Raising Anti-Racist Children – A Holistic Approach (with Kristen Coggins)

Kristen Coggins is a respiratory therapist, a positive discipline educator, a mom, and a Black woman, so she is very much in the eye of the current storm with a first-person perspective of the history unfolding around us. Krissy and Janet discuss the positive steps parents can take right now toward raising empathetic, anti-racist children, starting with the hard work of self-reflection with compassion. As Krissy writes: “Being able to appreciate the full humanity of another person is fostered in how well you see yourself and how well you see your children. Do you treat them like whole people with their own thoughts, feelings and desires? Everything is cyclical.”

Transcript of “Raising Anti-Racist Children – A Holistic Approach (with Kristen Coggins)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have the privilege of speaking with a woman who really seems to embody this explosive movement in history we’re all experiencing. Krissy Coggins is a positive discipline educator who supports parents in the practice of intentional nurturing to promote positive relationships, and helps us all to be the parents we want to be. She’s also a busy mom, a respiratory therapist, and a Black woman. So there are a lot of very heavy, complicated things going on in Krissy’s world right now, but she has graciously found the time and space to share her perspective.

Janet Lansbury:  Hi, Krissy.

Kristen Coggins:  Hi. How are you, Janet?

Janet Lansbury:  I’m well. I’m so thankful that you wanted to do this. You’re one of the first people I followed on Instagram actually, and I was thrilled to see how like-minded we are and that your work with parents is grounded deeply in respect for children from birth. But one thing is different. You do a whole lot more than I do these days. You’re a parent of beautiful daughters, including a two-month-old baby. Like literally, how are you putting a sentence together right now?

Kristen Coggins:  Honestly, it’s kind of like I heard someone say before “in the corners of the day.” It’s like a little bit here and a little bit there when I can fit something in, while I’m in the drive through at Starbucks. But really I have done a whole lot of slowing down this past year. Last year, I would do a lot of work, get up at four o’clock in the morning to make sure that I can get all these different things done. And it felt great, because being productive always does feel great. And then last year when my baby girl passed away, I was like, okay, I am not in this space of being able to do this work. And I gave myself permission to really just slow down. And I think it’s just so important for us to give ourselves that permission to take a step back, slow down. The work will be there always. And I really gave myself that time to just, to breathe.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh, I love that you listened to yourself that way. And I’m so sorry about your wonderful daughter. And there are not enough words for that experience. But I read your posts at that time and they were so heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, and the spirit that came through…You’re a gift to everyone.

Kristen Coggins:  Thank you. Yeah, it was a powerful and heartbreaking time for sure.

Janet Lansbury:  I’m so sorry.

So you’re a positive discipline educator and a parent coach. So that’s what you do on the side, or when you’re driving through Starbucks? And, get this everyone, you’re a respiratory therapist.

Kristen Coggins:  Yes. I am a night shift respiratory therapist. And with COVID going on now, there’s that heightened concern. So it’s been a real test in being mindful, really, and staying present, because there’s so much to worry about in the world. It’s been powerful, it’s been humanizing. I had a patient cry and asked me not to leave her room. Yeah. Because there are no visitors right now. And she said, “Please don’t go.” And I was like, “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to go.” And I came back and I stayed as I could, but yeah, things like that. It’s like the connection is being the family for the family, holding up their pictures of their relatives and talking to them about them and being intentional and mindful in that way that I wasn’t necessarily as much before, you know?

Janet Lansbury:  The space that you’re holding for people’s feelings, and I’m sure with your own children too, and it sounds like you’re somehow finding a way to hold space for your own and take care of yourself.

And now we have all these things coming to a head, riveting the whole world like never before. These outrageous, devastating, senseless murders of Black people. And even the fact that COVID is affecting Black communities at a higher percentage. It’s finally getting, and I know it’s way too late, but finally getting everybody’s attention it seems. There’s hope in that. And I know that I’ve become more fully aware that I must do more and I must do better to help combat systemic racism. And that the time is now. The time was actually yesterday, but the time is now. I loved what our US representative and civil rights leader, John Lewis said, “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.”

