I’m Learning To Let My Children Grow Into Who God Intended Them To Be

“I learned a long time ago that my children would inherit one of two things: either God’s promises, or my fears.” — Lisa Bevere

I don’t consider myself a fearful person. I’m free-spirited, tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t map out my future with much detail.

Enter parenting.

Suddenly two people exist in my world who make my heart burst with love, and whose destinies are seemingly up to me to decide. Will they be kind? Will they be socially conscious? Will they love God? Will they love themselves? Will they make wise decisions? I want them to dodge every mistake I’ve ever made and avoid every heartache I’ve ever felt. And if I parent them well, I can, right?

When I write it out like that, of course it seems absolutely unrealistic. But in my day-to-day, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I will raise a daughter who is secure in her identity. I will raise a son who never feels limited by a label. Those, and a million other hopes and dreams that are deeply important and valuable — and yet ultimately not up to me.

As I write this, my mind takes me to a moment last year that stopped me in my tracks. One of my best friends (and my daughter’s Godmother) and I were doing an Instagram live together discussing parenting and race. We began talking about what my daughter’s identity development will look like as she grows up, being half-white American, half-Kenyan, and growing up in the U.S. where (in a sense) she is also African-American. I casually mentioned, “I’m gonna have to re-read Dreams from my Father and get some wisdom from Barack!” My friend replied graciously but firmly, something like: “…or she’ll carve a new path and decide for herself what her background means to her.”

I felt rebuked (in the best of ways, as only your closest friends can) and also… lighter. I realized I had been carrying this self-imposed, impossible expectation that I was the sole bridge between my children and their experience and understanding of the world — the sole influence on how they will bloom, on who they will be. Now, don’t get me wrong: at ages 6 and 2, my kids are definitely most heavily influenced by their mom and dad at this stage. But that won’t always be the case. And when they’re “out in the world,” will I be fixated on wielding my power over how they “turn out,” or will I be a steady, nurturing operating base from which they can explore?

That’s a big difference. It doesn’t mean that our choices as parents don’t matter — they matter deeply. What it does mean is that parenting is not me, as an artist, painting the masterpiece that is my child. That’s God’s job. Maybe I’m more like a lovely grass green amidst all the other colors on the palette that God dips into as He pleases, my guidance and love swirling in unexpected ways into the finished product. Or as Paul Tripp puts it:

“Parenting is not first about what we want for our children or from our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us in our children.”

It’s a mindset shift that is so much easier said than done. At the end of the day — if I can be real with y’all — my happiest daydreams are of my daughter becoming an activist and eventually president of the United States (or Kenya!), while performing on Broadway in her spare time. (Just typing that puts a giddy smile on my face!) But that dream has everything to do with me, and involved zero consultation with the One who actually created her and placed her own unique gifts inside her, just waiting to be uncovered.

I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. When I came across that phrase in Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, I’m pretty sure I broke down crying because it felt so beautiful and so hard at the same time.

“When it comes to who my children are, I don’t want to be an Expectations Parent. I don’t want my kids striving to meet an arbitrary list of preconceived goals I have created for them. I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. I want to encourage my children to spend their lives digging, uncovering more and more about who they already are, and then sharing what they discover with those lucky enough to be trusted by them. When my child uncovers a gem inside and pulls it out for me to see, I want to widen my eyes and gasp and applaud.”

She continues with this directive: “un-God yourself.” In other words, resist the urge to author the narrative. Remove the “shoulds” that cloud our vision of the unique creations standing in front of us. Say to our children, in word and deed: “My only expectation is that you become yourself. The more deeply I know you, the more beautiful you become to me.”

When I reflect on this, I simultaneously feel so inadequate and so freed. Inadequate, because resisting my desire for control is a daily battle. Freed, because God’s hands are a far safer place for my children to be than my own.

