Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Awful Truth

So we raise our glass to the awful truth
That we can't reveal to the ears of youth,
Except to say it isn't worth a dime . . .  
~Leonard Cohen

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.

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The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

This is very true. Thanks for writing it. I needed another reminder.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

This is very true. Thanks for writing it. I needed another reminder.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that children below the age of six grow best if they feel fundamentally that the world is good. My son was six when 9/11 happened. He spent days in his room recreating it, with Lego. I could see he found it impossible to process. I am not convinced that young children (below 6) need to know things they have no control over. As the leader of my child (and my kindergarten children) I choose to protect their sensibilities while they're too young to put the events in context or to return to an inherent understanding that the World is good. (Just my opinion, of course!x)

CARRIE said...

This is lovely and, oh so, true.

Anonymous said...

Well I think much care should be taken, especially in the formative years. I wasn't shielded from much while growing up in a big city with lots of crime (not to mention what was on the news about crime in the rest of the world). I still struggle with...an inflated fear (sometimes it seems like I exhibit PTSD symptoms) of violence, etc. I wish constantly that my parents had protected us from being exposed to it at such a young age. My policy is to keep them from knowing about violence as much as possible in the formative years to give their natural sense of security time to develop so it's not an ingrained part of their personalities to be inappropriately burdened by tragedy and horror. I'm not sure how psychologically accurate that approach is but it's got to be better than what I deal with. Ultimately, a 6-year-old who wishes she knew at 3 what she knows now, isn't 3 and doesn't know how her 3 year old self would have processed that. So maybe be a little more cautious and if they hear about something scary, then you explain. But it seems like little ones will have plenty of opportunities to encounter evil and violence and we don't have to be proactive about having them seeing it early.

Sandra Tuszynska said...

Hi Tom

thank you sharing this. It is absolutely true and I remember when I was a child, that everything that the adults wanted to hide from me, it felt terrible, it felt like I was being deceived and somehow unequal to adults.
I believe that we are created to want truth and nothing but the truth, because it is the truth that sets us free. But as you say, we are so afraid of the truth, and fear creates the turmoil we currently live in.


Michelena said...

I was just talking about this very topic, with my daughter, who is 7 years old. She always wants to know the WHOLE truth, and she is not satisfied with generalities or delayed responses. When she was younger, I tried to resist. Sometimes, because there were things so terrible, I couldn't speak about it at all (i.e. when young children were murdered in school). Sometimes because I didn't want her to know the awful things some people are capable of doing. Then the matter of racial injustice became a dominant topic in our world. In the course of learning about white privilege, the idea of parents delaying when white children learn about racism until far later than when parents MUST inform black children, as a matter of survival, provided me with undeniable clarity.

Children KNOW things. They need to know if, and with whom they can discuss the things they know and observe and need support and guidance to understand. I want to be that person for my daughter and any other kids in our lives. I hope most kids have at least 3-4 such persons on whom they can rely.

Great post. Thanks