Kristen Coggins:  Yes. You know, as a Black woman, we see so much of this closer up for us. And so when it all started to kind of happen, it felt very much like here we go. It’s the same cycle. It’s been happening. For us, I think the first one I remember was Trayvon Martin. You kind of get used to seeing these traumatizing images, mourning with the family and empathizing so hard. And then seeing that the person gets off for whatever happened and that’s a crush again. So it’s like, it happens over and over and over. So you begin to lose hope. You’re like, well, here it goes. And so I kind of got into a point where I just, it was too much. I had to shut it out. I cannot deal with this. It’s just going to happen all over again.

This time it feels different, especially with young people. They are speaking up in a way that is so powerful and so direct and so hopeful. And it’s like, they get it, they are getting it. And they’re speaking up to their parents. I am one of those people that joined TikTok over the quarantine so I’ll scroll and I’ll scroll. They’re posting these conversations, actual conversations that they’re having with their parents. And it’s like, wow. And some of them are getting kicked out of their houses.  They’re writing “Black Lives Matter” on the chalk of their driveway. I mean, they are living a revolution at home and that is so powerful. And so many of them have actually said they’re getting through to their parents. It gives me chills. I’m grateful. I am hopeful we may evolve.

Janet Lansbury:  Me too. So yeah, we have this wonderful Generation Z. I’ve also heard them called iGen. My children are in that generation. And now we have the next generation that you, and a lot of the people that listen to this podcast are raising. How do we honor this work with them? How do we ensure that we’re raising anti-racist children? What can we do? I really mostly just want to listen to what you have to say about this.

Kristen Coggins:  You know, civilization — it seems like it’s being presented with this divine opportunity to evolve. And it’s so painful yet hopeful. Systematically for centuries, Black people have been oppressed in this country, whether it be from implicit bias, overt or covert racism, being traumatized. And it’s like we’ve reached this point where it seems like white people are ready to say enough is enough, and are collectively pushing each other to be on the right side of history. And with that, it’s like folks want to know, what can we do? And so I have two answers that I have prepared for today. One is see yourself. The second is see your children.

There’s a quote by Brené Brown. It says: “We cannot give our children what we do not have.” We cannot give our children what we do not have. And in order to know what you have, you have to see yourself and that requires being mindful. People instantly get defensive if they’re called racists because it doesn’t feel good to be labeled and especially not that label. And it’s like, “No, that’s not me. I don’t accept that. I’m nice to people. I treat them how I want to be treated. I give them the shirt off my back.” But it’s like, what if you took the time to look at it from a mindfulness approach?

There is this great Buddhist tool for mindfulness. It’s an acronym called RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate with kindness, and Non-identification. You might find yourself in a situation where a decision you made or something you said has you being called out or being suspected of being racist. Or maybe there is no call out, maybe you’re just questioning something you did or experienced. So what you would do is first, you’re going to just recognize: What is happening in my body right now. Does my stomach have an icky feeling? How about my face, my chest? Am I having a desire to distract or remove myself from the situation?

Just recognizing everything that you’re feeling can be very powerful.

Next, you want to allow those feelings to just be. It can be hard to sit with discomfort. We want to push it out of our bodies. But don’t fight them. And maybe even picture what that discomfort looks like. What texture is it? What color is it? Just observing it. Going into detail about what it looks like and feels like kind of helps you to separate the discomfort from your body without numbing it.

So you’re looking at the discomfort and then you’re going to investigate it with kindness. Because if you start being hard on yourself about it, the discomfort is not going to allow you to progress through the feelings and really get to the core of what’s happening for you.

So investigate it with kindness. What am I believing in this moment? What is the story that I have going about what’s happening? What is the feeling trying to tell me or do for me? Do I believe I’m being attacked? What memories are coming up? Am I feeling shamed?

It’s important to investigate this, so you can tie your feelings to your why. Because if you go straight from so and so said I’m racist, I’m not racist, it just doesn’t help you to really practice self-awareness, right?

Janet Lansbury:  Right. It’s defensive posture. Yeah.

Kristen Coggins:  Exactly.

