Indigenous schools, Irish laundries, family separation...

How to explain (to kids) when really awful things happen to kids

Note: As I was getting ready to press “publish,” another mass grave was found in Saskatchewan with 761 bodies in it.

Hi friends! A more somber topic this week.

A reader asked about how I would go about talking about the bodies of children, some as young as 3, that are being found on the grounds of indigenous schools in Canada. She said that she wanted her son to be scared but not too scared by it – a sentiment I really identify with as I think through these conversations with my own kids. I have a lot of thoughts about this, most are disjointed, but maybe some will help – and please, use the comments or email me to tell me what I’m getting wrong.

One of my favorite poems is Good Bones by Maggie Smith (a lot of her poetry really resonates with the emotions I feel when parenting). I think about this stanza a lot:

Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.
Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

How do you sell them the world while giving them the tools and resilience they need to want to make the world beautiful? That’s what I think my writing is all about, really.

Mass graves of indigenous children

There have been a lot of headlines lately about the horrifying discoveries of mass graves of children on the sites of residential schools in Canada; nearly 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and passed through these institutions. For over a century, children were removed from their families, forbidden from speaking their languages, and subject to physical and sexual abuse alongside the cultural genocide that was the explicit point. The NYT story from today reports “bodies of infants born to girls impregnated by priests and monks being incinerated.” It’s ghastly, and the details are beyond belief.

It wasn’t just in Canada - in the past week, Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior (and the first indigenous cabinet secretary in the United States), announced plans to address the legacy of boarding schools for indigenous kids in this country. The violence to indigenous children on this continent was intentional, systemic, and had genocidal intent – how do you talk about that with kids? (or with adults who don’t want to hear it?)

We need to remember that the process of separating kids from their parents is not history. The last residential school closed in 1996 – when I was 15. I think it’s important that we as adults don’t look away and relegate the details to the past. What happened was fucking terrible, and it wasn’t that long ago, and settler colonialism and white supremacy were the culprits, and the United States did the same exact thing.

It still happens…family separation in the 21st century

And of course, we see the policy of separating families repeat itself throughout the Trump administration. Of all of the atrocities of the Trump administration, the one that hit me hardest was separating kids from their families at the border. As Adam Serwer wrote repeatedly, the cruelty was the point of many Trump era policies – the idea was to break these families, and to leave permanent psychological scars. They not only intentionally separated perhaps 200,000 children from their parents, but they lied about creating a database to reunite these families, leaving them with no way to find each other. Unimaginable cruelty.  I lost sleep over these stories, I called daily to plead with the staff of my (useless) members of Congress, I attended protests in four states, I donated money, we drove to the Texas border. My brother, who works for the ACLU of Texas, spent weeks in detention camps, interviewing detainees and preparing legal defense for them. And Cyrus and Alma, who were 4 and 1 at the time, were along for all of it. Alma, of course, was young, and spent the time giggling and bouncing in her Baby Bjorn. Cyrus, though, does remember. He knew why we were at the protests: that kids were coming to our country because of scary things happening in their own country, and that everyone has a right to seek asylum if they feel like they are under threat, and they were being taken from their mommys and daddys with no way to reunite them.

I have no regrets about explaining that to him, and showing him not only the cruelty his own country was capable of, but also that we had an obligation to use our voices to protest those atrocities. A few years later, though, we were driving to see my folks and I said to Jim, “hey let’s stop at the Oklahoma border and use the bathroom and get water,” and Cyrus started to get really anxious. I asked why, and he said “a border? Does that mean that’s where they’re taking kids from their families? Will they take me away?” And his eyes filled with tears.

It was a hard moment - I really struggled with how to make him feel secure but not privileged. It’s easy to say “oh, not that kind of border,” but also, how do you explain that his skin will protect him, the accident of his birth will protect him? How do you make him understand his privilege through critiquing it? We talked to him about how he was safe, about how no one was going to take him away, and we reframed it in terms of a story of migration and seeking asylum, and how those families had the right to do that and feel safe, but I still felt the slipperiness – explaining racial systems of injustice to kids needs multiple passes, multiple goes.

