There are some pretty terrible things that happen across the planet. The older you get, the more you learn about and the less impact that they start to have. Murders, kidnappings, terrorism, and so many other fear-inducing things go on in my world.
Unfortunately, they also go on in my kids’ world.
Yet, it’s hard to believe that. After all, their worlds don’t have fear and hate on the front page. They have the Wiggles and Barbie Dreamhouses. It all still happens around them. They just have no idea. Spend an afternoon playing Lego with your eight year old and you’re less likely to think about the impending Armageddon they’re promising on the news.
It would be great to keep it that way. While we wish we could shield them forever, there are certain realities that our children need to be a part of. It’s those talks that can be the hardest. You don’t want to hand them a life of naivety by withholding “scary” information they’ll eventually learn all wrong from some middle school delinquent. You also don’t want to find yourself with a ten year old who’s obsessed with death and destruction over Disney and Dora. It’s a thin line to walk.
Sometimes you get pulled into that responsibility though. When my daughter Olivia was around five, my wife took her for Italian ices. When they came home, she told me that while waiting for her order, a guy in his twenties who worked next door, came in and told Olivia, who was standing a few feet away, that he would try to win her a toy in the crane game. He put some money in and my daughter cheered him on as he tried to do just that. It definitely wasn’t good. If this was some sort of a hidden camera test on Dateline, we failed it.
Of course, hearing this story, my immediate instinct was to run down to the ices shop and start throwing tables around. I imagined the whole insane scenario with me standing on the counter and fighting a team of ninjas. My imagination usually pulls me to a place that involves me fighting large groups of people at once. It literally never happens in real life.
Then I realized that whole scene would probably end with the guy going, “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.” After all, what he did was inappropriate and set off red flags, but it wasn’t really ninja worthy. If anything, it was my kid’s fault for not saying “no thank you” and walking away.
That night, as I was tucking her into bed, I decided to tell Olivia about a fact of life we hadn’t really addressed.
Hey, Mommy said that there was some guy who offered to win you a present at the Ices place.
You know why that’s not good, right? You don’t take presents from strangers or ever go anywhere with people you don’t know or that we didn’t tell you to. It’s dangerous.
Yeah, but it’s important. Sometimes there are bad grownups who might take kids and keep them. Then we wouldn’t see you anymore. Most people are very nice, but there are some real bad people in the world.
So you won’t do that again, right?
I should have left it there. Instead, I added this line:
It’s important. It happens a lot.
To this, she sprung up in her bed and looked me in the face with shock.
It happens A LOT?!
I realized I had oversold it.
Well, not a lot. But enough. Even if it happens once, that’s still too much, right?
She settled back into bed and nodded.
On paper, discussions like this don’t seem very hard, but it’s an entirely different story in practice. Teaching your children about the terrible side of the world flies in the face of everything that seems natural. Day to day, we strive to teach them beauty. So it can be jarring to show them the flipside.
It’s easy to imagine showing your infant bubbles and rainbows. That part comes naturally. No one looks at their baby and thinks, “I can’t wait to teach him all about kidnappers, predators, and September 11th.”
That’s where we earn our parental pay. Whether a mom, dad, or caregiver, it’s one of those moments that separates those who romanticize having children with those who see the big picture. I would say that discussions like these rank up there with changing diapers and late night feedings, but they don’t. Diapers and feedings can be outsourced to a nanny or a babysitter. Teaching them about the sometimes-harsh world around them is a job that only a parent should do.
What makes talks like these hardest is seeing the innocence drain from their faces as they listen. You find yourself saying things like “this is important” and “now don’t forget”. You can feel your voice getting deeper and more solemn as their expression changes to intense focus. The seriousness of the conversation can be felt in the air and the words you say will stay with them forever.
Life is about the good and the bad. If you only prepare your child for one portion of it, you’re not giving them the full picture. These hard conversations are just like parenting itself. They’re far from easy, but incredibly important.
You can lament about days gone by and how you wish the world was different all you want. After you do that, though, you have to remember that this is the world we all live in – your children included. It’s our job to show them that they can make it anything they want it to be while making sure they know what it already is.