Say the word “youth” and you’ll conjure up completely different thoughts and emotions from every single person within earshot. Some will immediately think of today’s young people, allowing their opinions to flood with either disgust at the de-evolution of morality and respect, or a wishfulness and optimism about what is to come. Others will find their minds focused toward themselves and the personal experiences that marked their growing up.

Childhood is such a delicate time in one’s life, because these years are when some of our greatest developmental milestones are met. The brain is still so malleable, and our ideas and concepts are ever-changing. The pliable and easily influenced nature of a young mind is exactly why it needs protecting. Kids are little sponges. They look to other children, adults and the world around them for cues on what to do, how to behave and what’s acceptable; and while children are resilient, one wrong move can have lasting negative effects.

I’ve talked before on my blog about my determination to raise sons who will grow up respecting and appreciating women. I don’t think I’ve ever shared my desire to allow my sons the space in their maturation to be the sweet, carefree black boys they naturally are. I watch them both with each other and their friends. They run along the water’s edge at the beach, laughing and screaming out in excitement. They strum their guitars making up silly songs with their heads thrown back, eyes closed, having the time of their lives. They watch skateboarders from their seats in our cargobike as we ride along the boardwalk, eyes wide with wonder. I look at them taking in life, both theirs and others’, my gaze taking on a more shielding quality with each passing moment. I’m realizing that while they’re my littles, my babies, they’re growing so quickly. It won’t be as easy to refer to them as babies very soon. They are forming their own opinions about everything, and they often ask me questions while doing so. My answers will inevitably shape the way they think about the topic of interest. It can often feel like a ton of pressure.
It should.

If we want to raise our sons and daughters to be open-minded, kindhearted and tolerant, we must own our responsibility and role in that process. I’m finding that this often involves the proverbial holding up of a mirror so that we quite literally “see” ourselves. We have to self monitor our reactions and responses to things that our carefree sons and daughters haven’t yet attached a meaning to. No matter where you stand on more controversial issues, a little boy showing interest in polishing his nails or toenails while watching mommy do it isn’t suggestive of anything but a fascination with pretty colors. A child asking questions about bodies appearing in different sizes or colors isn’t a reason to clam up and be embarrassed; it’s indicative of a natural curiosity and tendency to compartmentalize. That’s something we’ve all experienced at that age. Boys and girls deciding on favorite colors, hobbies, friends and clothing sometimes proves nothing other than they’re breathing, learning, keen beings. That should be celebrated, not suppressed.

It is so important that we let children be children. Adults have to stop projecting their fears and ideas onto little ones who are too young to cognitively process that which they do not understand. Many of us are blessed to have children who are untroubled and unaffected by societal ills. I think it’s crucial that we value that and allow our behavior to follow suit.

I hope my sons will grow into young men who make intelligent, well-thought-out decisions and opinions of their own, but I know that’s not something that happens haphazardly. Children are like flowers. They need just enough of all the right ingredients to grow and thrive. We have to be deliberate about how we nurture them. I’m aware that some of the choices I make with my boys may puzzle others. They see all of mommy’s beautiful heels lined up in my wardrobe and occasionally, one of them will go jokingly trotting around the house in them. They also try on my sneakers. So what am I to think when I see this? I can tell you what i do think:

“I’m doing a good job. They are having a blast!”

Their smiling faces, well-adjusted attitudes and unprejudiced views on the people we see daily are all proof of that, and those things are all that matter.

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