Not just here…Magdalene Laundries in Ireland

The other story that I think rhymes with the indigenous schools is one also close to my heart – The Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland. My grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the United States after World War II, my family is eligible for Irish citizenship, and so I find myself contemplating my Irish heritage quite a bit. I celebrated when they became the first country to legalize gay marriage by referendum in 2015 and to legalize abortion rights in 2018 (I took students to interview activists about abortion legalization in 2019, which was an incredible experience).

But Ireland, like the United States and Canada, has a violent history to contend with, again with the strategy of separating parents and children. In this case, unwed mothers were sent to these laundries to give birth, and the babies were raised in appalling conditions, taken from the mothers without their consent. Many wound up dead. The remains of 800 babies and children were found in Tuam, at the site of a “home” for unwed mothers and their children, in 2017. The women and girls were subject to harsh labor standards as well as physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Having the conversation

So, how do you think about this in a way that it makes sense to kids? How do you explain the state crafted policy of separating families and children? How do you explain the neglect and depravity that results in mass graves of children? And how do you do it in a way that equips kids to be the citizens and activists you want them to be, without traumatizing them? How do you sell them on this world?

I’m not sure, but here are my guidelines for these conversations:

  1. Avoid exceptionalism - These mass graves weren’t anomalies. These schools outlasted Kurt Cobain. The same logic governed our approach to migrants and refugees for the past four years. Family separation is a tool that’s still used.

  2. Avoid catastrophizing - To me, I am more interested in my kids understanding the means than the ends. I wouldn’t hide the fact that kids died in these places from them, but I also wouldn’t lead with it. I’d like to teach my kids to engage in systemic critiques, instead of only thinking it’s bad because of death or abuse. In other words, I’d like to avoid engaging in disaster porn with them. Kids belong with their families! People have an inherent right to their language and culture!

  3. Avoid “long ago and far far away” - They weren’t relics of a long ago, less enlightened time. When the in-color pictures of MLK on vacation in Jamaica began circulating on social media, it reinforced for me how much of our country’s strategy of coping with politics depends on massaging collective memory to make history feel far away.

  4. Sit with the discomfort - In cases like this, I think you need to hold space for the fact that you’re talking about a terrible thing. We so want to make our kids feel better - less afraid, less uncomfortable, that we often rush to try to explain away things that are terrible. But these things ARE terrible, and I think we need to coach our kids to talk through awful things without pretending that they’re better than they are.

  5. Understand intergenerational trauma - the world looks as it does today, because of events like this.

  6. As Mr. Rogers says, look for the helpers - this is where books and videos come in. I always try tell stories of resistance and resilience, and try not to present a one-dimensional story of victimhood. The internet is an amazing thing - for instance, David Robertson, a Crete author from Winnipeg, curated an outstanding list of books that focus on the residential schools. IndigiNews suggests these resources for children. These help to focus attention on the communities themselves, rather than white perpetrators and white saviors, which still keeps the attention on whiteness.

  7. Religion and the state are two sides of the same coin, and both need to be critiqued and have their power checked - in the case of both Canada and Ireland, the Catholic Church ran these institutions with the funding, resources, and protection of the state. We need to turn just as critical an eye of religious atrocities as we do to state sponsored ones.

It’s hard. Keep talking, and let me know how it goes.

What we’re reading:

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag is so beautifully written and illustrated, and a great introduction to Pride month! The kids are having fun pointing out rainbow flags all over town.

I just finished the podcast Nice White Parents - it’s from the producers of Serial and the excellent Chana Joffe-Walt. It was SO good and really brought up very complicated feelings about school integration and desegregation by telling the story of one middle school in Brooklyn. As a nice white parent, I totally recommend.