I recently stumbled across this post from Single Dad Laughing about fathers not breaking their children with impatience, anger, frustration, bigotry etc after he witnessed a father berating his son in a checkout line. The post has been pretty heavily circulated around the internet, but if you haven’t read it, I think it’s a good reminder for all parents, not just fathers. Not two days after reading that post, I was walking with Asher on the downtown mall here in Charlottesville, headed to the weekly Fridays After Five music and overheard a father accusingly calling his tween son gay when the son said that we wanted to buy one of the pretty scarves that the various vendors on the mall sell. This stopped me dead in my tracks because everything in me wanted to grab that man and shake him with all of my might and instead I listened as the father angrily told his son, “I’m serious, if you don’t put that down and stop touching that thing, I’m going to kick your a**.” My mouth dropped open. What fear is this?
I didn’t say anything. I know that all of us have had that moment, we see a child getting yelled at, getting yanked, getting ignored, getting pushed, getting swatted (or worse?) and our minds and hearts scream and our mouths stay silent and we walk and fume and say we won’t ever be like that. We tell our friends, we wonder if we should have done more, we know that the anger would be turned on us and probably not spare the child.
But still. I was so appalled by this man’s obvious anger, his threats, his ignorant fear and the way that he was clearly alienating his child and fostering a pattern of withdrawal and resistance rather than engaging with his son and what the big picture implications of that might be. I think that we can all agree that there are few more delicate times of life than adolescence, and the idea that a scarf implicates anything about a person’s sexual preference (especially a 13 year old’s) and is worth a butt kicking and public humiliation? It broke my heart.
No matter the choices that my son makes in his life, what I want most for him is to do it in a way that is healthy, that is not fear-based, that is informed and educated and thoughtful. And I’m not just talking life partner here, I’m talking riding in cars, prioritizing tasks, friends–all of it. Seeing that father and his fearful anger made me wonder what my blinders are, what I’ll find myself yelling about one day in the name of just trying to raise my children “right” and it reminded me that my task as a parent is a mashup of being a role model, a cruise director, a moral compass, and importantly, a witness. It reminded me to listen and observe first, to ask questions, to focus on being a part of my child’s life, not driving myself out of it.
And now for the soapbox. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are 5 times more likely to commit suicide, and 40% more likely to endure severe bullying. And guess where those bullies are learning that behavior? You may think that homosexuality is wrong, or strange, or gross or absolutely unacceptable, but the truth is, there are people that are gay in this world and an increasing number of adolescents are identifying as such. To think that one child takes his or her own life because society is prying into one of the most intimate aspects of who we are is horrifying. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming increasingly hypersensitive to this because this will be part of my children’s reality and it terrifies me to think of the hurt that we might have to watch our children or their friends endure because of this righteous social ignorance. You don’t have to like it, but in the name of saving the children in this country, do you have to publicly hate it? This all makes me think that the civil rights movement is long from over, and if we don’t start standing up for tolerance, we’re endorsing every single one of those children’s unnecessary and gut wrenching deaths.
They were each someone’s child.
After writing this, I’m angry with myself for not saying something to that man. And I’m sad that I have absolutely no idea what I would have said and I’m even more sad to know that even if I had said something it would likely not make much of a difference. What I do know is that I feel stronger than ever that I will commit my role as a parent to one that models tolerance. I will do my damndest to say of any issue, “even if we don’t agree with someone, what’s most important is that people make safe and well-informed choices” and then talk to my children about the choices that they make. People do things all the time that I don’t understand or that I wouldn’t do for myself or family, but if they’re not hurting anyone, and not hurting themselves? I have no room to judge.
I hope that you will do this with me. That you’ll catch yourself before flippantly calling a $12 hat “gay”. That you’ll ask yourself how intolerance rears its head in your life and begin to think that every positive act or word of encouragement that you offer is actually ammunition in the fight against a world that is more likely to have a discourse about hate than one of understanding. I’m not saying anything new here, but seeing the anger on that father’s face has left my eyes freshly open. And if you can’t find something nice to say, perhaps we can revisit that rule of saying nothing at all. And if you don’t like that particular rule, then let’s ask ourselves at every turn if we’re honoring the golden rule. Let’s listen before we speak, and speak before we strike, and take accountability for the fact that our words and actions are actually exactly who we are.
And for the love of all, let’s do everything in our power to never, ever, break a single child’s spirit.
Please help me ease the burden on my conscience made by my silence by passing this along.