Read it. See it. Doesn’t matter the order – you won’t be disappointed. It is really such a captivating story, so beautifully-told, and with so many life lessons, including lessons for parents.
Before I get to those, here’s a practical lesson from my experience:
- Lesson #1: Don’t forget to take a tissue or two into the theatre! I should have known this, but of course, I was running late, having stood in line for my $20 bottle of re-bottled tap water. Based on the book, I expected the movie to be quite painful to watch, but it was actually quite enjoyable. The producers have obviously taken measures to “lighten up” the story a little, but the messages remain powerful, and you still need a tissue! (Of course, I need a tissue for the the movie trailer itself, too.)
My mom said she was just boo-hooing at the end (it’s genetic), and this older black woman sitting next to her reached over, patted her, and said, “Honey, are you gonna be okay?” and Mom was so touched by this, it just made her cry more. Later, she found out this woman and her husband were both from Mississippi. One benefit to seeing the movie is that sharing the story becomes a communal experience, and might even build some bridges.
I knew I was in trouble when the very first scene had me in tears…it is the one repeated several times in the book repeated that I will always carry with me in my parent/ teacher heart. In it, the kind-hearted black “help” Abilene is helping the little 2-year-old white girl, Mae Mobley, get dressed for the day. This little girl reminds me so much of Ellie, so full of life and spirit, but unlike Ellie, she has a socialite mother who keeps her at arms’ length, sadly limiting their interactions to negative ones, having a devastating impact on this little girls’ psyche. Abilene combats this effect by speaking intentional, heart-felt words to Mae Mobley every day. And in the end, when the time has come for this mother-figure to step out of this role and out of the little girl’s life, Abilene tests her on the message of their little heart-healing ritual. “Now, little girl, what is it Miss Abey say to you?” And in her own sing-songy voice, through tears, Mae Mobley gets it right: “You smart, you kind, you important.” And you realize the message has stuck with her, and will stay with her, helping to insulate her from damaging words and messages she might receive about herself in the future. It is one of the most powerful “parenting” scenes I’ve ever come across in a book or movie.
- Lesson #2: Be intentional about your interactions with your children. Specifically, be intentional about the exact words you will say to them, the message that you choose to pass on to them.
This scene illustrates so poignantly something that I focus on in my “intentional Parenting” classes. Repetition and Ritual are the most powerful methods for communicating these chosen messages to your children. So once you’ve carefully chosen the message, repeat it over and over like Abilene. Make it a daily ritual that turns something otherwise routine into a meaningful moment of connections (internal and external). It is through the repetition and because of the existing emotional connection that these words will be “written” on your child’s heart. One example is to consider the last words you will say to your child at the end of the day, and repeat it every night. For me and my kids, it’s “I love you to the moon and back” (to borrow a line from a favorite book) and “You made today special by just your being you” (a Mr. Rogers favorite passed on to him by his grandfather). Or maybe it’s something you say when you are getting your child dressed or dropping them of at school. Think to yourself, how will my child finish this phrase: “My mom always said…….” We all know what Forrest Gump’s answer is – what will your children’s be?
- Lesson #3: Every child just needs one somebody to love them deeply, to believe in them, and to tell them so. It doesn’t have to be a parent for it to make the difference that child needs. And if there’s not a parent acting as the child’s advocate, then it is our role as a society to step in and fill that role, like Abilene did so generously and lovingly for Mae Mobley. This is why I never teach a music class without teaching the children my favorite “I Love You” ritual by the time the semester has ended. twinkle twinkle /wonderful child. The strong idealist in me believes it will make a difference in their lives, maybe just on that one day. How can you help to fill that role? My super-mommy-friend Michele volunteers with Big Brothers/ Big Sisters Big Brothers/ Big Sisters, and I know it has changed her life in return because it inspired her to start “Wee Volunteer”
- Lesson #4: Children see the truth, and they teach us how to love. Mae Mobley, having no issue with the color of her beloved Abey’s skin strokes it thinking her the most beautiful woman in the world, then tells Abilene tells that she is her real mama. At a discussion group, the author’s sister told a story about growing up in Jackson with their black Nanny who was their “mother” figure. Susan remembers sneaking a sip of Demetrie’s coffee, and Demetrie scolding her because she said, “Don’t you know that will turn you black like me?” And Susan kept drinking. A friend of mine has a beautiful story of growing up in segregated Dallas where she once challenged her mother to let her have a sip from the “colored” water fountain. She was expecting the water to be rainbow-tinted, and was very confused. “But mom, there’s nothing different about them.” Her mother bent down to her level, looked her squarely in the eye, and said, “and don’t you ever forget that.”
- Lesson #5: Every one wants and deserves to have a voice. This is after all, what inspired Kathryn Stockett to write this book…to give voice to a whole group of strong women who society tried to silence. At the end of the movie, Abilene, in reflecting on what it was like to have her story published for all to read, says very humbly, “No one had ever asked me what it was like to be me before….” Wow. Amazing to think that such a simple question could have such a powerful impact on someone’s life. It cuts right through to what matters, to what is authentic. It helps a person to feel heard and their very existence validated. Try it with someone. “Tell me your story. What is it like to be you?” (See more ideas about “hearing” your childrens’ voices at “Children Just Want to be Seen and Heard”)
- Lesson #6: The way to fight racism, rankism*, sexism, any “ism” is to humanize everyone. We do this by asking people to tell their stories, by considering their human characteristics, desires, needs. We do this by getting off of our cell phones and speaking to the checker at the grocery store – even asking her about her kids and her day. We do this by shedding a sense of “entitlement” and truly appreciating the good services rendered by hard workers. It’s a challenge, and something we all struggle with, if we are honest with ourselves.
- Lesson #7: Children learn how to be from us. We teach them how to hate or how to love, how to be judgmental or how to be accepting. There is a song from South Pacific that gets it just right, summing up the whole cycle of racism in our society, and it reminds us to be intentional about what we model, what we “carefully” teach to our own young children…
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to Year
It’s got to be drummed
in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
To be Afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
*I believe that racism is still a huge problem in our country, though some might deny it. A related and growing problem as the gap between rich and poor expands is “rankism“. This term refers to the idea that we come to see ourselves as part of a certain strata of society, and look down or up to people in another strata, treating them differently because of this perceived distinction. Maybe it happens with your maid. Maybe with your dry cleaner, your waiter, your yard man…do you treat them differently than you do your doctor? your neighbor? Consider it.