Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Incorporating Social Justice issues Into Parenting Practices


Dear Readers,

Racial violence and unrest are uppermost in the minds of people across the country. Many have asked themselves: What can I do to make a positive difference?

As my former colleague and good friend, Adelaide Lancaster, and her husband raise their three young children, she is addressing this question by purposely incorporating issues about social injustice into her parenting practices.

One specific action Adelaide has taken is writing the blog Parenting While White: Just Another White Girl Raised on ‘Skinny Language’, Trying To Do Better – Thoughts on Equity, Justice, and Parenting While White. As Adelaide explains in her bio, writing this blog in which she examines her own race-based experiences, biases, and senses of entitlement forces self-analyses that are often painful, but always illuminating.

The shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014 proved a turning point for Adelaide (scroll down to “Life After Ferguson: How Michael Brown’s Killing Changed My (White) Family”), and became an impetus for her co-founding We Stories: Raising Big-Hearted Kids, an organization whose mission is to address the question: What Would Happen If White Families From All Across St. Louis Decided To Start Talking To Our Young Children About Race and Racism?

Although We Stories is based in St. Louis, MO, it provides a replicable organizational model, as well as valuable information for anyone who wants to talk with children about race and racism, for example, “Where to Start: 12 Small Steps For White Families Who Want To Be A Positive Force For Change On Racism.”

Because Adelaide’s mother, Cissy Thompson, is close to Adelaide and her three grandchildren, I interviewed Adelaide and Cissy to learn how Adelaide’s introducing social justice issues into parenting practices impacts their intergenerational family dynamics and behaviors.


To Cissy: What were your initial thoughts and reactions when Adelaide told you about her intentions to make social issues part of her parenting practices?

Cissy: Adelaide did not talk to me about her intentions. However, she did start sharing her blog with me from the beginning. My initial reaction was that I was so proud and awed by her bravery. Public self-evaluation can be very cathartic, but also very damaging. She was able to start to unscramble her own thoughts and connect with like-minded people. But, as her intentions turned into actions, and she became involved with Black Lives Matter, I became very concerned about the hurt it could cause her; I was also concerned for her safety and the safety of my grandchildren.

To Adelaide: What expectations, if any, did you have for the role your mom would play in supporting your goals?

Adelaide:  I think that my only expectation or hope, really, was that my mom would continue to support me and see my work as about me, and not about her. I don’t expect that just because an issue is really important to me that it needs to be the most important issue to everyone else. I have hoped, and continue to hope, that what is important to me can be included in our relationship because when it is, I find our relationship to be stronger – and it always feels good to have your mom back you up!

But I also understand that every person comes to the issue of race differently and it’s not fair (or productive) to have a specific expectation foisted upon you. I actually found it harder and more disruptive to my family relationships to come home with “new knowledge” during college and graduate school and end up in debates with family members than to shift my parenting practice and personal life in a way that’s more public.

The first pattern – talking with others as a college student – was about focusing on someone else’s ideas and opinions and trying to change them. The second pattern – deliberately reaching out as a businesswoman and a parent – is about focusing on my own ideas and opinions and living in accordance with them.

To Adelaide: As you write your Parenting While White blogs, do you find yourself leaving out and/or including certain content for fear of offending or hurting family members you care about, e.g., your mom, your husband?

Adelaide: I have. I’ve found that I’ve had to walk a fine line between specificity and generalizability. The specifics in some of the stories I share make them interesting and relatable, but the topics that I’m talking about are inescapable. It’s not really about what any one white person has said or done, it’s about the commonalities that many of us share in our experiences around race, which for most white people are mostly negative.

When I talk about silence or fear or judgment, I want readers to know that it’s attached to a real person and experience, but more than anything I want them to connect their own experience to mine and ask themselves, “What is familiar?”

That’s one of the most challenging things about racism. It’s very easy for white people to point the finger at whomever they see as more racist than themselves. It’s much harder to see how we’ve all been tinged and damaged by racism. I don’t think that our path forward rests on blaming individuals for problems that are embedded in all of our systems and have been for hundreds of years.

