Before we can give our children the world we’d like them to have, we must begin by showing them what that world can look like. Of course our words and actions matter, but so do interpretations and reactions.
Case in point: one time, probably many times really, I reacted aloud to being cut off in traffic. My son, who’s now six years old, was in the car and heard me. Right away, he began asking me why the other driver did that, and why the other driver was “bad.” Nothing I could say and nothing I could explain could change that moment: to my son, it was now a world of “good” drivers and “bad” drivers.
And so their little worlds — and ours — change every day. In my line of work as a writer for Mercy Corps, I’m often reading articles and looking through photographs of situations that I’d rather my son not know about yet. But it’s a big part of my world, and so it inevitably comes into his. A year ago, I was preparing to go to Haiti to join our emergency response team, and so I explained where I was going, what I would be doing and what had happened there.
Today, whenever my son steps into my home office and sees me looking at some picture of devastation, he asks, “Did an earthquake happen there? Is it Haiti?” Each time, I try to coax the worry from his mind by talking about how people are helping each other. How people are brave.
Later on this week, I leave for Iraq for my next field assignment, and that impending departure will carry with another difficult talk. In every case, I try my best to turn the troubling things of this world into something instead positive — but it’s hard.
I think of the many tough conversations to come as he grows up, like slavery. All kinds of injustice, really. We want to protect our children, but we also owe them nothing less than the truth.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — and, here in Atlanta, we live just a little more than a mile from Dr. King’s home and, down the street, where he preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church. We’ll likely share that legacy with our son tomorrow but, of course, that sharing will probably bring questions of its own.
What will I say? Something like this: here was a man who hoped that everyone would respect each other and treat each other with kindness. A man who wished that every man and woman, girl and boy would be equal and willing to help each other.
Because, when I think of Dr. King, here’s the phrase that most often plays in my mind:
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We all want to give our children the world we’d like them to have, the best possible world. Sometimes, often, it starts with a dream.