The other night I was reading The Dark by Lemony Snickett to our Offspring. We bought it a couple of years ago for First Offspring, in the hopes that reading it might help conquer his fear of the dark. (It didn’t.) It’s really not a scary book, even though parts of it do seem a bit scary to me. I have a sense of foreboding when I read it, but I don’t think that’s the book’s fault. I think it’s my own experiences with films and books which leads me to think that something bad is going to happen (even when I’ve read the book before and know that everything is going to be fine. It’s a children’s book, after all).
In any case, I don’t read it in a scary voice, and I asked, when we got to the part when the boy stands at the top of the stairs, and looks down into the dark, ‘Do you think it’s scary?’ to Second, Third and Fourth Offspring. ‘No,’ they replied, shrugging off the very idea.
So. Just me, then.
I wondered, afterwards, if it were perhaps one of those times when I’m projecting. I remember very clearly what it was like to be afraid of the dark. I made up a whole lot of rules to ensure that the monsters couldn’t get me, deciding that if I were touching water or any kind of fabric, I was safe. I’d make sure I kept one foot on the bathmat before stepping into the bath so I was covered. So I like to think I can empathise with what our Offspring are worried about, whether it’s the dark, or being teased at school, or any number of concerns they might have. After all, I was once a child, too.
But do I really remember exactly what it’s like? It’s obvious that children have different expectations of books, films, and everyday interactions, compared to those of adults. I think we dismiss too easily our cynicism as adults, and don’t appreciate that even though we can perhaps remember a lot of what we experienced as children, we can’t view it in that context anymore. We look back with the benefit (or not!) of many years of learning about social cues, cultural connections, and a great deal of emotional maturity.
Children jump to all kinds of conclusions. I’m not saying they’re stupid. In fact, they’re often very perceptive, especially given their lack of attention to some of the more pesky social norms. They’ll tell you outright if they think you’re fat, if your skin is too dark/too light/particularly wrinkled or pimply. They’ll say what they really think, and will then be surprised if it’s not an appropriate response! And they take so much of what they see to heart, which is one reason why I think it’s important to shield them from some of more violent or upsetting occurrences. Our Offspring, for example, don’t watch the news. At this stage, most of what’s there isn’t really relevant to their daily lives, and what is, we tell them. So I suppose we’re making an assumption about what is best for them–we’re their parents, so that’s kind of our job. We know what affects them, and what they can cope with. Most of the news has so much other context which is complicated and difficult to explain, that it’s only in a couple of years from now, that I think it will be something the older ones can grasp.
However, I think that there’s lots of times when the ‘what is best for the children’ argument is used to further another agenda. It’s not really about the children, it’s about using that line to appear unprejudiced. There have been a couple of times over the past week when this has come to mind. The first incidence was the reaction to a Campbell’s Soup commercial. In the ad, two men feed soup to their son, while quoting lines from a Star Wars movie. One only needs to read through the comments (but I recommend against it) to just see how much controversy this has stirred up. What, a gay couple isn’t allowed to feed soup to their child?
Then later in the week, I happened across a lovely blog and found a post which had been written a few months ago. In it, the writer describes how she stood up in a crowded room to speak up against the concept of ‘an ideal family’, which includes a mother and father. And it brought me to tears, because of the courage involved, and because it really highlights how we accept this ridiculous notion that there is any one kind of ‘real’ or ‘ideal’ family. We accept it because we don’t speak up when other families are disparaged.
What is most tragic about this is the effect it has on those families. Parenting is difficult! There are moments, everyday, when I think ‘geez, this is hard work.’ And I’m in a family which is, according to my culture, ‘normal’. My family is like the ones on the television or in magazines. Sure, there’s one or two more children than those poster-families, but in all other areas (our skin colour, our sexuality, the language we speak) we see ourselves reflected in the media we consume. Not only do other kinds of families–single parents, families of colour, different cultures, different sexual or gender identities–not see themselves reflected, but they’re actively denigrated. Single parents are told they’re failing their children; gay parents are told that their decision to have children is akin to abuse.
Just imagine, how hard it is to do your best as a parent, if you’re constantly being told you don’t deserve to even try. Why would we do that? Why would we do that–in the name of wanting the best for children?
When people make claims about what kinds of games children should be playing or books they should be reading, or in which kinds of families they should belong, I don’t think they’re really thinking about the children. I think they’re thinking about themselves. Because children don’t understand those complexities, but they do understand feeling safe, and feeling loved. How can anyone claim that parents who don’t fit into the narrow little box of the perfect parent stereotype are going to be dangerous to their children? The claim is completely without substance, and so they argue that families which fall out of these narrow parameters are unhealthy for children. When what’s really happening is that they’re making it even harder for those families, who just want to do the right thing by their children–namely, love them and provide a safe and healthy environment for them.
Attacking parents because of their sexuality or their relationship status doesn’t help the children. It just means they and their parents have to deal with prejudice, judgement, and a lack of acceptance and tolerance, along with all the other daily challenges of life in general.
Way to think of the children.