Last year I wrote about my son’s reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Consider reading this post to learn about how the Reverend Dr. King made an impact on a kindergarten student who had just learned he was white.
A few days ago the presently bigger and wiser first grade child came home asking me the name of “the black president”.
You mean President Obama?
No, Mom. The other black president. The other really great one.
In spite of reading serious truths and beautiful reflection on the life and death of Nelson Mandela since he died on December 5, his name didn’t cross my mind during our conversation. I was so focused on African-American leadership in the United States that I completely forgot about the rest of the world – temporarily. Miles couldn’t remember his name and I was no help at all.
Last night, however, he announced triumphantly at dinner that his name is Nelson Mandela!
Ohhhhh. Yes, have you been talking about President Mandela at school?
Yes. And he went on to tell his dad and me the story of Mr. Mandela in words that went like this:
So the white people and the black people weren’t living together because the white people, well, most of them, you know, were not sharing or anything and they were Boss. And so Nelson Mandela had a vision and then he got thrown in jail.
For Twenty Seven Years, Mom!
For like 27 years Nelson Mandela was not free and the white people were free all that time. And then he got out and the black people were free and the white people had to go away.
Me: Go away?
Well, until they knew they could be together and everyone could just be free. In South Africa. It’s a whole different country but Nelson Mandela was the first black president.
His message was how we prove to the world and being nice and doing nice things like changing the world like first the black people are free and then the white people could be free, too. Changing the world means that like having things different and having things fair.
Since he is learning to tell time, he emphasized the fact that Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years several times. It sounds like – and was, in some respects – a lifetime onto itself. He also sang the chorus of a song about Mandela’s vision that they’ve been singing at school.
I am pleased that his teacher and the school environment are approaching and discussing some of the tough issues that embed themselves in our life journeys. Like his grandfather, he enjoys history. Like his dad, his preference for books is non fiction. As the days and nights turn into seasons and years, he wants to know more and more.
While he is genuinely excited to talk about “peace” and “harmony”, my oldest also repeatedly asks me for a gigantic Nerf-n-Strike Blaster to launch high power assaults around the house. While brushing his teeth this morning, he informed me that he and his friends made up a new game called “war” at recess during which they pretend to be spies and choose sides in order to blast one another out of time. The battles kind of fly in the face of the whole Nelson Mandela message of tolerance talk.
Mr. Mandela said,
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
Both of my children are fascinated with “good guys” and “bad guys”. Highlighting Santa’s “nice” vs “naughty” list has probably only helped perpetuate their fascination, but threatening to take them off the “nice” list is effective in controlling at least some of their fighting. Because they do fight. Mostly they squabble over a single Lego piece or a random tool – say, Dad’s measuring tape or a new magnet on the fridge. They’ve also been to known to fight over an empty cardboard box.
It makes me crazy.
On the other hand, it seems normal. We live in a world where it’s close to impossible to shield our children from expressions of violence. Although we don’t watch news on the television, I turn the sound down low on NPR if I listen at all with the boys in the car because they pick up the word “bomb” or “gun” or “war” with the sense of a common bat (bats have extraordinary senses of hearing) or even better, its enemy prey – the greater wax moth. The moth’s motivation to avoid being eaten by a bat has evolved into its having the best hearing in the entire mammalian population.
Besides my kids, that is.
My youngest child can hear a bag of chips opening from deep within the play tent in the basement. His vision’s pretty good, too. The Christmas presence of chocolate and candy canes was overwhelming at first, but fortunately now they’ve faded into the living room scene and I don’t have to hide them anymore in fear of sudden meltdown attack on the mama.
I believe we can thank our ancestors for (many) boys’ natural inclination toward weapon play. I no longer think it’s the worst thing ever about parenting boys, and in fact, I can appreciate the Hunger Games-esque bow and arrow set my oldest boy learned to use with ease. I like that he loves fishing and feels bad about the fish at the same time — he’s told us next season he’s strictly going with catch and release. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it — the war games, the blasting off of one’s heads in the bedroom. I just need to try to explore it more patiently and avoid sending messages that just don’t make sense to young boys — guns are wrong, guns are dangerous (no matter if one thinks those messages are true). What I’m finding works better is for us to have a conversation about the play and figure out rules together that work — i.e. no pointing pretend guns at someone’s head and keeping things to a low roar when inside.
Let’s return to the experience of Mr. Mandela. I turned to his words for guidance, and he said many things that resonate. Among them, he said,
We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.
However, he also commented on when violence may be necessary.
Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly. He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, “Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor …”
And I very much like these words:
A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
Tonight I give thanks for brave, true leaders like Mr. Mandela, and for the teachers who are helping me to raise my boys with good heads and good hearts. May he rest in peace, and the rest of us keep his memory close and his legacy respected.
And one more I cannot resist sharing:
Be brave! I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.