I know it’s easier for me to write a story and know that I’m not blaming my parents or my teachers, but it might be harder to read it that way. So I’ve worried often that my family sees my work as a referendum on them, but it’s not.

To Cissy: What is it like for you to read Adelaide’s Parenting While White blogs in which she is so forthright about her privileged childhood and young adult experiences?

Cissy: I was nervous and frustrated. I never felt personally threatened by anything she actually wrote. However, there was so much she left out to protect our family, and I appreciated that, but I felt it made her blog less open and honest. It was the truth, but not the whole truth. I did think she was way too hard on herself when it came to her childhood and young adult experiences.

To Adelaide: In what ways did you correctly anticipate your mom’s reactions to, and participation in, your efforts to raise her grandchildren to be more aware of social injustices, such as racial inequality? In what ways have you been surprised?

Adelaide: Actually I’ve found the experience to be more uniting than I expected. I hope that some of that is because I’ve brought my own fears and worries, too. Talking to kids about race is counter-cultural. It’s not the way that my generation was raised. I’m trying it, not blindly, but with the support of research and education and literature and experts – but still, I’m trying it, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

And yet it’s different to be the decision maker, and be comfortable taking a risk myself, and expecting everyone else to be comfortable with that risk. My mom is more prone to worry than I am. And she’s entitled to that! She’s always told me that I’m brave and that she worries. And I really appreciate that honesty.

To Adelaide: What are some examples of how you keep an awareness of social issues on the front burner in your daily interactions with your children?

Adelaide: Books have been our greatest avenue for dialog and learning. We read “diverse books” (meaning books with protagonists of color) everyday, and we read a lot of books about phenotypic difference and race and discrimination. My own knowledge about American history and the Civil Rights Movement has improved considerably.

I also take my kids to a lot of events and different places around the city. We talk about patterns of segregation and all that we would miss out on if we just stayed in our neighborhood. We have been to some community events aimed at social justice and also have had a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard for more than a year. We also discuss the news, but I usually wait a day or two to share things with them. In other words, I don’t let them watch the news or listen on the radio. Maybe when they are older.

To Cissy: In what ways has it been easy or difficult to support social justice issues in your interactions with your grandchildren?

Cissy: I have never discussed social issues with my grandchildren. I do not see them very often and, when I do, I want it to be fun.

To Adelaide: What is your advice for other young parents who want to incorporate an awareness of social issues into their own parenting practices?

Adelaide: Let books do the heavy lifting at first! Kids love stories, and seeing different characters and hearing different voices is so important! We have many resources on our website; and libraries are usually a wealth of information. If you were raised in a home and at a time where you didn’t often talk about race, it is completely understandable that you might not feel comfortable or have the language developed yet.

Learn together with your children. Realize it’s an ongoing conversation that you can revisit as often as you want. There is no pressure to “get it right.” I often delay getting into things with my kids (“That’s an important question, let me think about it”), and revisit things (“Remember when I said . . . ”).

The biggest hurdle is actually a small one, and one you’ve likely done for other topics – signaling to your children that issues of social justice are an important family topic, and one that can be talked about in relationship with love and complexity.

To Cissy: What is your advice for grandparents who want to support their grown children’s efforts to incorporate social issues into their grandparenting practices?

Cissy: First grandparents need to have very clear and open discussions with their grown children about these social issues. There needs to be an understanding and/or agreement on their family’s personal history about social issues, and their approach and feelings about those issues going forward. Racial issues are not just black and white – there are tremendous amounts of grey.

If a grandparent already knows that they want to support their grown children’s efforts, make sure the grey areas are discussed and that both the grandparents and their grown children listen to each other. If they do not agree on these issues, then the grandparents need to be quiet about it when it comes to interacting with their grandchildren. If they do agree, then it can become a “whole family effort” with the depth of multiple generations of experience and understanding.

Cissy Thompson with her daughter Adelaide and one of her grandchildren
Cissy Thompson with her daughter Adelaide and one of her grandchildren

E-mail queries to [email protected]

to learn about Dr. Gramma Karen and her most recent book,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues.

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