Dear Parents: Do Crazy Things

Celebrating Veterans Day today, some of our nation’s veterans reflected on the role their parents played in their lives in the New York Times. I live on a block of rowhouses where three elementary school children play—our three-story homes all identical and built in the same year, 1875. Each home features layers of interconnected back porches facing the alley, which is the only outdoor space the kids have to play. Think “Rear Window.”

I’m proud they are choosing to raise their kids in Baltimore.”

Since April, I’ve seen parenting on daily display on those back porches as my neighbors help their kids with online coursework, and in the alley—a patch of concrete ever-evolving into new wonderlands. It’s a splash park. It’s a tennis court. Yesterday, it was a soccer field. While the kids play, the parents put up and take down equipment, and take turns as chaperones. These are great parents, and great kids.

I also had great parents. When asked to account for what made me what I am today, (I am a professor who studies poverty and inequality in the US), I often say: “It’s about the choices my parents made, and the crazy things they did when we were kids.” 

Here’s just a few of those crazy things…

1.       When I was five or so, my parents invited a young man from Ghana to spend the summer in our home. Seth was studying agriculture at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, but my father ran the University’s experimental farm, located two hours north, in a very rural (and very White) part of the state. Seth began coming to work at the farm each summer, living in our basement apartment. I’m quite sure he was the only Black person for miles. Seth was great with kids, so my brother and I learned a lot about Black hair, studied eminent race scholar W.E.B. DuBois, and sampled dishes like peanut butter soup.  We even snuck in some views of American Bandstand, which was banned upstairs.

2.       When a group of self-proclaimed hippies moved into a purple geodesic dome in the backwoods near our home, my parents paid a call. Soon, several among them were regular visitors in our home. Due to the acceptance they found in our little community, some settled down, had kids, and became a vital part of our congregation.

3.       When I was in grade school, my mother, the first female graduate of our denominational seminary, began leading our church youth group. My home county has a lot of poverty. It was quite an education to follow my mother into all those backwoods trailers and shaky wood framed homes in our community as she sought to engage every teenager she could find. Teen moms, systems-involved youth, foster kids were all welcome. The youth group ballooned!

4.       Later, when I was in high school, a Brazilian high school student joined our family for a year through the Youth for Understanding exchange program. Her sister came the following year, and then her brother. We then visited that family in Brazil, and developed deep bonds.

Is it any wonder now my immediate family includes members of African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Jewish, and Korean-American descent? Is it any wonder that from an early age I’ve been passionate about issues of racial equality, or that I became a sociologist in the footsteps of W.E.B. DuBois? Is it any wonder that my husband and I chose to do a few crazy things with our kids—like raising them for several years in Camden, NJ—one of America’s poorest small cities?

As I watch the parents in my neighborhood, I’m proud they are choosing to raise their kids in Baltimore. Some people might think that’s a little crazy, but our community is so rich. One of the families on the block recently took their daughter camping for the first time—pretty crazy for a family who had never camped! 

For parents everywhere, fed up in this season, stuck at home with their kids like my neighbors are, I want to encourage you…“Do crazy things!” Not bad things, but good things. Things that reveal your deepest commitments, whatever they are, like my parents did.

They might well be among the most valuable things forming who your children become.