needs a little more motivation.” His son got a huge smile on his face, and immediately said, “Can we finish our lesson early today?” to which my immediate response was, “No.”
These situations happened less than 24 hours apart and both captured my attention. I asked myself,
“What are these boys learning from their fathers about what it means to be a man?”
“What are these boys learning about their emotional life, their friendships, their perseverance, their limitations, and their need to fail?”
“How much space is given to these boys to question, to explore, to figure out who they are? How much space is given to them to disagree with their parents and see the world differently?”
“What are these boys learning about how to treat women, especially women in authority?”
I read this article, speaking to gun laws, mental health treatment–and also the privilege of white cisgender men, and the trajectory of violence that is accepted in our culture.
I resonated deeply with this article, because although I do carry strong stances on both gun control and mental health availability and treatment–I do see white boys who are coddled and see deep ruts of entitlement. I see a lack of resilience and perseverance in challenges; a lack of responsibility in comparison to their female peers across race.
I’m learning to name what I see even in early elementary boys; and to show up in a way that challenges them to notice and name their emotions, to try and articulate how “negative” emotions show up in the body, to give mindfulness tools to being present, even amidst unwelcome emotions or difficulty. I encourage their natural interests and innate gifting; which often presents itself as artistic, which, depending on their background and home life, they have already internalized as “too gay.”
While I’m learning how to describe power dynamics to young white boys, I do say things like, “You don’t have to become a businessman like your dad.” “You can give space for other people to make the rules.” “You can embrace who you really are, even if that looks different than what your family expects.” I teach about the power of limitation, and the beautiful lessons that our weakness give us, if we are willing to learn. I share personal stories about how I wish I was able to ask for help confidently at a younger age. How our goal should not be to become independent, but interdependent and in accountable relationships in which we are known and loved.
Now this doesn’t make sense yet, to some of my students. And at the same time, students are teaching us right now. Naomi Wadler is not letting her age limit her influence. She sees the disparities in the world and she is saying, “Enough!” She knows that women of color are marginalized, having to fight to heard, and more often that not being dismissed and ignored. When this is reality, aren’t we doing a disservice to the young white cisgender boys when we continue to perpetuate their illusion–and yet if we white people are honest, one that we helped to create?
These two dads have very different comfort levels with failure and struggle-and are instilling different values and lessons into their sons. I’ve watched this dynamic from afar for a year now. Of course, neither of them are perfect; none of us are.
And yet, it takes a village, and I’m learning to engage in these relationships more effectively, with more courage and strength. To say what needs to be said. To push my students in love, and talk about why being able to linger with difficult emotions is so important. To teach them about process–and not just conquering and progress. To go against culture and teach them about waiting and delayed gratification, and that everyone doesn’t exist just to serve them. To still relay that they are valuable, and yet need not always be the center of attention. To celebrate their successes and yet let them know that the lessons that they carry with them, are not just to climb the corporate ladder.
March has been a long month to be a a teacher and a tutor. I come into Holy Week tired, in need of rest. Yet as I watched the videos of Emma Gonzalez, Naomi Wadler, D’Angelo McDade and more I know that I too have my role.
We are all connected. I continue to learn more and more about how me being white has estranged me from my ancestors, rituals and meaning. It’s clouded the way I see the world. White supremacy, lodged in my body is a piece of what makes me tentative and ashamed. Yet, as I keep waking up to this reality, I must help my white students see a bigger picture of the world, connect with people who are not like them, and celebrate the beautiful difference that exists in this world.
May the truth continue to make us all free.
Photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash