Lessons from a Toddler About Race, Knowing Yourself, and Boundaries

Lessons from a Toddler About Race, Knowing Yourself, and Boundaries June 22, 2019

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

During an outdoor walk this week, I watched a scene unfold on the path ahead of me. On the left, I saw a white woman with her toddler, enjoying the sunny reprieve from the rain.

To my right, I peered a black woman, who either ignored or disregarded the leash regulations, sitting on the ground with her midsize off-leash poodle/retriever mix dog.

(I have a “thing” about people following the leash regulations in these shared spaces. I shall refrain from this soapbox.)

Upon spotting the child, the dog dashed away towards her. The owner jogged to try to catch her pet.

The smiling owner yelled, “He likes children! He’s friendly! He’s going to jump on your child!”

Too late.

The high energy pup greeted the child, sniffing and pouncing.

At first, the toddler laughed and enjoyed it, but as the puppy’s greeting intensified with much licking, the toddler began to cry.

And it wasn’t just any cry.

It was one of these raw emotional displays of weeping and gnashing of teeth from agonizing in dog slobber hell kind of cries.

The mother picked up the toddler and attempted to soothe her. The owner caught up to the puppy and restrained him.

As I approached them along the path, the mother said to me, “She likes dogs, but she didn’t like all of the licking on her face.”

The toddler continued to wail from the encounter.

I responded, “I get it. I like dogs, but I do not want a dog licking my face like that, either.”

The toddler looked at me with slightly less crying, like “Come again?”

I looked at the toddler and validated her experience. I made comments like, “You know what? It is okay to say “No.” It is okay to feel upset because you don’t like it.”

Then, the toddler responded, “Yah!” and threw her hands in the air, like was in full agreement.

The mother and I laughed out loud  in amusement.

I added,  “It is important to know yourself. And you know your limits. That’s a good thing. And it is okay to feel what you feel. Keep that.”

The toddler responded, again, “Yah!”

The woman with the dog stood nearby. She reiterated how the dog was child-friendly. We talked about the dog still being in a “playful puppy” stage.” I commented that being family-friendly was a benefit and not a strike against her dog, too.

I looked at her pet and said, “Keep spreading love and light. You might be too much for some people. That’s okay. Because there are a lot of people who think you are just right because of who you are.”

The owner petted her dog, and smiled, “Yes. I like that.”

The woman with the toddler and I chatted more, at times with the toddler engaging, too. Later on, during my walk, I crossed paths with the woman with the dog again, and we conversed.

Life went on and on.

Here are three of my many lessons from this encounter.

1) You have permission to feel, so feel and own your emotions.

Some of us learn that we must perform “strength” by hiding our feelings. This child reminded me of how during our socialization process, we can lose touch with our true selves.  We learn to manage and survive without being true to what is authentically showing up for us in different situations.

This child was not going to fake her feelings for no one, and I was in her “Amen” corner.

It amused the mother and I because the child did not respond to the attempts to get her to stop crying, but she responded, “Yah!” when her feelings were validated.

Isn’t that telling?

We need to honor people for how they feel so they can move through the situation.

Trying to silence them can be more about preserving our comfort than learning how to be with/sit with each other with our feelings.

2) You get to determine who is allowed in your private space.

In certain cultural contexts, some of us learned to have tight, loose, or even an unhealthy sense of boundaries. This child made it clear that she did not want a dog licking her face.

As adults, we still get to make these same decisions. We do not have to let any and everyone into our private lives. We are not obligated to do so for anyone. Indeed, boundaries are a healthy part of human life.

3) Remain open about race and humanity.

This lesson involves the toddler and her mother.

This mother got something racially right by not associating pain with Black people and women by her responses. Although she was justified to feel and express anger over the incident, the woman with her child expressed understanding and refrained from escalating the situation through racial epithets or even calling the police.

Also, she engaged another black woman (myself) which indirectly reinforced the message to the child that we are not inherently dangerous/problematic people who are out to get her.

Furthermore, the toddler reminded us of how the messages we get about race come from our socialization. One incident with a black woman and her dog did not become the reason why she could not engage with another black woman ever again.

Yet, I come across adults who use a singular incident as the reason to write off an entire race of people. Deeply traumatic experiences can make it difficult to keep an open heart, too.

What if we approach the world more like the eyes of child before any trauma and problematic racial messages?

“Getting in touch with your inner child” has become a parody in a sense.

However, it is true.

One of the keys for more of us to unveil or even get back to who we truly are is to become a child—the one who is within.

By the way,  I saw a snake during my walk. My inner child and outer adult do not care for this experience, either.

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