Tuesday, December 05, 2017

"I Want To Know These Things!"

When our daughter Josephine was little, I decided to expose her to a little "culture" and rented the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It had been a long time since I'd seen it. My memories were of silly dwarfs, uplifting songs, and a handsome prince. I'd completely forgotten the frightening parts, especially the terrifying early scene where the Huntsman raises his knife to cut out the heroine's heart followed by her pell-mell escape through the dark and forbidding forest.

It overwhelmed Josephine. She demanded I turn the movie off, but then, to my confusion and surprise, a few minutes later she asked me to show that part to her again. Then again. Then again. We must have watched that scene a dozen times or more before she permitted us to move on. It scared her, but at the same time compelled her enough to want to confront the fear and peer more deeply into that particular abyss.

Recently, an online group of parents and teachers were discussing a book called The Amazing Bone by the author William Steig. Now this is a book I've been reading to preschoolers since I discovered it nearly two decades ago, but most of the people in the group felt it was entirely inappropriate, even for older children. In particular, they found this page to be disturbing:

The illustrations show masked bandits attempting to rob poor Pearl at gun and knifepoint. The text reads: "You can't have my purse," she said, surprised at her own boldness. "What's in it?" said another robber, pointing his gun at Pearl's head.

It's a frightening scene, no doubt, one that annually prompts deep and meaningful classroom discussions, taking us into our darker places.

I understand the instinct to want to protect children from disturbing imagery, and I did it myself as a parent. For the first many viewings of The Sound of Music, for instance, I would declare "The End" just before the Nazis began to pursue the Von Trapp family. When, years later, Josephine discovered what I'd done, she chewed me out. 

When she was six, she reacted even more strongly to learning that the catastrophe of 9/11 happened during her lifetime. We were approaching the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center towers had once stood. As I told her the story she angrily interrupted me, "You mean it happened since I've been alive? Why didn't you tell me?" I explained that she had been too little, just three-years-old. She scolded me, "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 scene, 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 have known it since their first pang of hunger. 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.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

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