Making room for rad children

It seems inevitable that some radicals will have children. Our youth scenes aren’t particularly well adapted to multiple generations, and if good communities are to develop we must find ways to integrate the young and the old into our movement. Ironically, Emma Goldman once complained that the anarchist movement was too old and needed more younger people… Now we often struggle with the reverse. Besides offering mutual aid for schooling and kid-friendly zones, there is a distance from children that many radicals maintain which we must overcome.

Kids are not homogeneous as a demographic. It’s no more acceptable to dislike children than it is to dislike folks of any identity. They can’t help being minors. I find that I like kids in the same ratio as folks generally: maybe 1/3 are my style. However, I try and give the little spuds a chance before I exercise my free association and split. There’s no tacit permission that should allow any of us to avoid interacting with the kids in our communities. In fact, they need us all the more given the barrage of capitalist and statist propaganda dumped on them by media, school and, often, extended families. While there is no guarantee that kids will become anarchists, we can hope that raising them to understand ethics and anti-oppression increases the possibility. At least they’ll have the potential to make informed decisions about their worlds.

We must face our own socialized authoritarianism and repression in order to be healthy companions for children. While overcoming our own shit may be out of the question, we can still recognize it so that it does not traumatize another generation of people. Being with kids requires that we examine our own issues and find ways not to traumatize them in the ways we are hurt. Both avoidance and overemphasis of issues can cause harm. Many of us are poorly socialized around money, self-esteem, our bodies, sex, relationships, competence, success and failure, work and play, and authority. Communicating our own insufficiencies is often enough to avoid these pitfalls. Admitting that we don’t have the answers or that boundaries sometimes arise from irrational fear lets kids know that we are figuring it out and they can explore their own answers. Vulnerability is a great gift to a child. It communicates security and possibility. Learning to do this with kids could help improve our other relationships as well.

Before even attempting to borrow a kid for two hours, it’s good to think about the stuff that will probably come up for you. The people who raised us are models for us as caregivers, and we can choose to imitate or reject their strategies. Knowing what you need and can accept is crucial. For instance, what are your physical boundaries? Are you okay wrestling, changing a diaper, or curling up to read a story? Wiping noses? Wiping butts? How would you react if a kid who’s still nursing tried to pull up your shirt? Think about how you react to being naked and how you could tell a kid why some other people aren’t okay with it. Again, communicating your boundaries, even if they are different than what a kid is accustomed to, should make things smoother.

Kids are incredibly astute and can process a lot of “mature” concerns. Addressing racism when you see it with kids, or any other oppressive behavior, helps them develop their own ideas about how it’s okay to treat others. You can also model directly a better response than they know or have seen. If a kid acts out in ways that are harmful or oppressive (and I’ve seen two year olds do this), then it’s necessary to confront with both reasons and alternatives.

Besides understanding your own ideas about kids and their world, you need to find out specifically what your borrowed kid is up to. Check in with primary caregivers to find out if there are safety/health issues or personality stuff to know about. Knowing schedules, food preferences, naptimes, and favorite distractions can make looking after a kid a lot more feasible. It can be a long walk from the park to the comic book store, and it’s easier to ask than guess.

Supporting children also involves supporting their regular caregivers. Giving a break to mamas and papas so that they can go dancing, or even just take a shower alone, helps them re-energize. Cooking dinner, doing a school or daycare pickup, or arranging a few kids together for a playdate gives the grownups some time to escape sippy cups and board books.

If you know a kid for at least six months, you’ll probably witness them transition through another developmental phase. Adults have similar cycles, only slower. Generally, kids will explore, master, regress and integrate new skills, whether physical, emotional or intellectual. We need to let kids be where they are, instead of chastising them for all of a sudden being shy, modest, or outspoken. Chances are, things will change in a few months and they’ll be in a new place again.

Deciding to be an ally to children is about empowering them to do the things that interest and challenge them. We must create safe places (physically and socially) for kids to explore, and present alternatives to the marketing machine that informs lots of childrearing. Teach them to sew instead of shopping for clothes; make ice cream instead of buying sweets; and head out for a hike instead of the astroturf playground. The most memorable times from my childhood have nothing to do with things people bought me; they are the times I spent with people who cared for me.

Besides countering the influence of mainstream culture, we should interact with kids so that they realize that each relationship they have will be different. Moms and dads and housemates and ti@s will all bring different gifts and expectations. Being adaptable is very useful in our world of appearances. Avoiding normalization of master/servant roles and creating paradigms of reciprocity helps kids avoid stagnant expectations as they explore the world. There are lots of acceptable ways to communicate and interact, which we can share with the young ones.

So, if you haven’t hung out with someone under 10 since you were that young yourself, start imagining a day of climbing trees and chasing butterflies (or video games and the library). There’s a radical families listserve for San Francisco, and it would be great if more folks without kids found ways to be involved with planning and support. It takes time to get involved in a child’s life, but it may be the coolest thing you ever do. Maybe your neighbor has a kid you can borrow. Because after all, it takes an affinity group to raise a child.