Mental Health and Dismantling Racism in Infants and Toddlers – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Hello and Happy Summer Solstice to you…it’s the longest day (in the longest year of our lives)…make the most of it! I know I am…I’m pleased to tell you that I engaged in several self-care activities like yoga, drinking my daily quota of water, and trying a new bread recipe…and plan to engage in some self-soothing activities later today…like eating more of that bread than I probably should while watching Space Force on the couch later tonight.

I made it with peaches

That might seem like a funny thing to tell you in this recap, but let me explain where my mind is…

As I waited for folks to hop onto the calls today, I watched one of the most excellent webinars I’ve seen, to date, about mental health in 2020…and re-watched one of the most excellent webinars I’ve seen, to date, about speaking to young children about racism. I HIGHLY recommend you find some time to watch or listen to both…I genuinely can’t emphasize that enough…they are spectacular…but let me give you the high points, just in case you can’t get to them.

Let me start with mental health because it so beautifully leads into the discussion of anti-racism. In this webinar, Pediatric and Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Dana Crawford (mother of a 1.5 and a 3.5 year old) eloquently breaks down why we are all feeling so unstable. You see, we are actually experiencing 3 pandemics at once: covid-19, racism, and economic uncertainty! Any one of these would be destabilizing, but the 3 together are undermining us physically, relationally, psychologically, morally, and in our lifestyles. No wonder one of the number one thing I hear from parents is “I don’t understand: I have more time than ever before, but I somehow am getting less done and feeling more challenged.”

Our lives are forever changed, she tells us…just like our diets changed with the advent of the microwave oven or how travel changed after 9-11. It’s a huge shift, and we’re still reeling…as she mentions at one point, we still don’t even have stability: if we knew that from this moment on, nothing else would change, we could at least get our feet under us and move forward, but we could easily get hit by another pandemic (remember murder hornets?!). This uncertainty is what can, very easily, shift us away from a values-driven life to an emotionally-driven one. And no wonder…Look at Maslow’s Hierarchy:

Right from the beginning, our base was shaken…food (and toilet paper!!) shortages…and I don’t know about you, but sleep comes more easily certain nights than others. Moving up, our sense of security and safety was upended (across all 3 pandemics) and our relationships became changed and strained, those who lost employment or had their way of work shift* had their esteem needs challenged…all of which takes us away from our ability to reach self-actualization and peace.

*Let’s not skim over the fact that it is boundary pushing to have work invade your home both in ‘inviting’ colleagues into your living room (through zoom) as well as simply the act of bringing work into the space that should be your sanctuary.

It was the BIGGEST ah-ha for me, however, when she got into the discussion of self-soothing versus self-care. When we are feeling challenged, it is normal (and healthy) to reach for things that distract or provide comfort. Sure, there are those folks on Instagram who are refinishing their bathrooms and planting gardens and writing the next great American novel…maybe they had a few less of those layers of Maslow’s pyramid taken away (or maybe they’re just darn good at Instagram). That said, she DID say that it is also important, even (especially) in the face of difficulties, to also cultivate some behaviors that help you find meaning, support your growth and grounded-ness. They will help you to stay centered and make more values-driven choices (like not eating ‘like a teenager’ as my Mother in Law puts it) and fewer emotion-driven ones (like obsessively checking the news)…or at least let you make balanced choices like making bread you know you don’t need to have in the house because it is exciting to try new recipes…or relaxing some of the screen time rules for your child in order to preserve your sanity.

And what helps you make more values-driven choices is an anchor…awareness (paying attention to what’s bothering you, what consumes you, what your biases are), investigation (what triggers you, what moves you from your values to your emotional response…and how does that show up for you), and then reduction (with the understanding that our triggers are never going to be completely gone, and that’s okay).

From here there’s a shift, I felt, to a dissection of our racist tendencies and how they work (though the breakdown works for ANY of our biases or triggers)…from the mental shortcuts we create for ourselves (and when they are more likely to be used) to our desire for comfort and resistance to change, even to the reasons we are quick to blame (ourselves or others). She dismantles the myths behind white fragility (why, exactly, do we think that discussions about race should be comfortable or that it should ever be the responsibility of BIPOC to teach white people how to tolerate conversations about race?) and outlines the reactions we have when challenged (avoidance, embracing, or attacking). But most importantly, she reminds us that racism is the air, it is part and parcel to our society, and it is very possible to be both a racist and a good person. Instead of focusing on our intentions, we must pay attention to the impact of our behavior.

She ends with steps to work against biases and triggers.  She acknowledges it is hard, yes, and you will get fatigued, but the goal is to build stamina…not just give up when you are tired. And how do you do that? You train and practice, just like you go on training runs before a marathon: you initiate conversations with friends or trusted colleagues…talk about ways you have learned biases, racism, and prejudice…so you will be ready when confronted.

And that work, particularly around racism and biases is so important for parents and early care providers to do because anti-racist babies are BRED not born…which is what the topic of the next webinar I want to tell you about.

