"WHAT DO WE TELL THE CHILDREN?"
A close friend at work (she's VP of Communications of one of our subsidiaries) today confided that she's having difficulties helping her lovely, brilliant 13-year-old daughter adjust to teenage-hood. M----, it seems, is passionately, vocally liberal in a Texas middle school filled with clones of their Republican parents. M is having trouble socially, and her mother has tried to counsel her that while she ought not to sacrifice her own unique beliefs, she doesn't have to lecture everyone else or make them feel defensive. She figures she'll have a better chance at developing positive social relationships that way.
Case in point: M is apparently passionate about gay rights, which her mother fully supports. But Mom has counseled, "It's enough to say that it's not right when someone makes a disparaging remark or a joke about gays." "But Mom!" cries M. "It's the same thing as when there were separate water fountains for blacks and whites. What if people just said, 'That's not right,' and that's all they did? Doesn't somebody have to explain why it's wrong, and fight for change?"
Lordy, lordy. It brings back so many memories. My own mother had to deal with a similar 13-year-old (me). My particular fights were for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. (This was in the Deep South, and in a military family, yet my parents supported me.) And my activism went on right up until I had children of my own. Then, it seems, our priorities change, and our protective instincts for our own children suddenly seem to have to be balanced with our religious and political beliefs. I went through a similar situation with each of my own five kids. M's mom, my friend, wants to see her daughter accepted and comfortable with her peers, while at the same time she wants to see her develop into her own person, assert her own beliefs. It's not because it's "easier." It's because she's also experienced the 13-year-old angst when M cries hysterically because nobody likes her. As parents, we're constantly confronted with these balancing acts.
The reason I brought this up is that a question has been troubling me all day since my dear friend confided in me, expecting my experience with five strong-willed children would render some great wisdom that would help her with her current dilemma with M. The question that's been bothering me is: Why should our children be the ones willing to risk alienation (which for them at that age is the worst thing imaginable) to seek justice, when we oldsters try to seek a balance that will render a gradually-reached justice without troubling us too much?
It reminds me of a decade ago when my very-conservative middle daughter (how did she get that way? we've never really understood, although we have some ideas) was splashed, at 12 years old, across several network news programs protesting abortion in Dallas. She was a beautiful, mature, extremely articulate and persuasive child, and her best friend just happened to be the daughter of a nationally prominent anti-abortion figure. We were subsequently contacted by several media and PR outlets who wanted to finance a national media tour featuring her, which we of course refused. Fellow members of our Southern Baptist church applauded her and were mystified by our refusal to allow her to be exploited. "If you feel so strongly about abortion, why aren't YOU on the protest lines?" I responded. The Sage and I refused to take her out of school and make her a media darling, but we were excoriated for our stance.
Don't get me wrong. My position on abortion has evolved to embrace individual rights of privacy, but at the time my daughter was courted by the media I was firmly anti-abortion. Our decision was based solely on our assessment of what was in our daughter's best interests, and our belief that children who are in their formative years should not be exploited for political ends -- if there is injustice, adults should be fighting it, not sublimating by using children to front for their causes.
We never tried to restrict our daughter's political activities, other than to forbid her to break the law. Nevertheless, I picked her up several times when she was barely a teenager from Juvie Hall, where she was taken after a demonstration at an abortion clinic.
I'm rambling, and I'm not sure there's a point to this post. I just feel for another parent who is confronted with a child with a cause, a mom who's proud of her child but yet wants to see all her children safe and protected while adults provide a leadership that reassures them.
One of my strong-willed children (well, he's 25) just walked in and read my post over my shoulder. At the same time we were listening to CNN. My son is a strong liberal Democrat. He's cynical about our winning the midterms and retaking either house of Congress because he believes Republican money, and failing that, electronic voter fraud, will swing things towards the Rethugs.
Sigh. Parenting never ends. And the eternal question is,
"What do we tell the children?"