February 10, 2009

Swastikas and Cigarettes

I had a conversation with my mom yesterday afternoon about the wonders of parenting with her explaining to me how it was the most fabulous, worthwhile and rewarding thing a person could do.

She sat with her back to the window and, even mostly backlit, I could see the shine as her eyes welled up. She said, "The day you watch those boys walk down the aisle for their graduation... and when they reach up to move that tassle over to the other side of that cap, you'll think back to all these times you're writing about. All the times you're aggravated and annoyed and tired... you won't even remember those things. All you'll remember is how cute they were, how sweet, how much fun you had on those days. You'll see. I promise, you'll see."

She had me convinced. I left my office with a renewed vigor, with an improved attitude to not be such a fussy mom, to not yell so much, to be more relaxed and easy going, to be a FUN mom instead of crazy-control-freak-spastic mom. My life was changed. I had resolve!

For about three hours I had this resolve and then I got home and actually put my new attitude into action. I have two words for you: epic fail

I have to give myself credit. I started out really well, but soon met with a force that my anemic parenting skills were simply no match for. I entered the house with a positive vibe -- I helped hubby make dinner, we talked about the days events, we got homework all finished. I even managed to keep smiling when The Toddler mixed his ketchup in with his creamed corn and then refused to eat it because it was "dirty". I didn't bellow about not getting dessert until he was 25 years old. In fact all through dinner I only slightly lost it when our oldest stole all the potatoes off my plate and that was only because he already had a plate full of potatoes and what did he need mine for anyway? (Admittedly, they were good and we all went back for seconds, but STILL.)

I was on a roll, frankly, and being really awesome.

Then it happened that The Toddler was sitting in the living room and he had a piece of plastic something-or-other sticking out of his mouth. He sat there a while staring off into space then glanced over at me and said, "moke."

I blinked. Did he...? "Tristan, what did you say?"


"Did you say 'smoke'?"


"Are you smoking??"



He smiled and while I was yelling for his dad to get in this room right now he took the "moke" out of his mouth and was balancing it between his tiny little fingers and blowing invisible smoke rings out into the living room.

Okay, so I lost it a little. All this, however, was nowhere near as disturbing as what came later.

After dinner, we all relaxed doing our various household obligations. Mine was doing some work I brought home that I wasn't able to finish during the day. Rob and Julius were working on a thank you note to an aunt who sent birthday money. The Toddler was... well, smoking probably.

Julius sealed up his thank you note in the envelope and was drawing on it. He handed it over to me and said, "Mom, look at these cool American flags I drew."

I leaned over and took the envelope from him and there in bold red and black crayon was a big swastika flag. I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.

"Um... uh..."

"What do you think, Mom?"

"Uhhh.... I, errrr... I..."

(All of that is shorthand for "I'm an idiot and have no idea what to say next.")

I concentrated really hard and tried to focus on my point which was WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DRAWING SWASTIKAS ON YOUR MAIL TO AUNT PAT??? No, no, that's not my point. Okay, okay, my real point it...

"Hey, um, Jules, you did a really nice job on these, but this one right here means something really REALLY BAD."

I knew immediately I was on the verge of failing miserably when I saw how sad he was. He collapsed inward, his back rounding, lower lip pooched out, eyes downcast. He slumped backward onto the couch. Already I began beating myself up for what a miserable, inept human I am for not knowing exactly what to say.

I have parenting books on my shelves. Lots of them. I've even read them. None of them cover swastikas. NONE OF THEM.

Committed, I lumbered forward like a blind and hungry elephant all set to trample what was left of my son's delicate psyche. The trick here is how do you explain to your little man about the origin of that symbol, the violence, the deaths, the lingering culture of racism and hate. How do you explain just enough to make him understand why that little squiggle is bad and how much it says in its few little crooks across the page? How do you know where you stop so you don't say too much and go too far?

Because he's fairly precocious, I have to continually remind myself that he's only five. He talks like he's older, he understands concepts way beyond his years, but I am not ready to explain hatred to him. I just don't want to do it. I know one day innocence goes, but not today, not two days before his 6th birthday. We should not talk about swastikas today.

But we do anyway, we discuss it as a family and explain as best we can about how every now and then a bad man rises from the depths of the worst humanity has to offer and tries to exert his will on those who are weaker. But we finished with the good news, that the other part of being human is to rise up and fight for what is yours, to do the right thing and protect those who are weaker than you. The joy and wonder of being a person in your community is to exercise the power you have to say "no", and to join arms with your neighbors as you draw a line in the sand and say, "here it is -- this is the line you shall not cross."

He was a trooper and we ended the conversation on a light note and he later explained to me about how if anyone broke into our house he and his dad would protect me and The Toddler and how his dad is strong enough to throw the washing machine on the bad guys and maybe even the couch. He leaped on the couch to demonstrate a couple of martial arts moves that he'd be able to utilized and yelled, "And I could even throw some books on them or maybe even your computer!"

He wandered off to play and Rob and I sat in silence just staring at each other. Finally Rob broke the silence saying, "I'll tell you what I'm really glad about..."

"What's that," I asked, chewing my nails.

"That he didn't draw that picture at school."

We looked at each other and both collapsed back into the couch busting out in hysterical, nervous laughter.


  1. I just realized I didn't explain two pretty important things -- 1) we are a non-smoking household and I think The Toddler must be seeing one of his grandmas smoke (except she promised she would not smoke around him) and 2) what the heck kind of household do we have that our kid knows what a swastika is? We finally figured that out. Apparently it's on an old "classic" Daffy Duck cartoon DVD we bought him a couple of years ago. They were doing some kind of freakish Hitler parady and there is also some really awful "Uncle Tom" stuff on the same disk. Didn't see that one coming. The DVD is in the trash today. :-D

  2. Donald Duck?!?!? Oh no :(

    I think you handled both situations very well ♥

    and one day you really will just remember the "fun" stuff :)

  3. I think I remember the episode of Looney Tunes or whetever it was - all the gang went for a ride in a plane with smilin' Uncle Joe Stalin. Really.

