I’m told that names with X or Z in them stand out and are easier to remember, but having an interesting name isn’t what put Ibram X. Kendi on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Rather, Kendi’s intentional name change (according to Wikipedia, his middle name Xolani is a Xhosa and Zulu word for "peace" and his last name, "Kendi" means "the loved one" in the language of the Meru people of Kenya) is a small testament to the focus with which he has lived his life, dedicated to the research of racist ideas and their influence on American society.
As I described this ambitious structure to my husband and confessed that I was having trouble holding all of the information in my head so that I could make sense of it, he suggested that, as far as reading history goes, it can be particularly hard to find a narrative through-line in an intellectual history like this one. Kendi tells a story for sure, but, as I write about elsewhere this month, it is easier for a reader like me to digest the information when the story centers around one person, like in The Lemon Tree. Kendi is onto something when he tries to encapsulate chunks of time in the lives of each of those influential figures, but if you pick up this one, know you’re in for some hard work.
As I compiled my reading from this month, I realized that my selections each raised issues of American myths, myths like these that Kendi addresses in his book:
-That hate and ignorance led to racism and discrimination
-That racism is in the past
-That Americans have a troubled history but have been generally engaged in racial progress
-That anti-racism is intuitive and easy
In his preface to the paperback edition, Kendi explains that in his research, he “did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. [He] saw two distinct historical forces. [He] saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. [He] saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in politics.” (x)
He goes on to explain:
“If Barack Obama came to embody America’s history of racial progress, then Donald Trump should come to embody America’s history of racist progress. And racist progress has consistently followed racial progress.
“It is this dueling duality that I present in Stamped from the Beginning, taking away the shock of Trump’s election, and showing its striking consistency within America’s history. Trump was shocking for me, but then again not shocking at all. This history prepared me for Trump, and all the other Trumps that could rise one day on the timeworn back of bigotry.” (xi)
This idea of a “dual and dueling history” really resonated with me, especially after reading Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bradley Jersak last month. In detailing biblical and historical perspectives on Hell, Jersak challenges the reader to consider the teachings of the pre-Nicene church (Christianity before 325 A.D.) as a path to thinking beyond the possibilities that the world and heaven are either consecutive ages or two separate spaces in different dimensions but rather “are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.” (163)
The Bible says that the more we seek God, the more the devil will try to turn us from him. Kendi’s idea of racist progress following racial progress parallels this.
Kendi posits that “hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America… Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame from their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” (9)
Reading this did not make me proud to be an American. Beyond that though, it highlighted the incredibly disappointing fallibility of mankind. To begin with, I just don’t understand how generations of people could dedicate themselves to the study of whether groups of people can be categorized into a hierarchy. Just because Aristotle embraced it doesn’t mean we should follow suit. Please read the first few chapters of Kendi’s book and feel the fury. Or better yet, listen to the audiobook and pair the placid cadence of the reader’s voice with the audacious history depicted in his words. (And if you can listen to this book while on a cross country road trip where your children compete for your attention as they demand movies, music and snacks, you’ll experience the madness in a more palpable way.)
Do you ever picture yourself in history? Do you ever imagine how you would have acted during that time? In antebellum American, women were using their voices through narrative, as Jessie Morgan-Owens writes in her incredibly researched book Girl in Black and White. Could I have written something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Okay, perhaps not, but if I had been living in Little Rock, Arkansas, would I have tried to help the new Black students feel welcome at Central High School? Images from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry remain seared in my mind from when I read it as a teenager, and yet, Kendi points out that I missed the bigger picture -- why Beals had to seek alternative education in the first place.
This is an example of where I struggled with Kendi’s message to tease apart what actions were segregationist, assimilationist or anti-racist. According to my reading of his words, to encourage Beals and her classmates to attend Central High School would have been an assimilationist act. How would that help the kids at Horace Mann High School (from where Beals transferred) get a better education? He suggests that perhaps the anti-racist action would have been to pour funds and resources into that school, instead of implementing bussing of kids to better schools in a different part of town. Would I have been so focused on welcoming Melba and others that I would have missed the opportunity to build up the communities that needed it? What about the Blacks that didn’t want to go to white schools?