And then lastly, Non-identification. And that means you can recognize that something happened that you didn’t like, or you did something that maybe you should have done, but that is not you. You may feel shame, but you’re not a bad person. When people get stuck on being a bad person, they can’t heal and move forward. So, I am not tied to this and it is not my story. Also, I resolve to use this knowledge to do better, to be a better listener, to speak up, to be empowered, to use my privilege and to build trust.

If you tie yourself to the action, that situation that made you feel small. Then it takes away from your power and leaves you with shame or the facade of shame, which is pride. And it’s not productive or helpful, because you become so much smaller. And you can’t use the privilege that you have to do proper advocating and educating, or just doing the work at home.

You may have heard the term “white fragility,” and that’s what that really is. It’s allowing your ego to be tied to the discomfort around race, as opposed to looking at it, observing it, and identifying what is happening for you and how you can move forward and use it as an empowering thing, as opposed to a shame thing.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was listening to Brené Brown’s recent podcast and she had a guest, Professor Ibram X. Kendi. I don’t know if you know who he is. He wrote a book, How to Be an Antiracist. And he made a comment, “The good news is that racist and anti-racist are not fixed identities.” And I think that’s important to what you’re talking about because, like you said, it doesn’t mean that this is your label as a whole person, and that you have to own this for the rest of your life. It’s just a stance that you’re taking right now. Or it’s something that’s showing up that you’re expressing. And we can change.

Kristen Coggins:  Exactly. The thing is, is knowing that we can always change. And I think the biggest part of that is, like I said before, getting out of the ego, getting out of the shame of it and being empowered, and knowing that this is not your story, you’re not tied to it. And as bad as it may feel at the time, just standing in your truth and being willing to do the work.

Janet Lansbury:   And by the way, the mentor of the approach that I teach, Magda Gerber, she said exactly what Brené Brown is saying. She used to say, “What we teach is ourselves, as models of what is human.” And another quote of hers: “Personality characteristics such as generosity, empathy, caring, and sharing cannot be taught, they can only be modeled.”

Kristen Coggins:  Exactly. Because our children, they know us. The whole point of being mindful was, for one, so that we can change ourselves. But two, it’s like you can’t fool your children. They know when you’re happy. They know when you’re sad. They know when you’re scared, when you’re frustrated. When you’re mindful and you practice really identifying what needs to be changed at the core, then it becomes an authentic experience for you as well as for them.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes.

So I have all these parents, and of course I love this, they’re asking me, what do I do? How do I teach my child not to be racist? One of them said: “I can’t wait to hear more insight about discussing race in a respectable way. How do we raise our kids to not fear what is different?”

I really had to unpack that one because it didn’t make sense to me at first. Why would a child fear someone different? Yes, we know now from studies that children as young as three months notice and prefer the people that look like them, that are their own race. So that bias begins very early. But the fear… Why would they be afraid?

My first instinct, because we know how powerful we are as parents… My first thought was like, there’s something the parent is feeling that is scaring the child around these issues.

And so then I was reading in… I don’t know if you’re aware of KQED MindShift. Cory Turner from NPR did a piece a while ago, way before all these most recent events. And they said the research is showing so many families aren’t talking about these issues. And it’s “a problem because children are hardwired to notice differences at a young age and they’re asking questions like: ‘Why is this person darker than me? Why is this person wearing that hat on their head?’ These are just some of the social identity questions parents might hear.”

“We sometimes are scared to talk about these things. If adults stiffen up and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that,’ then that’s sending children a cue that there’s something wrong.” (Tanya Haider)

They’re jarred by their powerful parent. And now our children are afraid to bring things up.

Children are just naturally curious. So we have to try to give them honest, fearless responses that they can understand to whatever they’re saying, and know that it’s positive. Wherever children are in their process, it’s positive that they’re sharing it with us. And so, yes, we can correct, but we’re not going to shame them and shut them down with our judgment of them.

Kristen Coggins:  Right. Which is really our fear, too, and our discomfort that it goes back to why it’s so important to practice mindfulness. Checking in with your body, just going through that RAIN acronym and seeing where you are with it. Even the child being afraid of somebody else, like you said, there’s a good chance their parent’s afraid. And maybe they don’t know that they’re projecting it.

