October 1, 2020

How to Give Children Joy, Even During a Pandemic

I drove my oldest son, a middle schooler, to his baseball game a few miles down the road. There was a slight breeze, a perfect setting for summer activity.

On the field, it looked like a standard summer of boys learning the nuances of the sport, some further along the road to adult coordination than others. What stood out were the masks on all their faces: a visual reminder that we are in the summer of Covid-19. Joy and sadness, normalcy and profound change competed among the young athletes for our attention.

During the game we parents stood at least six feet away from one another. We discussed the opening of school in the fall, the politicization of wearing masks in public, and how quickly life had changed. We talked about how the last time we saw one another it was at the tryouts for the team in early March, before the world shut down. They asked me how I planned to teach my college students with all the changes, and I answered that I did not know.

As we talked, I wondered, as I have many times during the pandemic, how much to tell my children. Does a 9-year-old or a 12-year-old need to know how many have died?

This mixture of safety and peril and difficult decisions about a child’s freedom to play: It is familiar to me. Covid-19 has given all parents a small taste of what it is like to be a Black parent.

Having our bodies as potential threats because of the coronavirus has introduced all of America to what it is like to be perceived as a problem merely by our presence. The major difference is that some of us do carry an unknown virus, while blackness is simply one manifestation of God’s creativity. Nonetheless, the perceived danger has given others insight into what it is like for Black bodies, even children’s bodies, to be a source of fear.

Pandemic parenting involves a similarly challenging calculus that those of us who raise Black and brown children have faced for centuries. How do we balance the need to protect from danger with the desire to let them be young and free?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once recounted the story of not knowing what to say when his 6-year-old daughter asked to go to a local theme park called Funtown. He did not want to tell her that she could not go because Black people were forbidden. He said that explaining segregation to his daughter was more daunting than the speeches he gave all over the country.

People often mention “the talk” as if the only conversation Black parents have to have with their children is about the complex interaction with the police. That is hard, but not the only thing. At some point we have to tell them about Funtown: the limits society wants to place on them and the struggle to tear those limits down.

My son is in the midst of the transition from early middle schooler to emerging teenager. In the strange moral reasoning of the United States, this will mean a move from cute to dangerous. His Black body and his increasing size could, in certain circumstances, be weaponized against him. Citizens and officers merely have to utter the words “I feared for my life” and his Black life could be in peril.

When do I warn him about wandering around our largely white neighborhood in the evening? How long do I let him remain a child? Am I negligent if in my attempts to give him a “normal” childhood I leave him unprepared for the challenges he faces?

I was initially hesitant to have my son return to the baseball diamond, even though it is a sport well suited for distancing. I reluctantly agreed. My son’s coach said that some teams would follow the safety rules and others would not, but that he would do the best he could to keep them safe.

At that first game, our team dutifully wore their masks. The other team did not. Had politics sneaked on to the baseball field? Were some families and teams simply not as worried as us? I did the math again. Should I interrupt the game or remove my son? We already barely had enough players to field a full squad. I decided to let him play, to be a child.

There are no easy answers as to how to parent Black children in America inside or outside a pandemic. It is not my job to tell someone how to do it.

My wife and I have drifted to a bias toward joy. We tell our children about some major events; other burdens we carry ourselves. Our children know much of the history of this country, but the focus is on Black triumph over suffering, not the suffering itself. I immerse them in the soul, hip-hop and gospel music that has lifted many a weary soul even when they would rather listen to Kidz Bop.

I have told them of Moses and the Israelites, of Mary Jesus’ mother and her dramatic yes to God. They know about Sojourner and her railroad and Martin and his dream of Mother Pollard and her rested feet. I remind them that God has looked upon their Black skin, hair and bodies and called it good.

I am making deposit after deposit of Black joy and faith in the hope that it will be with them when the inevitable struggle comes. I do so because that is what my mother did for me.

My oldest has a favorite saint, the North African church father Athanasius. He was called Athanasius Contra Mundum — against the world, a name he received for standing against seemingly insurmountable foes, even at great cost, because of his convictions. My son loves the defiance. Given that being Black in America can sometimes feel against the world, that is a great trait to admire.

My son’s team failed to emerge victorious in that first game back on the field. A socially distanced wave from across the diamond replaced the customary handshakes. Some two weeks later, it seems that we avoided infection.

I’m glad baseball is back in our lives. Even with masks covering the kids’ faces and parents shouting encouragements from afar, it is still baseball in the summer. There are still kids in the outfield more interested in the cloud formations than a pop fly. The clean double play remains the stuff of legend.

We parents had a brief moment of shared victory. We had given our children the gift that is often only available to the young: the chance for uncomplicated joy. We who looked on wondered what was next.

Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing opinion writer and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Reading While Black: African-American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.”

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