Over the 511 pages of the paperback edition, Kendi weaves the complicated story of racist ideas from multiple perspectives. There is no one Black perspective, just as there is no one white perspective. As I read more this book, I began to understand the need for places like Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research, work he first began at American University but now continues at Boston University as of July 2020.
I would like to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist so that I can continue to learn about how to practice anti-racism, something I’m finding might not come as intuitively as I first thought. And yet, according to Kendi, it all comes down to this straightforward belief:
“That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.” (11)
That is the whole foundation. That is the place to start.
This book falls on a very long list of books I didn’t get around to reading when they were first popular. But Tolan’s story of crossing barriers to understand differences among us is far from a passing fad. It’s a little-practiced but desperately needed exercise in growing empathy that is relevant for any time. There will always be differences dividing the human race -- whether by race or culture or religion or politics or class or personality. And while diversity and inclusion groups have certainly made great strides to cultivate awareness and celebrate diversity, we need stories like Tolan to bring us beyond just saying it’s okay to be different. We need stories to teach us how to bring honor to someone who is different. It’s the simple but often-insurmountable difference between saying hello to your neighbor and inviting them over for a meal in your home.
Tolan’s narrative demonstrates that while Dalia and Bashir grow in their love for each other over decades of friendship, they retain a heartbreaking hesitancy to climb out of their entrenched ideals in order to pursue compromise. For the Palestinian, even as late as 2013 (in my edition of the book), 65 years after the 1948 war, no resolution is satisfactory besides removing any immigrant who arrived after 1948 and restoring the 1948 boundaries of Palestine, a change which would allow him to return to the home he was forced to flee that year. For the Israeli, the Palestinians must accept that the Jews need this land and must build new homes in Old Palestine, allowing her to retain rights over the Palestinian’s property which she inhabited when he fled.
Even with this stalemate, however, Tolan’s book is still worth reading. Perhaps in sharing their personal struggles, Tolan seeks to embolden others to join the conversation. In his words:
“The key to...openness, [he continues] lies in the interweaving narratives: When someone sees his or her own history represented fairly, it opens up the mind and heart to the history of the Other…[in order to recognize] the humanity of the other side. ...I’m hopeful that the human story beneath this “intractable” problem will show that it may not be so intractable after all. As Dalia says, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.” (xix)
What I appreciated most about this book was a chance to learn about the history of the region in a detailed way through a narrative structure, like that of the story of Bashir and Dalia. As I describe elsewhere in my blog this month in my review of Kendi’s in my review of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, I have always had a hard time remembering the dates and circumstances in a history lesson. One of my classmates this past summer shared an excerpt from her memoir about losing her connection to her Egyptian homeland since coming to the States. When she grounded Egyptian history in her personal memories, I was much more able to follow her experience, as I would have been otherwise floundering in a sea of names and dates, untethered to an hierarchy of importance in my mind.
In trying to process Tolan’s feat of narrative nonfiction, I mulled over some pretty tough issues. First, I feel like I have to confess that I grew up believing in what I now feel is a myth of Israeli sovereignty. Second, I wonder if we might apply Gregory Boyd’s interpretation of Old Testament violence in this situation and consider that, while God definitely wanted his people in the Promised Land, he never wanted the Israelites to take it by force.
While there are, for sure, religious reasons for Israelis and Muslims to lay claim to the land in question, I found it interesting that Tolan chooses to highlight families that are mainly secular. Still, there are, of course, strong religious implications. Israeli Operation “Wrath of God” in 1972, for example, reminds me of Boyd pointing out that the ancient cultures depicted in the Old Testament were proud of violent contests that demonstrated the power and victory of their gods. The Ancient Israelites were no different. They wanted to attribute the violent victories to Yahweh. And yet, Boyd suggests in his book that God wanted to give Canaan to the Israelites in a non-violent manner. As a Christian, it is important for me to study this. Christian backing for Israel is a strong part of American culture, and I want us to reconsider why. Christians have an opportunity here to replace the “an eye for an eye” thinking with Jesus’s admonishment to “turn the other cheek.”
