Children, Children, What Do You See?

The line is a familiar one if you’re a parent or a teacher. It’s from a sweet book about a brown bear and purple cat and yellow duck and a blue horse. It has singsong phrasing and can be memorized after only a couple readings. Yesterday I pulled it out to read with my 4-month-old before his afternoon nap. He was cooing on my lap as I read the question about each animal, Brown bear, brown bear what do you see? and so on. But that last question caught in my throat. My mind was not on the book filled with colorful animals and creative pictures. It was instead on our world filled with hurting people and hateful ideologies.

Children, children, what do you see?

In 2009, I was teaching first grade in a suburb of Seattle on Inauguration Day. As with every January in the classroom, the first few weeks focused on learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. But this year was different. This year the culmination of our unit on this great man was the swearing in of another great man.

My 18 first graders sat on the carpet where we normally held story time and we watched Barack Obama give a speech as the first black President of the United State of America. We talked throughout the process about what was happening and the children were more engaged in the proceedings than I would have thought. I noticed the little boy sitting next to me looking around at his classmates during the speech. To draw a picture of this class he would have had to use almost every color from the Crayola Multicultural Crayons box. Then, with his deep brown eyes sparkling, he looked up at me.

He was beaming as he said, “Mrs. Toresdahl! His dream! It came true!”

Children, children, what do you see?

Eight years later I was no longer in the classroom, but my daughter was. The 2017 Inauguration was not aired in her preschool class, and it may not have been regardless of who was elected as the children were only four and five years old. The tone and language of our new president’s prior speeches were not appropriate for the classrooms of even older children, so it was too risky to know whether this speech would be different. It wasn’t.

This new president does and says the things we explicitly try to rid from the four walls of our homes and classrooms. We teach our children to be responsible for their actions. We teach them to be humble and apologize when they have made mistakes. We teach them that name calling, especially based on the way someone looks or what someone believes, is never, ever acceptable. We teach them to work together and ask for help when they need it. We teach them to stand up for their friends and use their voices, their power, their privilege for good.

Children, children, what do you see?

Our neighbor subscribes to the New York Times. Most mornings we are up and out the door before he has picked up the paper waiting for him outside his apartment door. We open our door and Norah peers down at the black letters and large images.

“Doug forgot his paper again, Mom.” She says this almost every day.

And almost every day I say, “It’s early Norah. He just hasn’t picked it up yet”.

Before this daily ritual takes place I try to be proactive in thinking about the conversations I might need to have with Norah about the images that will greet her on the other side of our door, splayed across the front page of the paper. Last week the front page held images of a makeshift memorial where a woman died protesting torch bearing men, a president giving a speech trying to explain why he believes hate and protesting hate are the same, and people cradling bloodied friends in their arms on the streets of Barcelona.

Children, children, what do you see?

And those men with torches? I can’t help but think about the children in their midst. Because surely they have them – whether they call them dad, uncle, or big brother. There are children who look up to these men. They see their flags with symbols that signify hate and listen to their horrific words spew from faces contorted with rage.

Children pick up so much more than we think they do. They listen closely and often times will remember things that happened months or even years later with astonishing clarity.

Children, children, what do you see?

So where does that leave the rest of us? It leaves us with the responsibility to tell our children which side is the one to be on. There are not many sides in this scenario. There are two. One side hates entire groups of people and the other side hates hate. You cannot be on both sides.

We must call these people what they are and tell our children their ideologies are evil. Nazis are the bad guys and sadly they do not only live on the pages of our history books. White supremacists are evil. We must be clear about where we stand so our children can look back and see a legacy of standing up against hate. They will likely remember how we chose to act and what we chose to say with much more clarity than we would think.

Children, children, what did you see?

After finishing the book, I laid Conor in his crib for his nap. He smiled up at me like he always does. He is full of joy, this one, and he is clothed in white skin. As he grows he is going to be among the most privileged people in our society simply because of his gender and his skin tone. I typically only pray over him at night, not before each nap. But this time I needed God to join me in helping him enter in to dreamland. So I laid my hand on his joyful body and prayed these words. Won’t you join me? Feel free to use your own child’s name.

Dear God,

You are good and you have created each and every person on this earth. You have created Conor exactly as he should be. I ask, Lord, that you would grow him in compassion and kindness as you grow him in stature. Would you make his heart break for what breaks yours? I pray that he would learn to understand before trying to be understood. Please let him use his privilege for those whose voices are being drowned out or misunderstood. I pray that he would seek first your kingdom and that he would be a peacemaker in the midst of it. Holy Spirit, flood his heart and make him bold in his love even towards those who speak hate.

And God, would you give me the wisdom to parent him in our current culture? Please give me gentle but honest answers to the questions he will ask. Will you help me to teach him truth in a way that is appropriate for his age and still protects his sense of wonder?

May our whole family be known for your love and may our actions only bring you glory.

In Jesus Name,




***Photo and recurring line are from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. & Eric Carle***