My Son, This is What it Means to be Southern

My son,

You asked me today what it means to be ‘southern’.

It’s good that you asked. You are being raised in the South, and you will be shaped by its meaning. Now you are very young and were given a simple answer, but as you grow this meaning will grow with you.

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Being southern means being tied to the land – overgrown and luscious, maddening in density. Our land is fragrant, and always resisting cultivation. The slopping fields, deep woods, and coursing rivers bear the names of British monarchs, founding fathers, and peoples long ago stripped of the land they alone had loved. We utter all these names and thus give them power to shape us.

Being southern means enduring our summers. The heat and humidity make us a little wild. This wildness permeates our language, our posturing, our emotions, our very ideas of life, and meaning. We often straddle a desire to be both gracious and raw in authenticity.

We’ve created literature, music and cuisine celebrated the world over. We’re a land of celebrated authors and musicians, as well as countless women and men who had to leave their work nameless.

We recognize that “y’all” is the single most satisfying phrase to utter.

We crave porch sitting and tea sipping.

We showcase in no quiet or subtle ways the very marrow of human nature. We as a people have loved intensively and hated in tragic proportions. Our language is spoken with meandering poetry, and with arresting derogatoriness. We are renowned for our hospitality and made infamous by our segregation. There always seems to be a war brewing. It will be your generation’s job to finally bring peace.

Southerners claim the most paradoxical of heritages. A heritage that birthed modern ideals of liberty and freedom while simultaneously enslaving many of its members. Some people liberated while still oppressing. Some people lived in chains, but never stopped dreaming of freedom. We have tended things that should have been left behind and neglected many thing that only propelled us toward justice.

We southerners are not a melting pot, but a boiling stew, in which the influences of countless civilizations are colliding and marinating with one another. You must remember those who still yearn to taste true freedom.

My son, you must one day come to terms with the paradox of your heritage. You will be proud, but you will also feel anguish. You may love, but only after knowing that loving something doesn’t make it perfect. You can speak of your experiences, but you must also listen and learn from voices of those who have not shared your experiences.

For you, being southern will mean carrying on traditions that bring beauty to the world and embracing changes that make our culture worthy of the land which nourishes us.

 

 

Teaching Kids About Dreams, Jobs and Dignity

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Adults love to ask this question of children and relish the answers we’re given.

We love to hear the originality and confidence children possess when saying they’re going to be an astronaut or doctor. Out of love for them, but also pride in the way it reflects upon us, we actively nurture our kids’ highest aspirations.  We want to believe our children can achieve anything. The bigger the goal, the more incredible the feat, the more our hearts yearn for its fulfillment.

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Encouraging our children to dream is one of parenting’s most beautiful endeavors.

But there’s another component to consider when talking with children about their career ambitions, and it warrants just as much cultivation as dream-building. This component may not be as romantic, but it’s intrinsic to many of the disparities facing our society and thus deserves to be equally emphasized.

We simply need to do a better job of teaching kids that all work, done with dignity, has value. All work, not just the coveted positions, is necessary to the world we live in. All people, no matter their occupations, are deserving of respect and appreciation.

The Messages We Give Our Children

When I was in high school, steeped in honors coursework, I was asked by a teacher during class to share what “I wanted to be.”

I told him I wanted to be a school bus driver.

His response was not a favorable one. I was lectured in front of my peers on how each one of us is called to “dream big” and use every ounce of our talent to pursue these  dreams. Otherwise, we were wasting our potential.

I wanted to be a school bus driver because I enjoyed driving. I liked the idea of taking children to and from school safely. I loved country roads and the idea of having a route in a rural county appealed. I was also from a low-income household and somewhat uncomfortable with the culture and assumptions that surround an “honors” education.

The teacher’s perspective seemed especially nonsensical to me later that afternoon as I stepped off the bus and said goodbye to the woman who had once again ensured I’d made it safely home from school.

Alas, I went off to college and never became a school bus driver.

Americans love a strong work ethic, but we also have a blatant hierarchy of “worthy” and “unworthy” jobs which consumes much of our discussion surrounding employment. This has caused a tragic cycle of injustice and heartache over what makes a person a worthy contributor to society.

There’s currently a great deal of frustration surrounding the disparity of work, the ability to make a living and the giving and receiving of respect. I’m not an economist or a sociologist, but the lack of dignity given to huge segments of our workforce seems central to our woes. How can we make changes and ensure our children grow up with genuine appreciation and respect for all those who make our society function?

Lessons in Work and Dignity

Millennials in particular are criticized for not wanting to take jobs considered menial or unglamorous. I have not found this to be the case. But even if were true, the irony that Millennials are faulted for having the very attitude perpetuated by so much of society cannot be lost.

