Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Demanding Truth

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self.  ~Arthur Schlesinger

Not long ago I posted here about how, in our play-based curriculum, I came to be reading William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury to 4 and 5 year olds. We've continued reading it, off and on, since then, always at the request of children. We are now up to page 10, the slow going necessitated by the discussions we're finding necessary after nearly every line. I'm certain they aren't following the plot any longer and the dialog is clearly beyond them. I suspect that they keep requesting it mostly because they enjoy the experience of sitting with me, outdoors, being read to. 

After my last post a couple readers wrote me questioning the wisdom of reading this novel to young children, warning me that Faulkner's grim view of humanity and the human condition was too much for such young children. 

When my daughter Josephine was 6-years-old she reacted strongly to learning that the catastrophe of 9/11 had happened during her lifetime: "You mean it happened since I've been alive? Why didn't you tell me?" I explained that she had been too little, just 3-years-old. She scolded me, angrily, "I want to know these things! I want you to tell me the truth about these things!" This would not be the last time she's demanded truth from me when I thought I was keeping something from her for her own good.

It's a story I've told before, and one I'll certainly tell again. It was a moment that changed me forever; my wee, innocent baby demanding truth. Up until then, I thought I'd been the epitome of an honest parent, never shying away from her questions, but that moment, a moment that occurred as we approached the hole in the ground where once the towers of the World Trade Center had stood, caused my own conceit of integrity to collapse within me.

I hadn't told her about it, I thought, because I hadn't wanted her to be afraid of the horrors of which humans are capable. And now not only was she afraid three years removed, but feeling betrayed by her own father. I'm just glad she had the fortitude or courage or whatever it was to call me on it. I don't want to ever again be in that position, not with my child, my wife, or anyone for that matter. It's one thing when the world is crap. It's another to make it crappier.

When we lie, either overtly or by omission, especially to a loved one, we might tell ourselves it's altruism, but at bottom it's almost always an act of cowardice. It's us who don't want to face truth. When we say, "She's too young," we're really saying, I'm not ready to face the pain or the shame or the fear

We skip pages in books. We fast-forward through the scary parts. We distract their gaze from road kill.

I'm not saying that we should, unsolicited, lay out the whole unvarnished horrible mess before them, if only because we don't need to. And fortunately, much of the true horrors of human nature, just as the true grimness of Faulkner's southern gothic tales, goes right over their heads. But it will always reveal itself to them when they are ready to understand it. Our job is neither to distract their gaze nor draw their attention to it. It is rather, out of our love for them, to answer their questions, to speak the truth as we know it, and to say, "I don't know," when that's the truth.

What anchors our children is not a sense that the world is perfect. They already know it isn't. They don't need more happy endings. They need to know we love them enough to tell them the truth, and to accept their emotions, to hold them or talk to them or just be with them. 

It's adults, not children who worship the false idol of childhood innocence. It's only adults who don't want to grow up.

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1 comment:

John S Green said...

Hi Tom,

I linked to this article in my latest post. I hope you don't mind. It was truly inspirational.


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