    It sounds to me not like an "epic fail" - I would characterise that as an "understandable stagger followed by a brilliant and triumphant save".

  4. I think you handled that very well. Yelling at Tristan impressed upon him how seriously bad you think smoking is.

    And what a neat job you did of talking to Julius! You emphasized the positive - kind of enabling him to understand good and bad and how he has choices. Very empowering.

    Don't let Rob throw a washing machine. I think it will hurt his back.

    I don't know why you equate yelling aka pointing out bad behavior to your children and having to have these tough conversations with failing. Failing would be ignoring your kids completely. Letting them do whatever they want. You have to be a mom and are doing a great job. I have quite a comparative sample too so I know what I am talking about . . .maybe :)

    Keep up the good work

  5. Oh Wendy, this entry made me laugh so hard that coffee came out of my nose.

    Thanks for clearing up the smoking/swastika thing...I admittedly was like "!??!?! how would that kid know what a swastika IS?? SURELY they're not teaching WWII history to 5 year olds?!"

    And yeah, some of those older cartoons are pretty racist and hardcore. Some of them are brilliant satire (WWII era Looney Tunes), but some are just...yerrggh. Bunnies in blackface and what not.

  6. I laughed so hard I cried...I try to be in the 'now' too but some days are tougher than others.

    Currently my 8 year old and 6 year old are learning about Lincoln. Some days, poor Lincoln dies about 20 times. I'm not sure why this part is sticking so much with them.

  7. I thought I was going to make an original comment about how I beleived you handled both situations well, but I wee everyone else has beaten me to it.

    Now I don't know what to say.

    Well, except I had a lot of fun reading your post!

  8. @everyone... thank you for your kind words. With a little bit of distance it doesn't seem quite as horrible today. :)

    I was just looking at an ad in Family Fun magazine about a 4DVD collection of 50's shows. At the bottom of the review it says, "parental warning: some dated stereotypes". No kidding. Prior to this incident I wouldn't have thought much about it, but you can imagine I'm steering well away from that!

    Regarding why I considered it an epic fail was mostly because how dejected he seemed and how much he took it personally and how much grace I lacked. I think the explanation itself was okay, just not the execution, I guess.

    @envie, I'm not sure why kids are so fascinated with people dying. I guess because it's a bizarre and mysterious (and probably frightening) concept. I'm still trying to decide which is a weirder concept to explain... sex or death. LOL.

  9. @Barry... since when are you ever at a loss for words?? :-D

  10. Hey, brilliant mom! Why don't you get Tristan a box of those candy cigs we used to suck on!!! Now that's good parenting. Ha.

    Isn't it amazing -- they see everything, they model everything!We must be ever vigilanT! You did an amazing job, especially with the swastika mess. From now on, could you please record these conversations so I can just play them back for Selah and Judah when the time comes???

  11. Oh, Wendy! If it's not funny now, I'm sure it will be one day! It reminded me of the time we took our daughter (now 8, then 5 or 6) to the library for story time. The story had something to do with flags, and afterwards, the art project was for the kids to draw flags. Our little darling drew a perfect Confederate flag. My husband and I were horrified of what people would think. We decided she was too young for a discussion about the implied meanings and related debates about the flag. As soon as we could, we gathered her and her flag up and scooted out of the library!

    Before she was born, I bought a bunch of vintage children's books at a book sale. When it came time to read her to stories, I quickly realized things had changed in the past 50 or 60 years. I had to "edit" the old books as I read. Eventually, I just gave up and steered her toward newer books.

    The things we parents have to look out for these days! ;-)

  12. Hi Wendy, thanks for stopping in for tea (and weighging in). I have read very many parenting books myself and while I have come across a few chapters I hope I'll never revisit for reference, swastikas has not been one. I think you did a terrific job, in such short notice perhaps you'll consider publishing it.

    If it's any consolation to you, both my children have partaken in the "moke" and we are a smoke-free home as well. Whilst we're ambling about on our daily travels; walks to the store the park et al., they are taking it all in, the good, the bad and the "mokers"! Great read, good luck.

  13. The swastika symbol was not always a bad thing. It was corrupted by the Nazis, but way before that evil band existed, it was used in some Native American, Ancient Greek, medieval European, Buddhist and Hindu cultures.

    The word "swastika" is derived from a Sanskrit word. The Greeks called it "gammadion".

    In the Navajo symbology it represents the swirling winds. In other cultures it is a sun sign.

    It's really a shame that something that was holy and precious for 3000 years was undone 90 years ago to become a reviled (and outlawed in Germany) symbol for a great evil.

    I'm going to use the word you use with T. so often... "Relax". Maybe J. meant it to be merely a pinwheel. And with adding a stick and a couple of curved lines, you could have helped him make that an unmistakable likeness.

  14. Cuz, leave it to you to know about this stuff. :)

    Regarding relaxing, you know that's not my style. Pshaw!

  15. This is one of the funniest posts I have read yet. It gives me a great dose of perspective as I face my third child (out of four) graduating from high school at the end of this month.


  16. Aw, poor kiddo. He tried. Maybe he could add a plane to the drawing and make the swastika into a propeller? Or a water wheel? Or draw an arrow to it and in your best kid writing, forge the words "We will never forget."

    I'm just trying to help.


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