I clicked on the link as soon as I scrolled across it: “How to Read Racist Books to Your Kids” is a hard title to ignore. Especially if you have, in fact, ever grabbed an old favorite off the shelf and sat - all excited - to read it to your kids only to stumble across language or a situation or illustrations or a characterization that make you sweat a bit, that make you hope and pray your kids don’t notice and for goodness sake, don’t ask. But in your own head, you’re wondering why you don’t remember the book being so darned offensive. Is this really what your parents read to you a zillion times?
In the article, Stephen Marche shares the story of his 6-year-old son asking why the pirates in the Asterix the Gaul comic had a gorilla. It wasn’t a gorilla, of course, but “a grotesque caricature of an African who does indeed more closely resemble a gorilla than a person.”
Faced with this situation, Marche considers three options: “1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person. 2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism, how the economics of exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa led to an ideology of racism… 3) Say, ‘I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla’ and flip to the next page.”
Marche chooses #3. While we laugh about this interchange, of course, racism - in all its malevolent forms - isn’t funny. Which Marche knows - and which is why he avoids it.
I’ve been there. I’ve had those moments when my kids have heard something in a story or even on the news and I panicked, trying to flip past and ignore. I’ve had those moments when I’ve purposely tried to change the trajectory of a conversation so it wouldn’t lead to questions I had no idea how to answer in “age-appropriate” language.
And yet, I’ve never felt right when I’ve done that. While I don’t think we need to push our kids into situations or expose our children to inappropriate material where they will learn too much too soon, when we encounter it, parents need to deal with it. We can’t be afraid of our kids’ questions. After all, one of our main jobs, our primary purposes, is to be the truth-tellers and question-answerers and worldview-shapers for our kids. And all that comes from engaging and conversing and questioning together.
I’m not going to lie: all this is terrifying. Because, what if we get it wrong? What if we say too much? What if we scar them for life? What if…? What if…? What if…?
Marche owns up to this fear in his article. “I don’t want to explain the human gorilla and all the chains of horror that went into that caricature because I’m afraid of the follow-up questions,” he writes.
And I get that. But I also believe that when God tells us not to fear a zillion times in Scripture, this applies to parenting, specifically to not fearing our kids’ questions. And I’m pretty sure that when Jesus invited the little children to come to him, he was prepared to face some tough, kid-style questions.
If all we can offer our kids is a white lie and a flip of the page, we may avoid a bit of awkwardness and we may preserve a bit of “innocence,” but we also miss out on something much greater: the opportunity to develop trust, to become the go-to person in our children’s lives and to teach our kids that “I don’t know, but it stinks…” is sometimes the best answer.
In a world as confusing and full of questions as ours, that’s not an opportunity to take for granted.
What Do You Think?
- How have you dealt with tough questions from your kids?
- How can parents determine when a child is “ready” to talk about difficult topics?
- What other things should we not fear, in accordance with God’s instructions?