A child can always feel their parents feelings, that’s something that is easily picked up on.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. And then looking at why we’re afraid, which oftentimes is… Honestly in the work I do, it’s often that the parent is projecting way far in the future that they’ve raised this horrible racist child. And they’re projecting that in a situation where their child is three or two or four and doing what they’re supposed to do, which is asking questions, inquiring, just being curious, all these wonderful, precious qualities that young children have that allow them to learn so quickly and so thoroughly.

So I try to reassure parents that their child is doing normal things.

Kristen Coggins:  Yeah. Very normal.

Janet Lansbury:  And that we can feel safe to welcome that.

Kristen Coggins:  Kids, like you said, they’re just so curious. And often they don’t have a filter so they’re going to ask the questions and that’s just what it is. It’s a question. It means they’re curious. It means nothing else.

Janet Lansbury:  So what are other ideas do you have for how we can talk to children, how we can expose them at an early age to other races? And then at some point, explain the inequities and the biases and the important lessons that we need to teach them.

Kristen Coggins:  Right. Well, first I would start with practicing raising children that are aware of and appreciative of the humanity of others. And that is really going to come from how we parent them. The way that we parent is anti-racism work, right?

So if you haven’t been taught to really hear someone else’s feelings without taking it on or taking it personal, then you might not have that skill. It might take you into your adulthood to develop that skill. But if you have a parent that sits with you, just being there for you. Someone who doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re not hurt.”  Or, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” Someone who sees you when you’re hurting and acknowledges it and just holds space for you. Then as a child, you begin to learn how to do that.

If you have a parent that honors your boundaries, then you learn how to honor the boundaries of others. If you have a parent that validates you, then you learn how to validate people.

But if you’re constantly being micromanaged, if you’re being told how you feel, told what you want and just not being given respect for your autonomy, then you normalize that and you can carry that into adulthood. And when you meet someone of a different culture, of a different background — specifically right now we’re talking about Black people — then if you come into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you’re more than likely going to do what you know, which is brush their feelings to the side, not validate, censor your own feelings, that kind of thing, because you don’t really know what it’s like to have that kind of space.

And so it’s really so important that parents do their work on themselves, and then with their children at home.

And of course we’ll never be perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. You won’t get it right all the time. And that’s fine. It’s a practice. You just have to know how to recover and how to say, “I made this mistake and I’m sorry.” And keep moving forward. You know?

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely. Yeah. I was thinking as you were talking how hard is it to not take our children’s behavior personally sometimes. We’re all going to do that. So, we want to give this to our children. And so, yeah, we have to give it actually to ourself first. We have to give ourselves that grace and patience and empathy and compassion that we’re not going to be perfect either.

Kristen Coggins:  Absolutely. Brené Brown actually has a great book. The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting is the title of it. And in thinking about that book, she talks about how you can’t help parents by shaming them. I think that’s also a powerful statement when it comes to white people talking to other white people regarding race. Passions are so high right now, right? Everybody’s feeling this energy. They want to say the right thing and they want to distance themselves from racist ideas or rhetoric. They want to be on the right side of history, so to speak.

Black people, we have our own trauma and hurts around everything from slavery, Jim Crow. So we are not really in this space of holding space for white people. But other white people talking to white people and doing it in a way that is not inviting shame, but is inviting connection and conversation and growth, seeing the humanity in each other — that’s where we see our healing. And that’s where we’ll see our forward movement.

So I really do encourage people… As much as people love to cancel and call out and that kind of thing, and it’s important to firmly say: “No, this is wrong, I do not agree with that. And we will not tolerate that.” That’s very important to have firm boundaries. But it’s equally important to do the work. That’s the hard part — to really say: “Okay, let’s talk about this. And let’s share with each other, let’s connect with each other.” And that’s how healing is going to happen.

Again, I would never… As a Black woman, I would never ask a Black person to do that or to be the person holding that space, because it’s just so triggering and traumatizing and it’s outside of our spoons.

