For most of 14 hours on Saturday, my son and I were on our feet in Washington D.C., unwilling to be comfortable and refusing to be silent. As I saw it, the educational possibilities justified skipping a day of school, even when the learning opportunities at the march included Henry reading a sign and asking loudly, “What’s an orgasm?”At that moment, I faced one of few occasions when I’ve replied: “Ask your father.”
Though I bypassed that teachable moment to keep us on task, the Women’s March on Washington served my mothering well. Together with my son, who is privileged enough to live a life in which his privilege is so fundamental as to render it mostly invisible, we marched to experience some basic lessons in responsible, active citizenship. Here are the lessons I hope he and other kids at marches around the globe might have experienced:
1. Humanity and decency are not political.
We might vehemently disagree with the political ideologies of the new administration, but standing up and marching with millions of people around the world was less of a political statement than it was an ethical one. When our leaders speak with violence, degradation, and indecency, any political concern comes second to a concern for fundamental humanity. Most children learn the difference between nice and mean before they learn about sides of the aisle, and I wanted my son to be clear that social responsibility is a basic tenet of leadership and citizenship, regardless of your political leanings. That social responsibility needs defending these days, and the march was a chance to do just that. Sure, we strongly asserted our political positions at the march, but to my mind, I was teaching my son that standing up for kindness is an imperative that transcends politics. Henry and I were part of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children objecting to inhumane leadership, selfishness, threats to democracy, and a disregard for dignity. It was telling that not only were there no arrests at the March on Washington, but the police presence was minimal – perhaps because we were there in the name of peace and respect.
2. Silence is political.
Those of us who prefer to be silent on what’s happening in the world may perceive silence as apolitical, but I wanted Henry to learn that silence can be a bystander’s crutch. And when we lean on it, we allow for injustice when we could be making a real human difference in the life of a person or people who need our advocacy. I wanted him to learn that silence can be a powerful message when used skillfully and that when it comes to activism, we have a right to be silent. At the same time, we have a responsibility to the members of our communities to defend their rights. This plays out most often in the hallways and lunchrooms of my son’s world – not on the ellipse outside the White House – but that makes it all the more important. Being quiet in the face of bullying and abuse of power is not as noncommittal as it might seem. At the March, we practiced voice – loud and clear – and my deep hope is that my son will carry that practice into his daily life of social complexities at school.
3. Intersectional feminism matters to white, middle class, teenage boys.
Before he asked about orgasms, Henry read a sign and asked, “What’s intersectional feminism?” Though caught off guard enough to say, “Ask your aunt,” this is a question I wish on every parent. His aunt, conveniently both a gender studies professor and right there standing next to us, fielded the question deftly. I realized that my boy, who will likely never know the first-hand experience of a disenfranchised identity, was seeing people of different colors, genders, orientations, faiths, and classes (to name a few) intersecting with clear voices of respect, refusing to march in competitive parallel play. The demonstration grew so large that it became many intersecting streets and manifested an ambulatory perpendicularity of diverse chanting voices, united. My boy both noticed and was immersed in the intersectionality of diverse people. As a result, the issues plastered on signs and ringing through the air weren’t other people’s issues. My son chanted that black lives matter and that a woman’s body is her choice, embodying the lesson that an issue doesn’t have to affect you to matter. Seeing him among other men and boys of all colors was a gentle lesson that women’s issues are human issues.
4. Discomfort is a developmental imperative.
Before we marched, we stood, waited in line, walked, and stood some more. On a very physical level, we were not comfortable. At 7 a.m., as we waited for an hour in a crowded tunnel to get on the Metro, I looked over at Henry and he was apprehensive, uncertain of the space, the people, and what he signed up for. At other times, I grasped his hand or his arm a bit too tight, driven by that maternal fear of losing one’s child in a massive crowd. But discomfort – physical and mental – brings growth. The experience of not knowing what comes next was palpable and emblematic of what many of us feel when we check the news every day. With the firm grasp of his mom to secure him, I wanted Henry to learn that comfort and complacency overlap beyond their first three letters, and endurance through sore feet and uncertain times is bolstered by the power of a people standing up together. “It’s good to stand up for what you believe in,” Henry told me a few days after the March. “Why is it good?” I asked.
“Because it’s good to feel like you’re doing something.”
5. Voice and kindness are neither mutually exclusive, nor optional.
One of the most important lessons I could teach my son through activism is that speaking up and kindness are not incompatible. Too often, I wonder if I send the message that being nice means being passive or quiet. By taking him to the March, that notion came to forefront of my mind. We were there to speak up for many things, speaking up for speech among them. But as we marched to speak up for humane and respectful speech, we were obliged to practice what we preached. By chanting for justice and humanity, Henry found a clear voice of agency and assertiveness. At the same time, he practiced kind speech, the type of considerate action many of us feel is lacking in the White House. At one point we marched near a young girl and her mom, the girl holding a sign that read Use Kind Words. It was a beautiful, loud statement that the basic human decency we learn as children is where we must start now.