Most of us heard at some point in our education that we’d be condemned to “flipping burgers for a living” if we didn’t apply ourselves – having a job flipping burgers being portrayed as a negative thing.

With the economic difficulties, I think we are at a crossroads. There’s a great deal of learning to be done, but we can use our experiences to be more intentional about fueling dreams and teaching our children the dignity of all work.

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As parents we can be intentional about stepping outside our niches and ensuring we have friendships and meaningful relationships with people from a diversity of occupational backgrounds. Exposing our children to this diversity will open their minds to new possibilities and drive home the point that no job is above or beneath them.

We can ensure that the quality of our interactions with others is not dependent on their job statuses. There are few things as painful to experience as a human treated as less important because of the type of service they are providing to society. Our kids need to see that their parents acknowledge the personhood of all. The person cleaning the doctor’s office is just as worthy of respect as the doctor doing the examination. The person serving our food is just as deserving of a sincere “hello” as the CEO dining at that establishment.

We need to debunk the myth of the “lazy poor.” It’s served as a convenient excuse to justify disparities in our society, but we all know deep down that the families working the hardest are often the ones getting paid the least. There is nothing “lazy” about a person holding down multiple part time jobs to put food on the table, or someone who is rolling up their sleeves and doing the job most are unwilling to perform. If a service is necessary for our society to function, but the person performing that service is not receiving a living wage, how can we teach our children that this is a just or sustainable situation?  

Fundamental to all of this is our openness to our children’s dreams, even if they diverge from our own. Perhaps we imagine our kids as Nobel Prize winning scientists. But they may not want to follow the course we have laid out for them. If we give children unconditional love and support, they will grow up reflecting these same virtues to all those who labor alongside them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have dreams for my children. But the only one I’m really comfortable sharing with my children at this time is a hope that they will live their lives and do their work in a way that treats fairly of all those whose paths they cross.

Between you and me though, the kid who becomes a school bus driver may end up being my favorite.

How do you emphasize to your kiddos the respect due to all who work in our society?

 

 

The Art of Raising Thoughtful Conversationalists

First, let me clarify what this post is not about. It’s not a hankering that we raise our children to speak as characters in a Jane Austen novel.

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Though that’d be awesome

It’s about something more fundamental: raising humans who can talk and listen to one another in meaningful ways.

We have all experienced unbalanced conversations. Perhaps we did too much of the talking. Perhaps we had a genuine desire to share our thoughts, but were not given the space and time by others. When unbalanced conversations become a habit, opportunities to connect are lost.

Among the hierarchy of life skills, the ability to carry on a balanced, thoughtful conversation ranks high. It gives us the ability to connect, forge relationships, delve deeper into those relationships, learn, grow and be inspired.

Conversations do not have to be long. They do not require talkative people. But they do require people who genuinely wish to exchange thoughts and ideas with another.

Our children so clearly wish to be conversationalists. From infancy they babble to us and we inherently invite them to continue with our overjoyed responses. Kids possess the same desire as adults to be included, and to be heard. So much of what they learn is via discussions they forge with the adults who love them.

Children are taking every word in, and replicating many of our habits. It’s in everyone’s best interest to model thoughtful ways of communication. Though we often reflect on the topics that can make up good conversation (past experiences, politics, reality TV), the raw ingredients necessary for meaningful conversations are rarely emphasized. And it’s the ability to appreciate those ingredients that embody the art of thoughtful conversations. So what can we emphasize?


The Invitation

We are not reporters, and we aren’t conducting an interrogation. But the point of conversing with someone is to share thoughts, and in order to share thoughts…we’ve got to invite another person to share! Often times the most genuine way to carry on a conversation is to ask thoughtful questions of another – of their life, ideas, experiences – and mean it when we initiate the question.

It’s very easy, but it’s amazing how rarely that simple act is given to another. When we’re with someone who genuinely wishes to hear our views/perspectives, it is a deeply moving and gratifying experience. We feel included. It opens the door to trust, and confidence.

Listen…and Listen Some More

The greatest gift we have in our trove is to genuinely listen to a person when she or he is talking. Often our minds quickly rush to what we could say next or how the topic at hand relates to our own life. But that’s not what we should be doing. We should be immersed in listening.

Perhaps we have a million things we need to say. We need to listen anyways. Perhaps we don’t agree with what the person is saying. We need to listen anyway. Perhaps we feel our concerns are SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than what another is speaking of, but we should listen anyways. Honestly, it’s amazing how a crisis or misunderstanding can be so quickly remedied when we give the gift of listening.

