Sunday, December 04, 2011

The False Idol Of Childhood Innocence

Daddy's gone.
My brother's out hunting
in the mountains.
Big John's been drinking
since the river took Emmy-Lou . . .
~Neil Young (Powderfinger)

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!"

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. 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. It will reveal itself to them soon enough. 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.

. . . So the powers that be
left me here to do the thinkin' ~Neil Young  

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Gyan65 said...

Thanks so much for this Tom! I also have a story where I lied to my children by omission, which I'm actually writing a book about now, so I'll save the gory details. My daughter didn't call me on my conceit for 10 years, but when she did, it totally changed our relationship (for the better, and got me very present to the idea that children need to be given the truth to protect themselves from the world, rather than us protecting them from the truth. After all, truth is a good thing right? why on earth would we as parents want to protect our children from honest communication and truth as it really is?
Thanks again for this reminder!

The Globetrotter Parent said...

"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. "

Absolutely! And this principle applies equally to debunking myths like that of Santa. When they ask if he is real, they deserve to know the truth, not be deceived. Playing on children's gullibility / or innocence shows disrespect to them.

K-Dog said...

I think it is important to see how pervasive the "kid gloves" are that we use. One striking example is the Disney v. Grimm Brothers versions of fairy tales. There is Dick & Jane v. Roald Dahl. There are Aesop's Fables v. the Sanskrit Ponchatantra. There is a darkness, a fascination with the "boogey man" in childhood that is unsettling. When my son has a nightmare, which is infrequent, it is disturbing to me because I don't know what he is experiencing and he never wants to talk about it. My daughter is afraid of the dark at night, afraid of monsters that she knows do not exist. We are protective as parents, and as teachers, we have to be careful of bursting "balloons" that our students' parents have inflated to surround and protect their children who are in our care. When is the right time to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? I plead Socrates here and frankly admit, "I do not know."

Aunt Annie said...

Here here, Tom. A round of applause for that man.

Anonymous said...

I've always been torn between both: between the lure of the 'childhood innocence' romantic notion and a reality that i remember never escaped me, but i think, i always wanted to escape - some of it; not all of it. No book I read a a child, even the fairy tales (b/c my parents didn't censor my stories) made it pretty. None of our 'classics' skirt the truth. For whatever reason, some of us feel we owe our children an innocence we didn't have. I don't know why, exactly (tho, I have theories). So, I go too far in one direction, then the other, then, sometimes, I get it right. My intentions are good and I love my child. I know he'll forgive whatever I got wrong :) I must say, he always says, "Mom, tell me," when he knows I'm wavering. It's a balance. It's the way you speak it. Parenting and Teaching are tough gigs :-) And amazing ones, too!

mamatoelijah said...

I agree with so much of this, especially when you discuss the examples of road kill, etc....

Here is the trouble I have. When parents take the truth so literal that they do lay out the entire gory details or in the case of 9/11 let young children WATCH this on television. They do not have a sense of reality vs. fantasy and it is too much for a 3 year old.

It is one thing to truthfully answer the questions they are asking, but quite another to allow such a horrific event that they could of course not fully understand to be witnessed.

I saw many cases of trauma in my preschool because of it.

I never thought I would ever argue against the idea of not telling children the truth and really I do not think I am. To explain why you are sad that day and tell them in developmentally appropriate terms the truth is what I am arguing for here.

Lisa Sunbury said...

It's always interesting to me when I witness adults who are uncomfortable with being honest with young children and being with their emotions around real life events and questions, yet they allow their three or four year old child to watch Disney movies like The Lion King. For some reason this post made me think of that. I love what you say about it not being our job to shine a spot light on events, but nor is it our job to try to "protect" young children when they ask us questions. Simple , basic honesty is always the way to go.

Teacher Tom said...

@mamatoelijah . . . I think EVERYONE who watched 9/11 stuff on TV was traumatized, not just preschoolers. I saw the actual footage once or twice and was so shaken, I switched to radio and internet for my news. In fact, now that I think about it, I gave up TV news altogether after 9/11.

I don't think we owe children the chance to watch TV under any circumstances and especially when there is something horrifying on it. TV is not the truth.

janetlansbury said...

It was when I realized that I could be my honest self with young children that I started to love being with them. The babies I've raised and the ones I work with understand *so* many things. They never cease to astound me...when I remember to give them the chance. And children can be such healers.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, Tom, but this is yet another brilliant post. Thank you!

SarahSews said...

You've articulated so clearly how and why I made the choices I did when my grandmother died two months ago. My 3 year old was old enough to be told the truth, which was that she was old, and sick and her body stopped working. He was too young to be taken to her bedside in the hours before her death (thankfully we visited her days before when she was well enough to visit with us) or to the viewing with an open casket. He was old enough to attend the church service with a closed casket and to go with us to the burial. He handled it all so well -- asking questions and offering up really thoughtful observations. It was important to me that he see how life really works in terms he could understand.

mamatoelijah said...

Absolutely Tom, we got rid of our TV many years ago for precisely those reasons. I think we absolutely agree and I love the way the way Lisa put it when she said it was not our job to shine a spotlight nor protect them. I guess I just wanted to emphasize your point that just because we dont lie or try to protect them does not mean we spotlight it either.

Maura said...

Thank you for this post. My children are 2 and 4 and their grandfather died last month. I did my best to explain what happened. We attended the funeral and the graveside blessing. My brother in law also has a 2 year old and sent his son to daycare and only brought him to the lunch after. His son still asks "Where's Dad-Dad?" which I know causes pain to all the family members that hear the question. It was a hard thing to explain, but I wouldn't change my actions one bit.