Janet Lansbury:  You’re so right. And again, if we’re talking about children, how are they going to experience that? They’re going to experience it through us respecting them, but also when they see us respecting other people, including the way that we call them out or criticize them or correct them. You called it a cycle. And yeah, unfortunately there’s no escaping. We can’t just pop out over here and give our child all the lessons and make them into this kind of person we want them to be. We have to have the whole picture.

Kristen Coggins:  Yeah. It has to be a holistic approach. It does. Teaching them how to be empowered instead of being ashamed. And if we’re going to teach them that, then we have to be able to work with that process ourselves.

When someone brings something to you, how do you find power in that instead of being finding defensiveness? Finding the teachable moments.

And on the playground or at a family dinner when their uncle tells that joke that’s not so funny, you know, how you respond in that moment when your children are watching you? Do you do an uncomfortable laugh, haha? Don’t say anything, look away? Or do you speak up? And then do you have a conversation later with them and say, “Hey, X, Y, and Z happened, and I’m going to explain this to you. And it was not okay.”

Even modeling or practicing at home with your children, “What are you going to do if you’re on the playground…?” And I wasn’t sure I was going to share this with you… My daughter, she came home this year. She’s in kindergarten, it’s her first year of school. And she told me that she was on a playground and little White girl said to her, “I can’t play because you have brown skin.”

And when she told me that it completely broke my heart because she was looking at me and I could tell she wanted an answer from me. And all I could think about was when I was in fourth grade and didn’t get invited to the party that all the girls got invited to. And I was the only Black girl on my class. And so it’s like I’m trying to process this with her and process my own experiences. And it’s 2020, you know?

And so I think that’s why it’s so important for parents to model being anti-racist also in the avenue of advocating for other children. So maybe when they’re at home, you know, practice. “I’m going to be this kid and I’m going to say this and how are you going to speak up? Let’s go through this. Let’s role-play it together.”

That way when the moment arises, they have the words, their brain has started making the connection already because they’re practicing at home. It doesn’t feel as foreign to them. And they can advocate in that moment and say what needs to be said and do the work of anti-racism. Because it starts early. It starts early. Parents often feel like they want to protect their children from the evils of society. And Black kids, they don’t get that kind of space. We have to start early because early these things are being brought to them and it’s confusing.

Janet Lansbury:  Did you take that moment as a time to start sharing messages with your daughter that you hadn’t shared before? Or had you already been sharing them?

Kristen Coggins:  I had been doing some sharing early on from when she was little, reading books, talking about the civil rights movement, talking about powerful leaders in the community, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and ways that these people, and women specifically as well, have done such hard work. She’d ask me questions, but she’s so young that it doesn’t always stick. Like, “Don’t you remember we had that conversation?” And she was like, “No, what are you talking about?”

Janet Lansbury:  That also reflects so beautifully the way children learn. Because they learn when it’s actually very direct and meaningful for them, which is often when they’re asking about it. So whatever you said, and I don’t know if you want to share or not, but whatever you said in response to that horrible exchange that she had… that she will probably remember for life. Whereas these lessons that we are trying to teach… This is important for white parents to understand…  The lessons that we think we’re doing a nice lecture about this, and we’re talking about the history or showing the books or whatever… If a child doesn’t feel directly impacted, which they usually do when they’re the ones discovering it and seeking it out and asking the questions, then they don’t learn it as deeply. It has to be meaningful for them. And that’s why all the things that you’re talking about, the way that children are actually treated by us, the way they actually see us handling tense situations, like what you’re talking about about the uncle, those are messages that they take in deeply.

Kristen Coggins:  Yeah. And that’s why it’s so important to have those conversations and not run from it. Not feel like, Oh, they’re too young, they won’t understand. Or they’re not experiencing it yet. Or they just love everybody. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. So it’s going to be up to parents to really get in there, dig in.

And then, about building trust, because there’s been such a long history of oppression in this country, Black people are very much reserved and not as trusting. So it’s going to take time and it’s going to be painful. Just like if you had a child who you’re trying to switch your way of parenting with them, they’re going to be ups and downs and it’s not always going to go how you want it to go. And you’re not always going to say the thing that you want to say. But the important thing is that you keep showing up. By showing up, you built trust. And over time things heal.