Regarding one such Christian, I have a vague memory of reading Blood Brothers by Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli Archbishop Elias Chacour as a teenager. Originally published in 1984, I found the story eye-opening and moving. But for me, the conflict still felt very far away. Tolan’s narrative drives the matter home, for Americans in particular.
For most of my life, the problem in the Middle East has been over there. And yet, here’s my third large takeaway: Many of the details found in this narrative eerily mirror those at home, making it painstakingly clear that the issues we see in the Middle East are not specific to the Middle East but perhaps examples of the broken condition of the human spirit. For example, are Americans not invaders in their land, pushing out the indigenous people, as the Palestinians accuse the Israelis? Are Americans not battling with the concept of reparations? Are Americans not locking up their own (watch 13th on Netflix for shocking statistics on mass incarceration) and disenfranchising large portions of the population, as Tolan included the estimate that 40% of the adult male Palestinian population had done some jail time in the 18 years follow the 1967 war? And are Americans not on display for the whole world to criticize? (I don’t offer a particular example for that last question, but I don’t expect you have to think too hard to come up with one.)
Bashir points out a humbling difference between us when he says:
“Palestinians are stones in a riverbed. We won’t be washed away. The Palestinians are not the Indians. It is the opposite: Our numbers are increasing.” (260)
Those statements made me incredibly uncomfortable, as did these:
“[Bashir] was skeptical that this longing for Zion had much to do with Israel’s creation. “Israel first came to the imagination of the Western occupying powers for two reasons,” he told Dalia.
“And what are they?” she asked in reply, now feeling her own skepticism grow.
“First, to get rid of you in Europe. Second, to rule the East through this government and to keep down the whole Arab world. And then the leaders started remembering the Torah and started to talk about the land of the milk and the honey, and the Promised Land.”
“But there is good reason for this,” Dalia objected. “And the reason is to protect us from being persecuted in other countries....”
“But you are saying that the whole world did this, Dalia. It is not true. The Nazis killed the Jews. And we hate them. But why should we pay for what they did? Our people welcomed the Jewish people during the Ottoman Empire…. “
Referring to the conflict Dalia and he both find themselves in now, drawn together by the yearning for the same home, Bashir continues:
“Why did this happen, Dalia? The Zionism did this to you, not just to the Palestinians.” (161)
Dalia’s husband admits at one point that Palestinians “have a legitimate grievance against [Israelis]...And deep down, even those who deny it know it. That makes us very uncomfortable and uneasy in dealing with you. Because our homes are your homes, you become a real threat.” (211)
It takes decades for Dalia to even consider the possibility that Bashir might have a claim to her family’s home. Prior to meeting Bashir, she believed the story she was told throughout childhood, that the Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, too cowardly to fight, and that because of this they did not deserve the land. I found it really hard to understand her reasoning. Even if they hadn’t been driven out (as she later learns was the case), perhaps they weren’t fighters? Perhaps they were hoping for nonviolence? Why is it cowardly to walk away from a bully when he picks a fight?
As Dalia searches for a way to make things right with her friend Bashir, she has an opportunity to foster dialogue between Israelis and Arabs and is “amazed at the outpouring of emotion from Arab citizens who began talking openly about their family stories from 1948. “Suddenly, Arabs opened up with statements of pain,” [Dalia’s husband] recalled. “Liberal, well-meaning Israelis who thought they were building cultural bridges and alliances were forced to confront the fact that there were endemic problems and injustices in Israeli society that required much more than cross-cultural encounter and coexistence activity. It required social and political transformation on a societal scale.” (240-1)
To me, this sharing of stories is what we’re encouraging in America right now. The writing center where I take classes seeks diversity of writers, and as frustrated as I am that I continue to be waitlisted for classes, I can’t blame the organizers for prioritizing stories of the unheard over someone like me from middle white America. My book club has added more color to its line-up of authors, and I wonder how you might search for and absorb stories from writers that have long gone unprinted.