Respecting Our Differences

We’re all different. How wonderful and confusing is that?! Some love to talk, others do not. Some love to project, others to soak in. Some have no problem telling the world how they feel, and others need reassurance before they open up (hello, that’s me!). We still seek interconnectedness, despite our vast differences.

As we get to know another, and understand one another through conversation, we can speak with sincerity while also respecting these differences in needs. A little give and take is often a good thing.

It’s impossible to make everyone 100% satisfied, but respecting the person by our side can play a huge role in our ability to communicate to those who are different than us. Even if we miss the mark, our striving for it will often be appreciated. Ultimately, it’s this respect that separates meaningful discussion from superficial exchange.


Raising Thoughtful Conversationalists

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“Tell me your thoughts on Heidegger, brother.”

So how does all this translate when it comes to our kids? I think it’s actually pretty simple.

Actually Converse With Them – Notice how easy it is to half heartily listen to what our kids say? I often use my fatigue as an excuse to “tune the kids out”, but am amazed at how my attentive listening and willingness to converse soothes the source of my exhaustion.  When a child feels respected and valued, it’s a joy to see them relish in a “talk” with their parent. We both walk away having learned something.

Provide Opportunity for Varied Discussion – Building a community of people who respect our children and wish to include them is invaluable. Providing a diversity of opportunities for our children to be a part of conversations gives them positive experiences and confidence they can carry with them into adulthood.

Reflect On Past Conversations With Them – Whether it’s grandma, a preschool friend or a co-workers, if a child has had a conversation (however simple), it can help for us to recount elements of these discussions with our kids.

“Isn’t it nice that Ms. B is going on a vacation?”

“Daddy said he had a lot going on at work today. Wonder how that’s going?”

Remembering aloud these conversations teaches our kids a few things: what we say to one another has meaning and what we share with one another is often worth remembering.

This might sound silly, but among the list of proud parenting moments , hearing (of their own fruition) my two-year-old ask his Daddy how work was or my five-year-old ask his teacher about her vacation is pretty high up there. My hope is that as they mature, their respect and appreciation for communicating with others will be an art form they cultivate.

So what do you think? Are there other qualities of a good conversationalist that should be added to the list? What are ways you help your kids become thoughtful in how they communicate with others?

I’m listening 🙂

 

 

Why My Kids Won’t Hear Me Knock The Baby Boomers

When it comes to the Baby Boomer vs. Millennial drama, it seems every week brings with it another act of intergenerational indignation.

It happens on Twitter and it happens in the conference room. Here is the familiar script: one generation is blamed for economic destruction and thwarted hopes, while the other is accused of unmitigated entitlement and laziness. Any commentaries that encourage generational cooperation often do so through the use of condescending “coping” techniques, as though one group or the other is just too much to bear.

We can go back and forth pointing fingers at which generation is responsible for this spectacle. We can even use what we hear from others to excuse our own participation. But is there anything that we’re actually gaining from a conflict that choses to ignore context or understanding?

As young parents, this scenario holds another layer of meaning. Sandwiched inbetween our parents’ and our children’s generations, we are modeling ways to treat people of different ages.  In our discussions, in the things we now write that will one day be read by our children, are we assuming roles we want them to mirror? Will our attitudes about this conflict help our kids make their productive and hopeful way in the world?

An obvious way of quelling the Boomer vs. Millennial conflict is recognizing that there is nothing particularly new about intergenerational disputes. Our newfound platforms on social media may lead us to believe that this is a uniquely hostile situation, but when all is said and done, social media’s tendency to highlight extremes makes the antagonism seem more prevalent than it actually is.

What we know deep down is that every generation has played out this same tired drama.

A generation is simply human DNA dressed up and thrust onto the stage of a particular era. Every generation has been brought into a world set in frantic motion by the previous one. While contending with the challenges they inherit, people raise a new cohort group who eventually grow up to discover that grave mistakes have been committed, and things ought to be done differently.

But is there a way for generations to reflect and confront mistakes without making sweeping generalizations? In wanting change, can we also see another generation with understanding for what they’ve experienced?

I’d argue that there is no better way to dispel the myths about millennial entitlement and laziness than to work hard toward fixing the unique challenges of our age without seeking special status for our predicaments. And even when we’re presented with unfair characterizations, the ability to rise above them shows maturity that is a force to be reckoned with.

Millennials are contending with great conflicts and challenges. Many of the institutions in which we were taught to place hope have turned out to be disappointments. Other institutions which should have been better preserved and nurtured in recent decades have deteriorated and negatively impacted our lives. We can and should articulate our current situation and work toward reform.