Janet Lansbury:  And that ability to kind of look back and evaluate, which takes a lot of self-compassion, to be able to make the mistake. And then instead of just feeling totally ashamed of ourselves, to say, okay, what happened there? And what made me go there? And a lot of times it is getting triggered from something that happened in our own lives. So we can look and go, okay, that’s what happened that time. And I’m going to try again. So we can digest the experience and actually learn from it. It’s not easy to have a process with ourselves that’s gentle, but honest and real and actually productive.

So, you’re talking about these wonderful things to work on. And I just want to keep reiterating, I know you know this, but it’s not easy for any of us.

Kristen Coggins:  Certainly not. The discomfort itself… I think we can be so used to either numbing out the discomfort or running from it or discharging it, just trying to get away from it. Just looking at it — it can be a very difficult thing to do without going through one of our usual ways of running from the experience. So yeah, it’s big work for sure, but it’s work that is so worth it, and it’s so worthy.

Janet Lansbury:  I’m so glad that you’re here and that you’re committed to this. I’m so grateful for you. Are there any other last tips or thoughts or anything that you want to share?

Kristen Coggins:  Just knowing that it’s okay for your child to hear these things and be sad, allowing feelings. Parents want to protect their children from sadness often, or maybe even guilt or shame that may come up. But sitting with them and saying, “It’s okay to feel that feeling.” and teaching them how to process that feeling, and not trying to keep them from it because you’re afraid of how they may feel. Feelings come and feelings go, and there’ll be more feelings to come in the future. So not holding back for that fear.

And then just keep raising your children with humanity.

Janet Lansbury:  What you’re saying about feelings, that’s such a perfect example of children learning through us, actually, just us and then the way that we engage with them. And when you brought up the incident with your daughter, and you said that you were triggered to an experience in your own life… I hear this sort of thing happening a lot. And it’s so hard to then let your daughter feel sad about something that’s now touching off the sadness and hurt, all the feelings that you felt and maybe still feel about that.

This is a challenge that we have as parents to kind of separate out our own experiences with those of our children, especially in these fraught situations. Or even if it’s our own: I’m working so hard to be anti-racist in everything I do and now my child just did something that sounds racist to me in this moment! or whatever. How are we going to be able to be curious about our child’s perspective and where they are in their process and be accepting, that acceptance of them and the normalization of everything they go through emotionally and in their own learning process?

Kristen Coggins:  Right. And knowing that it’s okay to not have a big reaction in the moment. That’s probably an embarrassing or a scary moment for a parent for their child to say or do something racist, and then feeling compelled to do something, say something right then. And knowing that it’s okay to say, you know, “We’re going to talk about this later.” You don’t have to be on right at that moment and you don’t have to shun or shame them because you’re feeling so uncomfortable. Like really just pausing and then getting to the deeper issue and having a real conversation.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. Because what we’re getting to and one of the many reasons I love this conversation is that it’s about one of my favorite topics, which is how do children actually learn, compared to how we might think that they learn, or how we think we can teach them? How does it actually work with children? And you’ve spoken to that so beautifully and thoroughly. And I really, really appreciate it.

Kristen Coggins:  Thank you so much. I have really enjoyed our conversation as well. I often tell the story that you are my introduction to gentle parenting, so this is sincerely a full circle moment for me. And I’m so grateful to have been able to talk to you.

Janet Lansbury: Thank you. All right, Krissy. Will you please take good care? And I’ll be looking forward to everything that you put out there and looking forward also to sharing it wherever I can. Thank you for your voice.

Kristen Coggins:  Thank you. I will talk to you later.

Janet Lansbury:  Okay. Bye-bye.

You can contact Krissy through Instagram or Facebook at @KrissysCouch.

And I’ll be sharing other resources for parents in the transcript of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

100% of the sponsorship fee for this episode will be donated to The Sanctuary in the City, an organization Krissy recommends.

For more anti-racism resources for families, rather than attempting to assemble my own list from the treasure trove online, I reached out (again!) to Krissy who suggests THIS one curated by Katrina Michie from Pretty Good Design.

Thank you again, Krissy! ♥

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