Overall, in The Lemon Tree, while Tolan repeatedly drives home the love of the Jewish people for the Promised Land, I get a more sympathetic view of the Arabs. I wonder how Jewish Americans respond to this book. I wonder how it has been received in Israel.
I don’t want my observations and comments to be read as a criticism of the Jewish people but rather an inquiry into the justifications of Israeli policy. As I’ve written elsewhere, none of my blog posts are comprehensive analyses of the issues they discuss. On this issue, if you have read material with a similar or opposing perspective, will you list it below so we can all continue to learn from each other’s stories?
I want to leave you with a heart-warming perspective that has the potential to empower us all. Before Tolan gets into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he takes the time to show us the goodness we often overlook due to the incredibly distracting force of war. Prior to this book, for example, I had no knowledge of the Bulgarian response to the Holocaust and how civilians banded together to protest the deportation of their Jews, saving 47,000 lives. To describe the intricate network of small responses that added up to this dramatic result, Tolan attributes the phrase “the fragility of goodness,” coined by Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorv, meaning “the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.” (43) What he means is this: your good deed is never wasted, no matter how small. We cannot see the trickle down effects of our actions, good or bad. We can only choose the next right thing.
You may remember that a friend and I decided to read the Bible together, cover to cover, by the end of the year. I don’t think I’m going to reach that goal. I have been sidetracked for a variety of external reasons (ahem, pandemic) and yet, I have to admit that there have been days when reading the Bible has felt like a deterrent to reading the Bible. What I mean is, some of the content in the Old Testament is so upsetting and has so upset my childhood views that I’m not sure I want to keep reading it. For example, from my childhood, I remember Samson as the good man who was tricked by the wicked Delilah, but my current reading unveils a violent man with anger and impulse issues.
The critics know what I mean when they demand:
How can you believe in a God who commands the genocide of surrounding nations? How can a loving God cause so much suffering?
“Numerous studies have shown that violent depictions of God in literature that is regarded as sacred make believers more inclined toward violence. Given the rising fear surrounding religiously motivated violence since 9/11, this makes many people understandably concerned about the [Old Testament’s] violent representations of God.
“These divine portraits also give plenty of ammunition to critics of the Bible, and I have met far too many former Christians, and even former pastors, whose faith was destroyed because they found they could no longer defend these ugly portraits against these critics.” (5)
In his footnotes Boyd cites The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, and God, the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction by Dan Barker. Regarding the last author, Boyd comments that “it’s worth noting that Dan Barker...was a Christian evangelist for sixteen years before losing his faith and becoming an atheist. And one of the main reasons is that he concluded there was no way to defend the immoral character of God in many narratives of the OT.” (5)
And how have Christians defended God? I can’t purport to be able to compose a comprehensive thesis on this issue here in this blog, but I can record my own experience -- of embracing Old Testament stories as a child with black and white, good guy versus bad guy thinking and then growing up to focus mainly on the New Testament, the life of Jesus and the practical life suggestions of Paul.
