Who Belongs?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Natasha Sky

My son was writing in his workbook the other day. We’re homeschooling in the eclectic-semi-unschooling-style; the workbooks have been around for over a year–my kids think they’re fun. The books are actually a great distraction for a cranky kid who is not going on the errand with Dad. This workbook came home with Rico from a trip to grandma’s house. It’s a general preschool-skills book. I’ve been happy with it so far (multiple races of kids; both genders) my only complaints are the coloring-in busywork (which he generally skips) and the staying to stereotyped gender roles–even for the anthropomorphised animal characters.

Rico is starting to read, but he doesn’t sound out multiple unknown words on his own. So he asks me to read the directions at the top of each page. He turned the page, called me over, and I saw this picture:

The directions said,Which puppies belong to this mama? Draw a line from the mother to her puppies. I paused. I had to think of alternate directions. “What does it say?” Rico asked.

“Uh, it says, ‘Which of these puppies looks like their daddy? Draw a line from the Daddy dog to the puppies that look like him.’”

I get it. It’s a ’sorting’ skill. But the matching and the ‘which one doesn’t belong’ games bother me; it’s all a matter of perspective. In their workbooks, my kids cross off items that would be graded ‘wrong’ in school. They X art supplies and sporting equipment off the toy shelf, and leave the cowboy hat and the violin–because at our house the basketball lives in the shed, the paints are in a downstairs cupboard, and the dress-up clothes and musical instruments are with other the inside toys. My kids find connections between all sorts of random pairs–a dog goes with a piano because they both can make a really loud noise. Okay. I value the creative thinking over the ‘matching skill’.

After the workbook incident, I found myself singing this old Sesame Street song:

Three of these things belong together.
Three of these things are kind of the same.
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?
Now it’s time to play our game; it’s time to play our game.

I know a mom (who has two White bio kids and one adopted child of color) who was posing for a photo with her husband and children at a large family gathering. This mom’s brother–her children’s uncle– started singing, “One of these things is not like the other…”

Society, school, and parents are passing down to the next generation arbitrary rules about what ‘goes’ together. Apple + Orange + Banana = FRUIT. Mother + Father + Baby = FAMILY. Today, the baseline assumptions about what a family looks like are the same as they were fifty years ago in the U.S. At best, elementary school curriculum offers a unit on, or at least a nod to, ‘different’ kinds of families. That ‘traditional’ family–1 mother, 1 father, and 2 or 3 children, all the same race–plagues all of us who fall outside that model.

There are a lot of us post-traditional families nowadays. We are multiracial families, single parent families, two-mom or two-dad families. We are foster families, ‘chosen’ families, blended families, and families with 4, 5, 7, or 10 children. We are families headed by grandparents, aunts, uncles, older sisters or brothers. Each one of us, a unit of two or more people caring for each other, each is a family. We are connected through love, blood, promises, circumstances, court decrees, and the daily grind. We are all kin.

As parents, we must be careful how we teach our kids about the concept of ‘normal’, and what we model for them about the weight and meaning of this subtle and powerful word. I want my kids to know that what they are, and their family composition, is normal–because it is. They do not have to (nor should they) change any part of themselves to feel they belong.

Belong where? Belong to what? First and most importantly, I want my children to belong to themselves, to be comfortable in their own mind and skin with who they are. I also want them to feel they belong to our immediate family, our extended families, their birth families and ancestors, their local community, their ethnic communities, and the world.

We are walking fine lines. I want to model valuing diversity in people and families, without implying one must be different from the majority to be significant. I want my children to be able to blend in (physically and socially) if they choose to, but never to suffer from personal, familial, or societal pressure to conform. I know we cannot escape some of these pressures; I want my children to be strong and proud and even defiant in the face of the pressure to ‘match’.

We are raising independent souls here, free thinkers who will decide for themselves who and what belongs, or whether the rules are bogus and everyone should decide for themselves. Who belongs? It’s up to them.

Natasha Sky is a multiracial woman, a writer, an artist, and an activist—as well as the fulltime mother of four multiracial children all under the age of six. Two of Natasha’s children joined her family through open domestic adoption and two of her children joined her family through homebirth. Natasha created MultiracialSky.com, a website of resources for multiracial families. During naptime, Natasha writes about multiracial family life.

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