Let me tell you about the last parent I judged.
On vacation last month, I was walking my five-year-old, Jonah, out of a public men’s room past a throng of fragmented families, temporarily incomplete while they waited for a dad, mom, brother, or sister to emerge from the can. After about five steps, I heard a woman (now behind me) say, “Because your dad left me for another woman.” I whirled around. Who could possibly be saying this in public, and to what poor kid is she explaining this in front of people? Expecting to see a teen, it took me a moment to find her audience, which turned out to a short little boy about three years old.
First I was livid: how dare she dump this American tragedy on a child who cannot properly process that raw statement of rejection, abandonment, grief, brokenness, and infidelity? Kids don’t forget phrases like that–yet because they do not understand them, those phrases fall like over-fertilized (i.e., poisonous) soil on their sapling roots.
My gut wrenched for the child: why this absurdist education to an ex-toddler on vacation who is already obviously pained by the absence of his father? I thought of a poem I used to teach: “As lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind, / The Truth must dazzle gradually — / Or every man be blind.” If you want kids to understand something huge, at least break it into kid-friendly bites; if you want to help kids see, don’t blind them with too much light at once.
A second later, I hated the father as my heart broke for the mother. How shattered must she be, to have her maternal instincts (and, let’s assume, a reasonable degree of social awareness and presence of mind) swallowed up by grief and hurt, that she now spills her guts to her little boy, outside a public restroom, surrounded by people? I wanted to–well, not hug her, but ask my wife (who was elsewhere) to hug her. I should have walked my son over to hers and found some way to lighten the mood, if not the load.
Telling this story to my wife that evening, it occurred to me that my first reaction–irritation that a parent would flood her child’s motor with too much fuel–is probably one I have engendered in others. In fact, on last year’s vacation to the same spot, I earned some strange looks for instituting a certain tradition that my kids look forward to–and it’s a little morbid.
See, my son’s run to that bathroom was the final stop on our trip down from the old cemetery at the top of the hill. We have no loved ones buried there; I just like walking through cemeteries, which means my kids do, too. The old writers kept skulls on their desks to remind them of their mortality, a fact that shapes every parent’s, and eventually every child’s worldview. In lieu of that momento mori (reminder of death), I walk where the poppies grow.
My kids will lead me from headstone to headstone, and we strain our eyes trying to read the weather-flattened inscriptions, whose writers intended them to remain forever legible. Some are so faint they require us to close our eyes and use our fingers to “read” the dates, which we rub over as though reading Braille. Inevitably we stumble across a marker some 100 or 150 years old, to a child who died around my son’s age, or a younger one “known but to God.” We walk and talk reverently about questions my kids’ souls are beginning to ask, without yet knowing the words to ask them. Our conversations, if I may say it, are lively; my heart thumps the whole time that their wheels are turning.
When exposing your kids to the deeper, harsher realities, how much is too much, and how young is too young? These questions are (or should be) before every parent–and not just for toughies like adultery and death. When I reached high school, I observed a kid 10 years younger whose parents were notorious for letting him watch Saving Private Ryan as a tyke. My own folks were the protective but not the helicopter-sheltering type, so they had only recently allowed me to see the same movie–as a teen. That movie can mess you up–it’s supposed to mess you up, in its own constructive way–and it did mess up scores of American veterans who relived their honorable, heroic nightmares at a theater near them. Sure enough, the movie (and many other things absolutely fine for his parents) messed up this kid for a while, too.
With brief explanation (because frankly, parents, I’d like to hear how you handle this in your homes), here are four principles my wife and I use to navigate the questions, how much is too much, and how young is too young?
- Be intentional. There’s a big difference between letting your children watch whatever comes on next, and making a conscious choice to let that film or book feed them. Their souls are hungrier than their bodies. The former eat 24/7, even as they dream, the latter only at meal and snack time.
- Be proactive. If you have your head in the game enough to be intentional, take it further by looking down the road at what’s coming. You don’t need to wait for culture to choose the field of battle. Go claim the high ground and fight inevitable battles on your own terms.
- Weave a web, not a bubble. When parents play chicken with culture, they lose every time. Your kids are going to encounter certain things before you want them to. If all you do is shelter them in a bubble, you set them up to burst. Instead, converse as much as you can–at meals, in the car–to weave a web of principles, stories, anecdotes, and values so that they can be intentional and proactive in your absence.
- Lead by example. My son cares about WWII and Hitler and both his great-grandfathers’ heroism, because that’s what his mom and I care about. Unfortunately, there are some things he picks up from us that we would rather train out of him. This isn’t because his parents are rotten (well, his mother isn’t), but because his hungry soul is bound to make a youthful, flawed interpretation of things he does not understand, as he observes the two greatest influences upon his life. That’s us. After all, adults’ souls eat 24/7, too. Our kids won’t eat spiritual fruit if they see us binging on spiritual nachos.
Are we off-base? What principles guide your decision-making process for exposing your kids to truth and culture? How much is too much, and how young is too young?
Images via WarHistoryOnline.com and Shutterstock