Boyd explains that my experience isn’t unique and that the violent “portraits of God have been taken at face value for the last fifteen hundred years,” ever since “Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and began to shower the church with wealth and political power.” (77, 76) Boyd provides evidence that early Christians “took very seriously Jesus’s call to refrain from violence and to love and serve their enemies” and that they strived to interpret violent depictions of God in Scripture as tainted by the cultural and spiritual conditions of the recorders. (76) And “as the church of Christendom arose, the reinterpretation approach to the OT’s violent portraits of God quickly faded away. And the reason is obvious. As Christians acclimated to the use of violence, the OT’s violent depictions of God became less problematic.” (77)
Some churches I have been a part of, as I described above, gloss over this issue and choose to focus on Jesus. Christians believe he’s our best evidence for God anyway, so why delve into the hazy and distant past? Or, perhaps, as some scholars do, we can justify the violent actions of the OT because really, those people deserved it, right? In his book The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel wrestles with understanding compassion and mercy “when we see God ordering genocide by teling the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 to ‘totally destroy’ the Canaanites and six other nations and to ‘show them no mercy.” (118) Strobel presses scholar Norman L. Geisler on this point who responds by explaining that God is “absolutely holy, and that he has got to punish sin and rebellion. He’s a righteous judge; that’s undeniably part of who he is. But, second, his character is also merciful. Listen: if anyone wants to escape, he will let them.” And yet, Geisler continues his justification by saying, [the Amalekites] were far from innocent. Far from it. These were not nice people. In fact, they were utterly and totally depraved. Their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide. As if that weren’t evil enough, think what was hanging in the balance. The Israelites were the chosen people through whom God would bring salvation to the entire world through Jesus Christ.” (118-119)
The journalist and the scholar continue to debate this issue (and I recommend Strobel’s book immensely and find it heartening that Boyd’s father is quoted later in that chapter, that this discussion and debate is happening in real time, with the people around us), and yet, I worry that Geisler, with all of his years of study, has missed something fundamental: God doesn’t need our help to bring salvation to the world. If the Israelites had been killed back then, God would have found another way. Or rather, perhaps we can rest in the covenant God made with Abraham and be assured that God wouldn’t have let them be wiped out. God is greater than any enemy.
No, I like Boyd’s new argument much better: that perhaps violence was never part of God’s plan. It was in the world, of course, as a result of free will, but God doesn’t command it.
Boyd’s central inquiry: “How do macabre portraits of God, such as the portrait of Yaweh commanding Israelites to mercilessly engage in genocide, reflect and point to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God that is supremely revealed on the cross?” (emphasis in original, 46-47)
Boyd argues that when violence is attributed to God, that is God stooping low and assuming the blame, bearing the burden of sin in place of the humans who committed it. Boyd provides plenty of biblical and historical backstory to support his claim, including detailed discussion of how we can continue to believe the Bible is God-breathed and see the flawed perspectives of its recorders. I’ll leave you to pick up a copy and delve into that yourself, but here’s one small example of God bearing the burden:
While the Bible makes it clear that God wanted his people to occupy the land of Canaan, there is Biblical evidence that God had non-violent plans to make this happen...if the Israelites would only be patient. Plans that included sending “the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way...not...in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you…[but rather] drive them out...little by little.” (Exodus 23:28-30) Leviticus chapter 18 describes a different non-violent plan: to make the land unfruitful so that the inhabitants would migrate in search of better pasture.
Boyd argues that someone with the worldview of the ancient Near East would have heard the instruction to acquire land and equated it with the slaughtering of its inhabitants. (116-117) The ancient cultures depicted in the Old Testament were proud of violent contests that demonstrated the power and victory of their gods. The Israelites were no different. They wanted to attribute the violent victories to Yahweh. Elsewhere in his book, Boyd discusses the theory of God working up to revealing himself fully through Christ, gradually doling out his character in a way that people can understand and receive it. Christians have a chance to see things differently. If we truly believe that Jesus is God and depicts God’s character completely, then we have to consider that perhaps the Israelites’ conception of God, as Boyd suggests, was cloudy.
Boyd knows that we need some reassurance that God is the same in Jesus as he ever was, that he is unchanging, because “the way [we] imagine God largely determines the quality of [our] relationship with God.” (18)
And if the critics only see a violent God, they will remain angry. This is the hardest part for me: I can picture the faces of those critics. I see the faces of my friends, and out of love for them, I want them to remember that God is faithful, the same as he has always been, and that we can be reassured of that by remembering and celebrating how Jesus lived and died and rose again.
