Being a parent can be disheartening in an age where violence and discord seem to be the only offerings of our non-stop news cycle. The world around us is a frightening place, full of natural disasters, shootings, sexual assault, war, spousal abuse, myriad “isms” that dehumanize their subjects. We are bombarded with imagery we believe should be relics of a past, less-civilized, time.
Unfortunately, children are often the recipients of these negative messages. Sometimes their awareness of world events comes despite our best efforts at sheltering them.
For example, in 2012 our family lost a friend in the Sandy Hook shooting. I would have preferred to keep my children ignorant of this type of occurrence, but the choice was taken from me. Someone we loved died as a result of the exact same type of violence Rep. Eric Swalwell grieved over in his tweet about the recent Buffalo shooting.
More often than not, though, our children’s awareness of the world is the result of our choice to share troubling news with them. Part of our motivation for intentionally exposing them to adverse events is the natural result of living in a culture where we are encouraged to treat our children as if they are adults in tiny bodies.
But our children are not tiny adults, and no child has any business FaceTiming his father about mass casualty events 3,000 miles away from home. This isn’t about different parenting choices, it’s about meeting our children where they are, in the cognitive sense.
I live in New York, a five-hour drive from the Tops Friendly Market in question, and my nine-year-old has no clue there was a shooting in Buffalo. She has no clue any time a shooting happens in the United States. Some may characterize her ignorance as a privilege; however, I characterize it as a result of responsive parenting.
She doesn’t have the cognitive abilities to differentiate between the things she genuinely needs to worry about and atypical events happening in the world around us. We take on the responsibility of determining risk, as the adults responsible for her well-being.
For instance, while Sandy Hook happened two weeks before she was born, it has profoundly affected the way she lives, because we have adjusted the way we interact with the world based on this experience. But she remains blissfully ignorant of each of the protective measures which evolved in our lives as a result of our friend’s death. It’s not her burden to shoulder.
In her book, “The Hiding Place,” concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom recounted a story from her childhood. Her father was a watchmaker and would take weekly trips into Amsterdam to assure his clocks were all set to the correct time. One week, when Corrie was a young girl, she accompanied him.
During the course of their travel, she asked him what the word “sexsin” (most likely a mistaken understanding of the term “sexual sin”) meant. He mulled upon how to answer for a moment and then asked Corrie to lift the suitcase full of watch parts they had brought. A small girl, she could not lift the case. Her father explained to her that just like the suitcase was too heavy for a young girl to lift, so was the explanation of the word she’d queried him about.
He explained that some things and ideas were meant for adults. This satisfied Carrie and comforted her. Her beloved Papa Ten Boom was forever watching out for her, taking on the burden of adult concepts so she could remain innocent until it was the appropriate time for emotional maturity. This moment of nurturing made such an impression on Corrie that the simple interaction was recounted as a prime example of his overall loving parenting style.
We obviously can’t guard our children from all bad things. It’s not possible to do so. As I said before, my children were indirectly affected by a mass shooting event. The idea we can walk out the door any given day and not make it home is embedded in the sinew of our very beings. Less than two years before Sandy Hook, my four eldest children also experienced the death of their own infant sibling. Tragedy has no preference for its resting place, and my children experienced more than many do.
But the burden of shouldering adult things in an adult world was never meant to be carried by my children, despite their experiences. And when tragedy did come to our home, we didn’t compound it by intentionally plopping them down in front of the TV to watch the funeral coverage of someone they loved. We chose to focus our attention on the good we could be doing in her name.
We also chose not to indulge in our own desires to view newscasts that would have left them unsettled and afraid. Like Papa Ten Boom, we carried the too-heavy messages the world was conveying, allowing our children to remain as innocent as possible for just a little while longer.
Corrie Ten Boom went on to be a member of the Dutch Underground. Her family is estimated to have saved the lives of 800 Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She did not shrink away from hard times as a result of overprotective parenting. Rather, her upbringing engendered resilience.
She interpreted life to be ordered in such a way that even the most difficult decision-making processes were rooted in the goodness that simple childhood lessons had conveyed to her. When faced with evil, she had the tools to discern it clearly and behave accordingly.
The story of Corrie Ten Boom and the too-heavy suitcase is a powerful testimony of just how valuable emotionally protective parenting can be. Far from being unable to manage in an ever-changing world, she had the mental fortitude to rise to the challenges of her time.
Corrie Ten Boom ultimately ended up in a German concentration camp that took the lives of her father and sister. Her family suffered incalculable loss, with one young nephew disappearing into the Nazi prison system, never to be heard from again. After the war she chose to turn her efforts toward reconciliation, providing housing for both concentration camp survivors as well as Dutch who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war.
Her suitcase story is an example: It is not our purpose as parents to turn our young children into adults before their time, but to protect them from the knowledge of things far beyond their cognitive ability to synthesize in any meaningful way. Doing so will help them to rise to the occasion when their lives become difficult – whether they are challenged with personal tragedies or large-scale events in which moral fortitude is in short supply.
Swalwell, like many parents, is (hopefully) doing what he believes to be best for his children and their future. His approach of sharing information that may be troubling, in a controlled environment, is popular among modern parents.
The problem is that parenting styles may change, but the human brain has not – at least in terms of children’s ability to rationalize harsh realities and instability. The brains of young children thrive on continuity and repetition.
Four-year-old little boys need the stability of a world on repeat, where things like shootings in the grocery store are non-existent, the worst thing they can imagine is a broken toy, and mom and dad carry the burden of grown-up events for them as much as possible so they can grow up to trust the world in which they live.