I can tell it’s spring.
We are winter weary and in need of fresh air. One of our annual adventures is to trek down to the edge of Lake Ontario. There, a billion huge boulders sit along the shoreline and call to our kids more powerfully than toys and ice-cream : “this is a landscape of unlimited potential.”
“Can we take off our shoes and socks as we climb?” they ask.
“You know the deal- watch out for glass, needles and condoms.”
Off they go, barefoot and bursting with excitement. Kathy and I look at each other, gauging our energy levels, and head off in pursuit.
Explaining the glass part is not difficult. In my 42 trips around the sun, I’ve never actually cut my foot on a sharp shard of glass even though I’ve done (and still do) more than my fair share of barefoot play. But I can picture the consequences. So can the little ones.
Last year, seconds into our climbing, I came upon a used condom. Ever the teacher, I began my ‘this is what’s what’ and was immediately cut off by my seven year old: “Yeah, dad. Got it. Got it.”
Luckily for me, our middle child needed a refresher. This one happens to love treasure hunting and is uncannily good at it. He needs to know that this is a ‘treasure’ best left untouched. Of necessity, the lesson requires that pre-cursors are in place. The idea that bacteria and viruses cause illness: check. Today’s update: penises, the nuts and bolts of sexual contact in its various different forms (queering the discussion) and why on Earth people actually do those things, and sexually transmitted infections.
It’s all pretty logical- the whole condom thing. As long as Kathy and I can pull off the discussion in a way that honours and celebrates the human body, inoculates them against puritanical feelings about sex , and side-steps a heteronormative narrative, then what we’ve got is a great lesson on harm reduction. I’ve had people tell me on more than a few occasions that kids need not concern themselves with ‘serious adult issues’: “Let them enjoy their childhood and just play.”
But from an activist perspective, I couldn’t disagree more- one- that their childhood is tarnished by serious stuff, and two- that they don’t need to think about these things. Teaching harm reduction as a guiding parenting principal engages young people in their world and gives them the tools they need for making decisions and taking note of oppressive dynamics that swirl around them. It’s empowering because it says: “I trust you.” And it allows them to locate acts of discrimination and intolerance outside of self, rather than absorbing and owning what they shouldn’t.
Talking about needles means talking about what needles are used for and what might be in them. It means talking about addiction. And in our family, that’s important. Sadly, we lost a close relative to it a decade ago when they were in their 30s, so who knows what lurks in the genetic codes of our kids. Besides, these days it’s hard to turn on the radio without hearing about crack cocaine, courtesy of our mayor.
“What’s crack cocaine, mom?”
The real world need not be scary. Kathy has a very practical model that she has described to the kids: the stop light. It’s not helpful to go through life on ‘red’- scared, overly cautious, and ready to assume the worst. But being on ‘green’ also has its problems, if, oblivious to the inevitable dangers (usually, but not always, small) you silence the feelings in your gut telling you that something’s not right. Yellow, Kath explains, is about being present and minds-on.
Present and minds-on, our kids roam the rocky shore. Panting, we try to keep up.
It’s so great that spring is here.