If these concepts are difficult to digest, consider the teachings of Origen, a third century scholar in the early church, which Boyd leverages in the opening of his book:
“Origen taught that when we come upon a biblical passage that seems unworthy of God, we must humble ourselves before God and ask the Spirit to help us find a deeper meaning in the passage that is worthy of God. He sometimes referred to this as a treasure buried in the depth of a passage. Origen believed that God intentionally buried treasures beneath the ugly and “unworthy” surface meaning of various passages to force us to mature spiritually as we humbly wrestle with Scripture and become more dependent on the Spirit.” (16)
Boyd’s perspective may be a little new, especially in modern times, but I will be curious to see how churches embrace this opportunity to answer critics’ questions and complaints, not on the defensive anymore, but with our best offensive: Jesus. As Boyd explains, “at its heart, this entire book could be summed up as a plea for Christians to once again place their complete trust in the cross. Dare to believe that God really is, to the core of his being, as beautiful as the cross reveals him to be.” (78)
Earlier this month I listened to a panel discussion hosted by Newton Covenant Church called “First Day Jitters: An Expert Panel on Navigating “Back to School” in a Pandemic.” I opened up the Zoom call with curiosity and an urgent need for hope. I didn’t have any particular questions, other than how the heck are we going to do school this fall? On the cusp of the new year with so much uncertainty still ahead (would my four remote learners stay at home or would they return to school at some point?), I was searching for guidelines, parameters, any kind of expert tidbit of advice to help me navigate our new and ever-shifting reality. And yet, I was also full of doubt and skepticism that some stranger over the screen could offer me anything I truly needed.
I’ll spare you the suspense and say that by the end, I was so glad I had listened in. Initial scrolling illustrations depicting our outstanding circumstances conveyed comic relief, and the calm and reassuring demeanor from all of the panelists provided a sense of peace and gave me a place of rest for an hour or so. I can’t replicate either of those components of the evening here for you, so I’ll jump to the third and meatiest takeaway -- their expert advice and perspectives.
How traumatic is the loss of school for my child?
The clinical psychologist on the panel was asked whether the pandemic and loss of in-person schooling qualify as traumatic events for our kids. The professional replied that for most kids, the abrupt stopping of school was a stressful life event, not a trauma. In this case, the trauma kids might experience might come not from COVID but from the fallout of COVID, such as changes to family structure, death, loss of jobs or changes in socioeconomic status.
Bottom line, she wanted us to remember that kids are resilient by nature. They are always growing and adapting, so they are better suited to dealing with these changes than adults are! Besides that though, there are many things we can do to buffer this experience for kids. We can bolster their resiliency by being responsive, supportive and caring.
As they return to school, kids will have different perspectives based on their prior experience. Older kids, for example, may be more disappointed by the changes because they have had more time to experience school as it was before. What we all have in common though, of course, is the unknown. The psychologist said it’s helpful if we name the unknown for the kids, as in “We don’t know who your teacher will be, but we will know by the first day of school.” She recommended talking through the logistics, such as wearing masks, taking mask breaks and eating lunch in the classroom (if the kids are in person).
When asked how concerned we should be about long term effects on our kids, she honestly answered that we don’t know yet. Still, she encouraged us not to “borrow the trouble of tomorrow.” We as a society will figure out what happens down the road.
Each interview concluded with the panelist offering a piece of advice for parents. The psychologist offered these words:
As humans, we influence each others’ moods. If we can come into a conversation with hope, the kids will too. But, we don’t have to do it perfectly. We can always repair, and doing this teaches kids to talk through their own problems and mistakes.
Is my child at risk of falling behind?
Following the interview with the clinical psychologist, the superintendent on the panel was asked whether the kids have experienced education loss. Yes, he said frankly, but then he went on to remind everyone that this pandemic is global. He encouraged us to remember that everyone is at a disadvantage right now. Education is going to be disjointed for a while. He described education from March through June as crisis learning and expected remediation for at least part of this school year.
