A few nights ago, our family was headed around one of the loops in our neighborhood when I overheard my boys continuing a conversation that had been ongoing for a couple of days. It was over some other kids in the neighborhood and the suspicion that these kids were out to get my boys. So, my two were scoping out the yard of this one family and seeing if there was evidence of a stash of nerf bullets and nerf guns. My boys were looking for confirmation that their suspicions about these other kids were true: they were out to get them. They had a plan. And this means war.
At which point, my husband and I stepped in.
It was the day we had learned about the killing of George Floyd, just days after we had learned about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. We had been having conversations with our boys about it. Cluing them into the ideas of injustice and hate and racism. But it hit me, as I was overhearing their neighborhood war scheme unfold, that words like injustice, hate and racism are too easy to pin to someone else. That very few of us would look at ourselves and assign words like that to how we think and perceive and see others.
Few 10 year old or 8 year old boys (or 38 year old moms for that matter) have the self awareness to call that out in themselves. But I am not sure injustice, hate or racism starts as fully developed ideas. I think they start much simpler than that.
Which is what we told my boys.
These other kids, we said, have they ever done anything directly to you to communicate that they have it out for you? Have they hurt you in some way? Have they offended you? Or did you just decide one day that these were going to the “enemies”? Did they provoke you? Or did you just rally with other kids and decide these boys were the ones you were going to be against?
It sounds like fun and games. And maybe it starts that way. But it rarely stays that way. We are storytelling creatures. And not just in the form of fairy tales and fantasy. Our minds are busy crafting stories all the time, about real people, about ourselves, about the reality we encounter.
And the stories we craft, with hardly any thought or intention at all, quickly become a truth we believe.
Those people are bad.
That group is hateful.
Those others are not like us.
The truth is, my kids were simply vocalizing what all of us have done at one point or another: told a story to ourselves about someone else and believed it to be the truth. Which seems harmless in terms of neighborhood antics and summer rivalries. Until kids grow up to become adults who have never learned to question or examine the narrative handed down to them, or crafted inside of them—due to the culture they grew up in, the people who surrounded them, the messages give to them.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others, matter. Because stories never stay stories. They become beliefs. And beliefs have a way of working themselves out in our behavior.
Hate groups exist. And they are anything but subtle. They are scary. But they aren’t all that’s scares me. What scares me are the people or groups of people who are harboring false narratives about others and don’t realize it, who don’t even know what they are capable of until they are face to face with an “other” and do the unspeakable.
I doubt the men who chased down Ahmaud Arbery had it out for him as an individual.
And the officer directly responsible for the killing of George Floyd probably didn’t intend to target Floyd as an individual.
I think the far more likely scenario is that these were men who were raised believing a story about black men that they started to believe was true, and then, when faced with an opportunity, let their belief become behavior.
And that’s terrifying. For any one. But maybe especially for parents. Because that means we are tasked with an incredible responsibility. To teach our children to question and examine, to dissect and interrogate the stories that fill their minds. Because stories become narratives and narratives only see groups and don’t see individuals, ignoring the nuance of each human.
Now is the time, if you haven’t already, to start having conversations with your kids to combat this very thing.
When (another) sibling argument breaks out, or a neighborhood disagreement takes place ask them:
- What’s the story you are telling yourself about this other person?
- Is there something you could be missing?
- When you only see your side of the story, what is lost?
- What does it feel like to have someone make assumptions about you that may not be true?
- And when someone believes wrongly about you, treats you poorly, how do you want to respond? (Allow them to be truthful here. you aren’t asking for the right response, but the gut level instinctual response.)
Things are complicated right now. As adults, it’s hard to navigate. So, imagine how it must be for our kids. Which is why they need us. We may not be able to provide answers, but what if we can provide them with something different that may be even more helpful. What if we taught them to see themselves in a more honest light and others in a more compassionate light? What if, even if we couldn’t solve all the problems, we walked alongside our kids and gave them the gift of understanding all sides, all stories? Our own and others.
Let’s start there.