More than anything, though, I feel excited — and of all the emotions that parenting brings, that’s a pretty great one, right? When I think of how much I have yet to learn about these small, wonderfully complex humans living in my home, my heart skips a beat. They deserve my wonder, my awe, my delight. By God’s grace, I hope to walk in that more and more each day.

“Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me” and other MLK quotes

I took this photo from behind the pastor’s pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. While interning for the SPLC in Montgomery, AL in 2008, I had the honor of attending this church, where Dr. King began his journey as a pastor and organizer.

As a teen, I was enthralled by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but that summer in Montgomery was revelatory. It pushed my mind to see beyond the isolated stories of “heroes” who were always pictured in black and white, in some seemingly faraway time and place. I began to see in full color: to picture ordinary Black women and men walking miles each way to exhausting jobs —for a year— to end the indignity of segregated buses. They had walked the very streets I walked each day, and they were not a sentence (or, if you were lucky, a paragraph) in a history book — they were living, breathing, beautifully unique human beings.

And so was Dr. King. As pastor of Dexter in 1955, he insisted that every member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP. He saw faith and the fight for human dignity and human rights as inextricably linked. Can you imagine how that would go down today? When we keep his image trapped in those black and white photos, we don’t really allow our minds to imagine how revolutionary he was, how absolutely hated he was for holding up a mirror to this nation and forcing it to stare its ugliness in the face. I wish we could take the “just preach the gospel,” anti-Critical Race Theory, “BLM is doing it wrong” white pastors back in time a few decades and challenge them to post MLK quotes on their (metaphorical) social media pages then.

A few friends I love and respect posted a challenge today: to listen to a speech of Dr. King’s today in its entirety. I chose his final Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions, struck afresh by the biting truths spoken and the urgency with which he shared them. My favorite part:

“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’ I looked at him and I had to say, ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.’ Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

He didn’t mince words, he didn’t compromise, and he certainly didn’t soften the fiery fervor of what God had laid on his heart to make white folks feel better about themselves.

And he was killed for it.

I have found in my life that an untimely death serves to intensify that person’s legacy. I pray that we get to a place in our nation where that is true — where we no longer settle for a whitewashed narrative of Dr. King’s work and mission, but instead recognize his legacy in the words and actions of those fighting on the front lines for Black Lives today. Let us not seek out a watered-down version of his vision that makes us comfortable. Rather, let us draw deep inspiration and resolve from his bold, unapologetic demands for an end to war, an end to the evils of capitalism, an end to police brutality, and an end to racism in all of its forms.

Our default setting: the audacity of white supremacy

The morning after last week’s U.S. Capitol Insurrection, my 6-year-old, Keziah, and I went on a mommy-daughter date to celebrate the end of winter break. We laid out an adorable picnic near a pond, played a game of Candyland, and giggled as the ducks ducked their heads underwater and helped clean one another’s feathers.

Last time we were at this park, we were enjoying watching the ducks in and around the pond. Keziah was walking up as close as she could to them, enjoying studying them. When she’d get close, they’d often scurry back into the water.

Near us, there was an older white woman throwing bread for them to eat. In a rude, impatient voice, she snipped at Keziah: “Stop chasing them away! I’m trying to feed them!” First of all, the audacity to take that tone with not even a fellow adult, but a 6-year-old.

Second of all, from what I could recall, feeding bread to the ducks is not even allowed. But not seeing any signage in that immediate area to point her to, I simply said, “Ma’am, she’s a child” and moved on.

But my mind went straight to that incident in reflecting on the armed white men who stormed our nation’s Capitol Building.

Whether or not our little duck-feeding incident was racially motivated, the analogy to white supremacy is spot-on: a person asserting their dominion and self-defined rules over a space that should be available to everyone, while at the same time excusing themselves from any rules laid out for the common good.

White people, this is our default setting.

