Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rules of Engagement

A friend of mine recently posted a photograph of her 15 year old son sitting at the table reading the newspaper. In the caption she expressed pride at seeing her son as an "engaged citizen". As my own 15 year old had recently requested a subscription to the paper in order to read it on the school bus (we've gone green and stopped buying the "paper" version), I silently affirmed my own efforts at raising my child's awareness of the world around him. Engaged, interested, aware and informed, maybe there was a chance he would actually do his part where he felt it might count.  In response to my friend's photograph I commented that this generation was now taking the reins. Wasn't this about all we could hope for? 

With so much senseless violence and tragedy in the world it has always seemed questionable to give children access to the news.  How many times have I asked my husband to turn down the volume on the evening bulletin (to which he is professionally addicted) or actually thrown myself in front of the screen when a particularly disturbing item is broadcast? But despite my efforts, the world has a way of working itself in and asserting itself. It will be heard and seen and known.  

I stopped shielding my children from frightening pictures somewhere around the time they passed into their teens. The reality is that the world is very frightening; that things happen; that it isn't all one big fairy tale. In fact, any effort I have made to protect them has been continually thwarted by local tragedies including several fatal accidents and bouts of illness, resulting in the passing of several mothers, fathers, a loving coach and even a classmate. Despite the picture perfect reality of the "bubble" community in which we live, with not one traffic light and no poverty, my children know that "stuff happens" and have had to deal with situations of great sadness--all at a very young age. 

Recently we hosted a 7 year old cousin. This little boy was thrilled when offered the chance to watch his 14 year old cousin (my son) play a computer game. His mother looked at me with concern as he ran towards Daniel's bedroom and I, jokingly, guaranteed her there would be no blood; well, virtually no blood or rather, only virtual blood. This prompted a discussion about whether parents needed, or even should, shield their children from the ugly and violent aspects of life. While the bar for a 7 year old is not the same as a 14 year old, I professed the view that it was not healthy to pretend that the world was entirely rosy. Furthermore, teaching children the difference between the worlds they could manipulate and control within the screen, and the one they had absolutely no control of outside of the screen, was equally valuable. Finally, I admitted that although I had unwittingly bought my elder son a totally inappropriate computer game many years ago (namely: Grand Theft Auto), I'd since seen no specific signs of latent violence or vulgarity.

There is no question that the wealth of information available to this generation through access to the media can be daunting. But isn't our job as parents to educate our children to make the right decisions regarding what they do look at and what they don't? I don't believe that children seek imagery which they find too difficult to handle. Many years ago a child at school passed a pornographic website to my fourth grade son. When I discovered what had happened and asked him to tell me about it, he professed that after one cursory glance he had closed the "window". He had found it frightening and didn't want to see more. And one year ago, while watching a PG movie with a light kissing scene, my daughter tightly squeezed her fists over her eyes and turned completely around on the couch. She wasn't ready.

An open discussion in the New York Times this week focused on the extremely controversial parenting methods of Yale Law Professor Anne Chua. As noted in the Wall Street Journal excerpt of her new book, Chua ascribes to a draconic method of totalitarian parenting which she attributes to, and defends by, her Chinese background. Without going into the many concerns I have with her mothering techniques, some of which I find appalling and some of which I envy, I take major issue with the manner in which she purposefully denies her daughters access to the world.  This is expressed in her no media policy (absolutely no television or internet) and by forbidding them to attend sleepovers (because we all know what goes on there!)  Contributing to the discussion in the Times, novelist Karen Karbo commented that the prohibition of all access to media noted in Chua's methods "presumes that we can prevent our kids from hurt, harm and disappointment. It's a fantasy of control and protection in times that seem out of control and scary."

Since we can't entirely protect our children from the evils of life, perhaps it's our duty to expose them to them in a calculated way, including being there to discuss their reactions. I still remember sitting with my six year old son watching the twin towers fall again and again and again. This was history. This was shocking. This was as almost as evil as it gets. But he was going to hear about it anyway, and everywhere. I felt comfortable being the one to try to explain the unexplainable and more importantly, convey both my opinion of hate and my methods of coping.

While to be honest we know nothing regarding whether or not Professor Chua censors her children's exposure to world events, her methods definitely indicate that she finds them a distraction. And yes, what happens around us can upset or thrill us enough to pull us off our game--but that is very much what life is about. Maybe in an ideal world we could shut out much of the bad, but I think it's preferable to learn how to handle it. Violent and troublesome imagery has, for centuries, reigned supreme within officially sponsored works of art. Bloody wars have been documented in the name of memorializing the men lost while glorifying kingdoms; the vicious acts of the Greek gods have been depicted in the name of enlightening us to the potential for evil provoked by petty jealousy that lurks within all creatures, great and small; and imagery of natural disasters, wherein innocents have lost their lives, including devastating floods from biblical times, has been considered educational, exemplifying man's helplessness in the face of nature.

The tragic death of nine year old Christina Taylor Green in Tucson last week made it crushingly clear that evil will have its day. Here was a young person who wanted to be part of the world around her; to engage. This effort ended in the loss of life; and in this case the loss of a child who had been born on the day of one of the greatest evils of our generation: 09/11/2001. Yet our sadness at her passing will forever be accompanied by our communal pride in her desire to be a part of the greater world. If we don't allow our children the chance to step out of their boxes, to look around at what's happening to other people in other places, what chance do they have to actually appreciate what they have? Engagement is simply part of what living is all about.

A few days ago my younger son, the one who had potentially "corrupted" our 7 year old cousin by exposing him to his very own "World of Warcraft" (so terrifyingly named), mentioned pictures of flooding and destruction he'd seen in the newspaper his brother had handed over to him on the bus. This prompted a discussion about global warming and the dangers of something as seemingly simple, and much prayed for here in Israel, as a heavy rain. Together we sat before the computer screen and looked at both photographs and video footage documenting what happened in Australia just a day earlier. Maybe spoon-feeding our children bits and pieces of what goes on outside our sunny paradises, helping them to take a good healthy peek at the media, is the best way to keep this next generation in the loop--but not overwhelmed. In a world where the evil witch sometimes manages to wreck havoc upon our fairy tale lives there is much sense in the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.   


  1. I really think when we open ourselves to the world with our children we get to help them sort through the terrible & also recognize the joy. To shield them isn't a service: how else can we train their eyes & their hearts & their minds? Wonderful musings here!

  2. Lets face it, we are not equiped to deal with this new world. This world has so much information and possibilities that we can't understandor manage. Just think of your cellphone and your ability to use all of it has to offer.
    Rhere is only one way to continue living, face the the fact this is what we have and try to enjoy the ride.

  3. Pop of all Pops: It was Wordsworth who titled a marvelous poem "The World is Too Much With Us". That was true two centuries ago, and is vastly truer today. You can't keep it out so you might as well deal with it.