Then he shifted gears and encouraged us to appreciate the different learning opportunities of these past months that families engaged in -- opportunities to come together, learn new hobbies, and learn to cook, for example. As we look ahead to new learning structures, he offered perspective on how some of these changes could be a good thing. Pre-recorded videos, for example, could give a child who is struggling with a concept a chance to hear a lesson several times. He stressed that parents should play a supporting role and not assume the position of main educator.
As his concluding advice, the superintendent offered these words:
Remember that school isn’t just about academics. Demonstrate curiosity for your kids and ask yourself how you can learn alongside them and bond with them during this time.
How do I distinguish between regular worry and anxiety in my child?
The pastor’s third panel question about how to detect and understand anxiety in kids was directed to a pediatric neuropsychologist. Anxiety disorder, in her definition, involves a prolonged tendency toward anxiety over a timeframe of two to three weeks that interferes with functioning in daily life. She pointed out that a child is less likely to be able to verbalize cognitive changes. A parent is more likely to see irritability, restlessness, the child’s mind “going blank” under stressful circumstances, and sleep disturbances.
For parents like me who witness irritability on a daily basis, the expert encouraged us to remember that worry and apprehension are appropriate responses to changes due to COVID. She explained that we have a natural cognitive bias to believe we can control outcomes which gives us confidence and is beneficial for our mental health, except right now, unexpected change has broken our illusion of control. Right now, while we can’t control many of the outcomes that we usually think we can, she reminded us that we can influence attitudes, effort and opportunity. She suggested that if we are positive, hopeful and enthusiastic about the upcoming school year, we can empower our kids to feel safe and confident.
As her concluding advice, the neuropsychologist offered these words:
Acknowledge the loss of previous expectations but then have hope and make new opportunities.
How can my child learn to manage getting schoolwork done at home?
Yes, but what if my child doesn’t want to engage in schoolwork at home? I appreciated this last question directed toward the executive function specialist on the panel because I knew from homeschooling in the spring that no matter how much enthusiasm and prep I bring to the dining-room-table-turned-makeshift-schoolroom, it’s up to my kids to participate. The expert loosely defined executive function as a group of important mental skills that helps us get things done. If a student struggles with these skills we might notice him or her having trouble staying focused or initiating, planning and executing a task. The student might have trouble with self-control, flexible thinking, or time management (meaning understanding the passage of time or “what 10 minutes feels like”).
Thankfully, the expert said, these skills can be taught and they can be learned. She suggested creating a workspace (get a caddie for materials, for example); creating a routine and predictable environment; having the child take part in creating the schedule; and getting an old fashioned wall clock (I bought two, one for the upstairs and one for the kitchen, and my kids’ eyes lit up as they told me that one of the clocks looked like the ones at school!).
As her concluding advice, the executive function coach offered these words:
Limit screen time. Imaginative play is the catalyst for executive function.
How can the church community support families during this time?
At the end of the panel round, the pastor opened up the meeting to questions from listeners, and I was floored when someone asked this one: how can we help? So many of us, myself included, feel completely drained right now, let we have nothing to offer. I braced myself as I waited for how the panelists would respond. If someone suggested I do something, I wasn’t sure I would be able to. But the answer surprised me. One panelist gently suggested that some of us may be struggling to understand why some communities are able to open their doors while others aren’t. That panelist encouraged us to remember that every community has different needs based on their red, yellow or green COVID status and to keep that in mind when we are tempted to compare. The panelist also encouraged us to check in on the mental health and wellness of neighbors and seek outdoor socially distanced playdates for our kids to help with their mental health and adjustment. My takeaways: Stop comparing. Get out to the park. These were definitely things to do.
Then the pastor closed in prayer and offered a blessing over the school year. I left the gathering feeling recharged and a little more equipped to see this experience through the eyes of my kids.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.