Saturday, July 15, 2017

Truth-Telling in Children's Stories

The first book that I bought for my daughter, prior to her even being born was a children's book that focused on the tale of the slaves who killed their captors aboard the ship The Amistad and after a long legal struggle were allowed to return to Africa. I only read it to her a few times over the years because the subject matter was difficult and the historical and racial politics difficult to unpack.

Over the years I've tried to do the same with other books, especially liking to read to the kids books that focus on the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans. Parenting is a convoluted endeavor no matter what ethical commitments you do or do not feel. There are always problems, limitations, blindspots and ways in which your best intentions or goals backfire. But pushing your children to accept difficult truths and also feel the both responsibility and capacity to change things for the better is essential.

It is one reason why, in my own creative works, including with the children's books that I have written and published with my brothers through The Guam Bus, I always want to find ways to include stories of our own truths and injustices so that parents can engage in their children in a variety of ways in discussing or processing them. I was happy to see Chamorro educator and writer Desiree Taimanglo Ventura recognize this in a blog post of hers last year.

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"Truth-Telling in 2016"
by Guahanmommy
November 22, 2016

My aunties remind me that every generation has its share of turmoil and uncertainty, that with each new group of children raised, mothers hold their babies close, sending up prayers and asking higher powers to prepare their little ones for the world’s chaos. And while I know they are right, I find myself saying it over and over again: This is not the world I planned on raising my children in.
Within the past few weeks, I have had to have some heavy conversations with my child, conversations I never dreamed of needing to have.  Children have classmates who have families that talk.  Children pick up conversations they were never meant to hear.  Children catch glimpses of news stories we think they aren’t paying attention to.  When the children in my life ask difficult questions, I’ve always made it a point of being tactful, but honest.  I’m not a fan of feeding children false narratives that sugar coat ugly things.  I can’t bring myself to spin a web of comfortable stories that allow them to completely disconnect from reality.  I definitely don’t like scaring children, but I take my time when answering.  I weigh every word carefully and I make sure that when I am done, I feel as if I have told them the truth.

Doing this take a little bit of skill, and sometimes, more patience than you really have when dealing with kids .  Some people aren’t good at it (or they’re not willing to put the energy into truth-telling with children), but I want to make a case for it.  I think it’s worth doing.  I think in the long run, our world will benefit from children raised with truth.  And I don’t think telling the truth sacrifices the magic of childhood.  Maybe we need to reevaluate where we think the magic of childhood comes from in the first place.

Some of my friends and relatives disagree with this.  They believe there are certain truths that should remain hidden. Protective lies, they believe, are different from regular lies. The assumption is that they are in the best interest of the person we love.  But here is the thing with protective lies: eventually, they are dismantled.  Our children often uncover the truth in painful, unsettling ways.  They end up wondering why we didn’t tell them certain things, and often end up feeling betrayed or misled.  They sometimes come of age and feel like the wool had been pulled over their eyes for years, and they resent us a little for allowing them to carry on in ignorance.

For many families on Guam, the decolonization process is painful.  Decolonizing means sharing a certain amount of traumatic family and island history. It involves acknowledging ugly things that are going on around us, and finally talking about them.  For my generation and those older, these things happened later in life.  We were raised with many secrets, many feelings unsaid.  Finally saying them can cause conflict and pain, but raising your children with consciousness and gentle truth is a powerful way to spare them some of that hurt and shock.  It also prepares them to more readily enter the adult world and make positive change.  Basically, my generation is spending lots of time “healing” and I sometimes get excited thinking about what our children will be able to do not having to spend so much time sorting out their newfound realization of their colonial status.

I am friends with women who were raised by long-time Chamoru activists on island.  They grew up with an awareness of Guam’s relationship with the US and a more complete understanding of indigenous issues. I was not raised this way.  Many of the people I know were not raised this way.  These women don’t really have many memories of feeling shocked into decolonial thinking.  They didn’t have to sit and have painful conversations with elders over and over again (within a short span of time) about why secrets and histories were only whispered, or why some of our problems exist. A full explanation of the world around them was just, well, normal to them. They do not get uncomfortable or offended when certain truths are said in front of them (something I still occasionally struggle with.  My decolonization is ongoing). Their parents made it a point to raise conscious children and because of that, they operate from a very different place, a place that strikes me as empowering for both them and others.

This is not the world I planned on raising my children in, but I’m preparing them to change it.  And I think we can do that by raising children with a little more truth, particularly during the holidays when they are encouraged to reflect on values and things that are important to them.

I’m sincerely wishing all of you a Happy Thanksgiving week. The world feels like a very confusing place, but there are so many pockets of hope and so much to remain grateful for.  (I feel like a lot of people on my social networking feeds are forgetting that right now.)

I’m expressing gratitude for all the indigenous people who continue to risk their lives in order to protect our earth’s resources, for everyone brave enough to choose peace when war seems more lucrative, for those willing to be mocked and scolded for insisting on equality, and for all the young people who are inheriting a world their parents never anticipated.

I also want to add this great song my friend, Barb, shared with me.  Her daughter sings it on Thanksgiving and it’s a helpful example of how truth can be shared with children.  There are so many fun and creative ways to share truth with our kids.  No “childhood magic” needs to be sacrificed to do so.

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