(I mean, aside from the obvious keep them alive/fed/clothed and try your hardest to get them to Heaven part. Does that go without saying?)
I had someone make the following bold statement to me earlier this year, and it rocked me to my core:
your primary job as parents is to provide and secure the peace in your home.
You know who I thought about when I reflected on that statement? I thought about the dad from “Life is Beautiful.” I thought about his heroic, self-sacrificing and odds-defying performance to erect a brave and shining barrier of innocence over his little boy in the midst of unimaginable horror. As the world literally crumbled around him, his father shielded him as best he could not only from physical harm (and over this realm he had very little control, truly) but perhaps even more critically in their circumstances, from emotional harm.
I feel like we modern parents tend to kind of do the opposite. Whether it’s because many of us were ourselves exposed to pain or danger or brokenness in our family of origin, or because we watched so many of our friends go through hell as kids, many of our generation of parents seem to be questing after some vague sense of authenticity or relatability with their own offspring that is going over, frankly, like a lead balloon.
On the one hand I can understand the earnest desire to be open and honest and reliable with our children, but on the other hand, my kids are going to learn soon enough about the heartache, the danger, and the sin in this world, and it actually isn’t my job to sit them down and tutor them in it.
Because the world is a cruel place. Kids get sick and die. They get abused. Their families fall apart and bombs fall on their cities and their friend’s dads leave their friend’s moms, and vice versa.
But they needn’t know every excruciating detail.
In fact, if and to whatever extent we can possibly spare them the details, I believe it is our sacred duty as parents.
Right now bombs are falling on children the same ages as mine in Aleppo. As Christians, we need to fall on our knees and pray for those affected, and give material aid to reputable organizations (highly recommend the Catholic Near East Welfare Society) who can deliver food and medicine and shelter on the ground. But my kids, at ages 1,3,4, and 6, do not need any details about the tragic circumstances in Syria. They should not be watching the bodycounts scroll by on the news, or listen to me listening to NPR within earshot.
It is essential, in fact, that I shield them from the horror of war and human cruelty as much as possible during their formative years.
Our children will absolutely learn that the world is not a perfect place. That people sin. That people hurt each other. That sometimes kids get hurt, too. But it is critical to their development into healthy, functional human beings that we don’t saddle them with that knowledge prematurely.
When my 6 year old asks why we pray for babies in mommies’ tummies to be safe, that does not open the door for a frank conversation about abortion. If he explicitly asks what abortion is (as has happened before), I deflect and say that sometimes babies get hurt, and that not everybody believes that every human being has the same rights. And then I change the topic.
(I take a similar tack with the sexual curiosity stuff, not because sex is bad in any way! But because it’s not developmentally appropriate for him nor is it necessary that he know the nitty gritty.) Allowing our children to ask questions and answering them in a way that is both honest and honoring of their developmental stage and age is a tricky line, and it’s one I’m learning to walk with some trial and error as the months and years roll by.
I had a little friend of my kids’ come to me earlier this month with a tearful story about another family’s deep pain, their disintegrating home life, and the fear this child felt about the whole situation. As I tried my best to toe the line of appropriateness with a child who is not my own, I reassured this little one that this wasn’t their burden to bear, and encouraged them to give the situation over to Jesus as much as possible and to let the grown ups handle grown up stuff. Because kids have their own work to do that is perfectly suited to being a kid.
I have no idea how effective that was, but my heart ached for the burden this child had been asked to carry, inadvertently or not. There were gruesome and salacious details in the story that could have come from a prime time drama, and this little person’s eyes were filled with tears over it.
This is not okay. And whether our kids are getting it from overhearing us having inappropriate adult conversations within earshot, or by watching programing that is explicitly not suitable for children, or even just hearing an earful from one side of a phone conversation when we think they aren’t paying attention, (they are. Ask me how I know.) we have to be so, so mindful of our duty to them.
Their innocences is our business. And maintaining that innocence requires sacrifices on our parts.
I can’t listen to whatever music I like in the car anymore. Do I still love Dave Matthews Band and Adele? Yep. But I don’t need the 4 year old asking me what does it mean to send your love to your new lover, mommy? just because I couldn’t be bothered to switch on KLove or change the CD during carpool pickup.
I can’t watch shows depicting adult themes and filled with violence and horror when they’re awake. (Should I be watching those shows, period? That’s another post for another day.)
I shouldn’t have sensitive, nuanced conversations about world affairs and politics and war and unrest in earshot of my kindergartener, who has the right to experience the world from a disposition of curiosity and wonder. Soon enough he will know of hatred, bigotry, war, and gruesome suffering. My job is to mold his little heart and soul to be receptive to a good God Who alone can heal those division and redeem that pain. And to ensure, to the best of my ability, that he grows to become an honorable man who will do his part to create beauty and goodness in this world. A child who is robbed of a childhood, who does not have the opportunity to encounter beauty and goodness, is unlikely to grow up to be this kind of adult.
We need to be so careful and so conscientious of their environments. To the best of our abilities. What they’re watching, what they’re reading, whom they’re spending time with and what they’re listening to. And, ahem – looking into the mirror – what kinds of things their parents do or say when they’re stressed, angry, overwhelmed or in pain.
I can just as easily make a chink in their armor with a careless word or an exhausted scream of frustration and anger. And then, when it is I myself who have disturbed the peace in our home, I must kneel down at eye level and humbly ask forgiveness from the little one who depends upon me to keep this space sacred, to keep it safe.
Please hear this: This is in no way an attack on parents whose children have been exposed to violence or inadvertent abuse of any kind. We live in a broken world filled with pain, and the smallest victims are the most tragic. Our little family has not been spared from heartache.
But it is our job as mothers and as fathers to help our children to feel as safe and as secure as possible while they are small. The world outside can wait, and time will ensure that it does not, not for long.
We must take up the mantel of adulthood and respect the profound dignity of the child and the sacred charge that we grown ups have to protect them from evil.
Even if the evil is becoming the norm, all around us.
In our homes, at least, let them feel safe, insulated against the harsh elements in our own little Nazareth, growing and learning and developing all they will need to navigate adulthood. Which will come soon enough.