In an almost 90 minute conversation, human rights lawyer, Derecka Purnell interviews author, Ibram X. Kendi (and his 4 year old daughter, Imani) about his children’s book AntiRacist Baby. And right off the bat, I was struck by this idea: we want to start teaching babies about race from the very beginning, in the same way we teach them about love and kindness…in the same way RIE asks us to respect an infant. We do this because that consciousness is there, developing from the very beginning. Ideas about how the world works and expectations about how they should be treated and treat others…these are all taking shape from birth. We know this about language, about behavior, about self-esteem and trust, and yet we think that we can or should or don’t need to talk about racial bias until later. In fact, we know, and have known for a while now, that babies can distinguish between different races from as early as 6 months, preferring faces of the race that is most similar and familiar to them…and that preference (can and generally does) turn into bias by 3 years old. This shouldn’t be a surprise when we know that the first two years are the most critical in terms of brain growth…both in size and complexity.

Ibram emphasized the need to talk about racial injustice…if we say nothing, nothing will change…think about climate change, voter suppression, Me Too…if you don’t speak up, nothing can change. Derecka chimed in with a sweet story about her 6 year old son responding to a boy calling other boys ‘girls’ one day in school (anyone else remember this taunt from school? Anyone else now see it as devaluing females and males that identify as gender fluid or female as less than male?). Her son shut down the taunter by saying “anybody can be a girl.” Because of the conversations we’ve been having as a country over the last several years (and in particular the conversations Derecka must have been having with her son), her child is now part of a generation that more readily challenges anti-feminist/anti-gender fluid ideas. It’s now time to raise a generation that will more readily challenge racism and violence. Ibram says that giving children information is giving them power; the power to not feel belittled as well as the power to speak up and intervene when they hear ‘jokes’ and bullying.

And if you don’t think children are listening, skip to 18:10, when Ibram uses his daughter’s hair as example of the subtle messages we can give children. He says “If I was to tell Imani, I have to do something with your hair right now because it is out in a fro. Then I’m teaching her that there’s something wrong with this style that she loves.” Then wait and watch Imani…she sits quietly for a moment, then leans back and grimaces and almost looks like she is about to yell, then reaches up and strokes her hair. It’s quick (just 20 seconds or so), and yes, she is a typical fidgety 4 year old so she’s moving through most of the video…but I think those particular actions were in response to the comment about her hair.

We have to talk to children so they don’t grow up to be adults who struggle to talk about race…of course I, as a white woman, have trouble, feel hesitant and unsure where to start, or even if I have the right: I was given the subtle message my whole life that I should NOT talk about race. And it’s just important for families of color to talk about it, in order to avoid internalizing the message of ‘less than’…to accept how things are and blame themselves.

In terms of how to talk to children, Ibram says to keep it simple and age appropriate: for young children who are learning colors, you can talk about how all humans have different colors and shades, like a rainbow (to which Imani enthusiastically echoed “like a RAINBOW!!”)…and with preschool aged children who are obsessed with fairness, you can use that as an opening to talk about how some rules aren’t fair to certain groups of people. When you talk to your child, contextualize it…use their worldview. For example, Derecka’s son was in a phase where he was all about power…one day after he and his mother said their prayers, he asked why they prayed for people who needed things like food and shelter. So, his mother told him we have to fight for them…and he wanted to know the name of those bad people he needed to fight…so she called out “capitalists!”

It’s important to answer children’s forthrightly, honestly, and when they ask them…teaching them that questions and conversation are allowed…but taking it back to the themes from the previous webinar I discussed, some of the most important work you can do is work on yourself…your own awareness and biases, your reactions. Actively strive to model anti-racist behavior: call it out when you see it, take your children to protests, donate and tell your children you’re donating…invite them to do so, too. Remember: they may not have a full understanding of what they are fighting for yet…but they will grow into awareness. It’s the same idea I started with: their ideas about the world are ever developing and changing…if you wait until you think they are ready to start talking about respect, resiliency…or racism…it’s too late.

I want to take a moment to express my profound thanks and appreciation to some of the wise women in my life, and on this email list, who have helped me grow my awareness, confidence, vocalizations and activism in this area. From being invited to protests, getting tips on books and webinars, receiving articles, and the many illuminating and thought-provoking conversations I’m having with so many of you…I’m learning and growing, my world-view is shifting. Thank you: both for my own education, but for what I can bring to this community thanks to you.

2. Take Care with Labels

When you teach your children that certain things are good,
they are likely to call all different things bad.
If you teach them that certain things are beautiful,
they may see all other things as ugly.

Call difficult things, “difficult,”
and easy things, “easy,”
without avoiding one and seeking the other,
and your children will learn self-confidence.
Call results, “results,”
without labeling one as a success
and another as failure,
and your children will learn freedom from fear.
Call birth, “birth,”
and death, “death,”
without seeing one as good
and the other as evil,
and your children will be at home with life.
Notice today how your children label things.
“This stinks.”
“That’s stupid.”
Don’t correct them.
Just notice and consider how they learned.
Start today to teach a different lesson.