But Baby Boomers can claim a similar narrative. Although their generation came of age in different circumstances, those circumstances were not any easier. They grew up under the perceived constant threat of a nuclear holocaust. They endured the bitter conflict in Vietnam. They had to advocate for basic civil rights for huge portions of the population, all the while contending with economic recessions. These circumstances shaped both their positive and negative legacies and can leave us feeling a sense of compassion, which would make an important lesson for our children.

As millennial parents, perhaps the most meaningful result of this historical narrative is the awareness that our generation will also leave both positive and negative legacies. We don’t know exactly which legacies will be for better or worse, but it’s a humbling thing to keep in mind. Our political, economic and social trends, even our screen time, may one day be as strongly criticized by our children as we have at times criticized our parents.

With that being acknowledged, I don’t want to teach my children to model bitter frustration at older generations. I’d rather my children try to understand them. Through intentional actions, we can teach them to analyze, criticize and commend.  We can show them how to seek intelligible change and reform, even in the face of resistance. All this can be achieved without being embroiled in back-and-forth drama with another cohort group. I’m not going to make sweeping negative generalizations about my parent’s generation and I hope my kids avoid one day make sweeping generalizations about mine.

Ultimately, what I want for my children is the ability to confront inherited societal flaws as well as things within themselves that need changing.

When the finger pointing stops, our time here becomes a story of parents and children sharing a world they both inherited. Our thoughts, ideals and pursuits are so intermingled with the other that even the very barriers that separate one generation from another are blurred and eroded.  We are here because our parents brought us into this world, and our children are here because we chose to join this fabric of old and new human experience. It can be both beautiful and tragic to behold.

This essay was also featured by

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Finding Strength in Civility

How daunting it is to raise children in a society so fraught with conflict. When our differences are more pronounced than our similarities and the future seems all too uncertain, it’s difficult to know how to guide our children toward their roles as responsible citizens amidst a bitterly divided nation.

In the face of great cultural and political divide, standards of civility have taken on an antiquated, if not controversial, status.

Those who wield political power and social influence are rewarded for abandoning all pretense of civility in favor of condescension and derogatory name-calling. This behavior is often reflected in our own day-to-day desire to prove our point and condemn our opponent. And all the while we are left wondering, in a collectively exhausted state, if rhetoric and dialogue which retain respect for our perceived opponents has any skin left in the game.

It’s easy to see how civil behavior is losing a popularity contest. When communities feel trampled upon or threatened, when people are made to feel belittled or forgotten, our natural reaction is to fight it out and defeat our opponent. If there is something for which we feel strongly, it may feel weak and superficial to be civil in our interactions with people who we believe are gravely wrong. It may even seem subservient to “their agenda”. Thus we assume the role of warrior in order to “combat” their presence in our society.

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The thing is, when I look at my young children, I realize my job is not to raise combatants who rally against their neighbors. Rather, my responsibility is to raise civilians who tirelessly and peacefully strive to build a safe and just society for all.

However much I want my children to pursue justice, I cannot teach them that this pursuit entitles them to treat others uncivilly. In fact, despite the growing controversy surrounding this behavior, my children are taught that they must try to be civil. Always.

When engaging in any kind of social matter, I want my children to appeal to the best which is within themselves, as well as those with whom they disagree.

This commitment is not showing weakness, frailty or privilege, but rather an inner strength which holds that all people are created equal and thus deserving of a recognized inherent dignity. If I want my children to promote justice, I need to provide them with as much of this strength as humanly possible for the arduous task. The belief in the inherent dignity of all can provide a will to carry on when everything seems to be going against them.

Radical love, or radical justice, calls us to embrace a consistent code of civility. Consistency in its application to all humans, regardless of whether we believe they merit it or not, is to embrace true equality and a fervent belief in humanity’s ability to apply reason and intentionality to our words and actions. If what my children believe is good and true, then they need to employ all that is good and true to bring about this vision. Regardless of what they are facing, the strength of their positive message must be the victor, not their pride.

These days, my young children want retribution for every unfair thing that happens to them. An eye for an eye. But in teaching them that civility means laying aside the desire for self-gratifying retaliation, I hope to alleviate for them the exhausting and toxic cycle we now find ourselves in today. If we continue as we are, no one will have the last word or obtain reconciliation. 

And though humanly impossible not to struggle with the urge to be uncivil, I hope that the majority of my children’s energy could be directed toward greater things.

They could rely on wit instead of vulgarity in advancing their beliefs.

They could use their knowledge instead of their biases to discuss the issues.

They could have the courage to listen instead of always having to prove a point.

And perhaps most radical of all, they could recognize that kindness does not negate truth, but often facilitates the conversion experience toward real and meaningful change.

So, I teach my children that strength lies in civility. And I know I’m not alone in teaching this.

This essay was also featured on The Institute for Civility in Government blog