As a mom and a teacher, I live with an awareness of the teachable moment—a moment when a child or a student presents you with a drop-everything opportunity to engage with the world or an idea. When one of my readers recently expressed interest in hearing how I help my kids deal with cultural influences, this is where I landed: the teachable moment.
When my daughter was very young, I didn’t want to deal with culture. Ever. I wanted to protect her from all things pinkalicous and boobalicious to the end of time. That was not a realistic approach for me or my husband—we are people who engage with culture. We watch (mostly good) TV. We read Entertainment Weekly. We have a computer, and my husband loves to play video games. So we’re not exactly models of non-engagement; in fact, the reason we’ve “rejected” aspects of culture is largely financial, rather than intellectual or emotional. I was a stay-at-home mom for a long time, and I work part-time now: we don’t have the money for SmartPhones and a big-screen TV. But if we did? Yeah, we’d probably own them.
Even if I could protect my kids from all the nonsense in the world, how long would that last? My kids are going to make friends, some of whom will have SmartPhones and iPads. My kids are going to turn 18 and leave home and discover the wide world. Better to let them get to know about the world, incrementally and on our turf, then to act as if the world isn’t there and then turn them loose. Our general approach is to talk about the aspects of culture that disturb us—so my daughter has heard plenty about how I feel when it comes to beauty, brains, and females in our culture. Part of the ongoing discussion is that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your physical self, or feeling pretty—I wear makeup, nice clothes, and jewelry, and I like those things. My message is always that culture would have us put our self-worth in beauty—and an impossible standard of beauty at that.
Every family has to draw their own lines and boundaries. Our home has had a place for Barbie, but not for a Bratz doll. We watch My Little Pony and Transformers (and listen to Kidz Bop), but I draw the line at iCarly and Big Time Rush. If my kids ever wanted to read Twilight, they would be way out of luck. These are my gut reactions, and other families have different gut reactions. Our gut reactions are the first level of decision-making as parents: we know what we’re willing to let into our homes, and what we’re not.
Which brings me to the teachable moment.
I live in the teachable moment with my kids all the time. It is in the car, on the kitchen floor, in the toy box, on the living room couch. Often, it shows up at bedtime, as a way to prolong the day. Here are some examples of the teachable moments I’ve had with my kids:
- Fairies: As part of our ongoing discussion about beauty, I once pointed out that fairies are just like Barbie. Audrey didn’t agree: “But fairies do things!” she exclaimed. “They have powers, and they’re always solving problems!” “Yes,” I replied. “But look at their clothes. Look how their bodies are emphasized—those clothes make it seem like their bodies and their beauty are more important than their brains and solving problems.” Audrey reluctantly agreed, and I don’t think she’s seen fairies quite the same since. (But she still likes them.)
- Princesses: After I took my kids to a Lowe’s workshop to build a wooden castle, we brought the castles home, along with a cast of paper dolls that included a princess. Nicholas tried to foist his princess onto me or his sister because “Princesses don’t do anything.” I agreed that often, in stories, princesses are pretty lame—but they shouldn’t be, because they are girls, and girls can do tons of cool stuff. A long conversation followed about gender roles, toys, etc. Later that day, my kids were playing castle—and yes, my daughter had the princess. But the princess ruled the castle, and the pageboy had a hard time tricking his way past her savvy defenses.
- Ms—the Title and the Magazine: In the car, the subject of my married name came up. I told my kids the reason I prefer Ms. Magill to Mrs. Magill, which started a conversation about Gloria Steinem and the struggle for gender equality. I also told them about why I took their dad’s last name—because I wanted to have the same name my kids do. I try to point out the ways in which I’ve rebelled against patriarchy and the ways in which I’ve conformed to it.
- Real Life: This one is personal, but I’m going to share it because it is a perfect example of how the cultural and the personal collide. Once, after I’d picked Audrey up from school, she confided that one of her third-grade male classmates quoted another boy as saying that Audrey has a hot mom. I asked Audrey how she responded. She said, “I told him he was right!” “OK,” I said. “But what if you’d said, ‘You know, she’s really smart too! And that matters more than how she looks.'” This moment might seem innocent enough—I can hear the comments about “they were just complimenting you” now—but, had I let that slide, here’s what my daughter would have gotten: I can say all I want about beauty and brains, but culture will teach Audrey otherwise, straight from the mouths of the boys she will want to date in five years. Objectifying women is what boys learn: it is, in fact, the origin of the term MILF. Can you imagine an eight-year-old girl saying something similar to a male classmate about his dad? No, because we aren’t teaching our girls to objectify grown men and share that objectification with their peers. And I wouldn’t want to.
I’ve recently found this great site, Common Sense Media, that rates shows and provides conversation starters for cultural analysis. When the time comes for me to let in the iCarlys of the world, I plan to use Common Sense Media to help me sort it out. It is my hope that as my kids get older, they will still listen to me, to their dad (who approaches his teachable moments with humor), and to common sense. In the end, we all have to do the best we can do—and then let go and hope that the sum of our teachable moments is greater than the weight of the world.