Our education and life experiences have taught us to take up space, ignoring the harm caused to those whom we bump in the process. They have convinced us of our “rightness” and, at the same time, have assured us that the rules don’t apply to us. We will spend a lifetime unlearning this. No matter where we are on our journeys of racial justice advocacy, I hope we don’t walk away from yesterday’s display of unabashed white supremacy without continued introspection. When I enter a metaphorical room, do I look to see who may have been squeezed out? Do I stop and interrogate myself when I theorize in my head about how BIPOC activists “could have said/done that differently”? Do I justify ways in which my privilege has allowed me to bypass rules that my BIPOC friends must adhere to?

Food for thought. I will also shared some words on the topic from Brittany Packnett Cunningham — the most spot-on take on last week’s events that I’ve heard thus far:

“This is the literal example of white supremacy. What does white supremacy mean? It means that white people believe that they have dominion over everybody and dominion over everything; that they are, in fact, supreme. So we saw a group of white people, of white supremacists here, thinking that they own a country that they colonized and therefore they can do whatever they want with it. They think they can storm any building in that country because they believe they own it. They think that they can erect a noose on the side of a building that was built by enslaved Africans in America because they think they have full permission to do so — and did so on camera because they knew the police would do nothing about it. But they do not own this country. They do not own democracy. They do not own us. They are tragically confused, and we will not be intimidated, despite the fact that police did not hold the line today.”

On white exceptionalism

Last May, I had just finished a wonderful book (Untamed by Glennon Doyle) and so, in true stalker fashion, Facebook started giving me all kinds of ads about it. One was a book club enthusiastically describing Glennon (a white woman) as “the” voice of today’s women. A Latina woman commented to the effect of “um, I doubt it…” and my “helpful” self felt compelled to respond (despite typically swearing off internet comments sections, ha!) I said, “I totally respect if you only read authors of color, but just so you know, Glennon ‘gets it’. Her longest chapter is about racism. I’d invite you to give it a chance.” Cool — I’d prefaced my perspective with a respectful and honest intro so I was good, right?

Another commenter of color swooped in and, very bluntly, said “you didn’t acknowledge what she was saying. You dismissed it.” Y’all, I was HURT! My gut reaction (my “flesh,” to put it in Christian-ese) said, “this woman’s correcting ME?! Super-woke, grew up around Black folk, lifelong activist Ellie?! Surely not! You don’t know me! I ‘get it’!”

Layla Saad, in Me & White Supremacy, calls that “white exceptionalism.” We all think it’s someone else — that white supremacy has not poisoned sweet, good, little ol’ me. Which is why we want to pretend Amy Cooper was some far-right Trump supporter, or why, in times like these, we frantically send whatever signals we can that “I’m one of the good ones!”

We do this because it hurts to recognize the racism inside of us. I emphasize this so that, as we embark on exploring our white identity (as many white folks did last summer), we wouldn’t stop when we feel the pain. Because it will come. It hurts our pride, our self-image. But it’s necessary.

I got called out by a stranger on Facebook. And my stomach clenched, and my heart rate increased, and I had my fingers ready to pen a super-smart response defending myself and my “woke credentials.” And then I took a deep breath and read her words again. And I realized that she was right. This woman’s comment was a critique of a culture that centers white voices and treats others as invisible. Instead of honoring and amen-ing that, I expressed the “well-meaning, paternalistic, white liberal” version of what she was critiquing in the first place.

I share this as just one small example of how much is waiting for us to unearth and reflect upon, if we are willing to peel back the layers of our social conditioning. We can educate ourselves ‘til kingdom come about history and the Black experience in America, which we absolutely must do. But if we don’t do this crucial work of exploring our own identity, our own whiteness, our own poisoning by white supremacy, we will only have head knowledge, which won’t lead us (as white folk) to transformation. Head knowledge may change our actions, but introspection changes who we are. Actions ebb and flow based on circumstances. Who we are — how we show up in our daily lives and the actions that spring from that — is what will impact society over the long haul.

As Layla Saad puts it in her introduction,

“This work is not about those white people ‘out there’. It is about you. Just you.”