Being a parent is like riding shotgun in a car with no suspension. Your child is driving, learning as they go, and you feel EVERY bump. It’s a bumper car ride full of pride and anxiety. You love to see them grow. Your heart bursts with every achievement and yet you worry about every bend and scrape on their path. You live through every one of their joys and yet you also feel every hurt and betrayal as if it’s your own.
From a young age our oldest song had a deep love of theatre. When we moved to America he landed the lead role in his school production of Honk, the story of the Ugly Duckling. We weren’t prepared for what happened. In his opening scene he leapt out of a giant egg and shouted “Honk” with such charisma that our jaws dropped. It was like he burst out of his own shell and announced his potential. We all looked at each other and said, “Wow”! His talent and commanding stage presence was immediately obvious to everyone.
Like all teenagers, even the supremely talented ones, maybe especially the talented ones, there are ups and downs. As they play with the masks of self identity, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on egg shells with teenagers. But you wouldn’t change a minute of it even if you could.
Since his opening quack, our son has gone from strength to strength and completed the lead role in his High School production of Phantom of the Opera. Pride doesn’t even come close to describing the experience of seeing your own flesh and blood come of age and deliver a performance with such power and presence that it sends shivers right through your body. The parent’s body doesn’t have a suspension system strong enough to withstand the emotion of seeing your child play a role with so much angst and pain. To see him pour himself into the role, and then see his character end up betrayed and alone was heart wrenching. It’s likely a parable for the real life roller coaster of being a child, and a parent.
As a parent, you want to say what Atticus Finch told Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird,
There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.
You swing between a desire to protect your children, and on the other hand you know that you have to let them learn through their own life experience. You hope you teach them something. Above all, you learn FROM them. You learn about your own pressure points and unresolved pain. Kenneth Patton said,
Nothing is strange to the child for whom everything is new. Where all things are new nothing is novel. The child does not yet know what belongs and what does not; therefore for him all things belong. The ear of the child is open to all music. [Her] eyes are open to all arts. His mind open to all tongues. [Her] being is open to all manners. In the child’s country there are no foreigners.
Here are four specific qualities that we can learn from children.
1. Curiosity. It is so much easier for kids to learn a language or a musical instrument. Their minds are open and ready to receive knowledge. WHY is one of the most sacred words ever uttered and kids use it well and often. They push you to the edge of your understanding and then ask WHY again. There is always more to learn and kids have an insatiable curiosity to move into the unknown. Whys make you wise. We would ALL do well to ask why more often.
2. Imagination. A kindergarten teacher asked the class to draw anything they wanted. Then she walked around looking at each child’s drawing. She stopped and asked one kid what she was drawing. She said “God.” The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The kid said, “They will in a minute.” Imagination is the beginning of knowledge, the platform for vision, a preview of what we are about to discover. It requires a playful, child like openness.
3. Presence. Kids feel things so deeply. Whether its joy or pain, they are right there with the experience. As a child, it can be all consuming. The world can end, and new worlds open up, all within minutes. Presence leads to the sort of raw excitement that kids know so well. They want to stay up as late as they can, and jump out of bed at the first sign of light. Life is an exciting adventure.
4. Acceptance. In the innocent world of a child, trust is a given, that is until it’s broken. They start from a place of generous trust and forgiveness. Then they feel devastated when trust is broken.
All these qualities are based in trust. Kids exude trust. Their trust is a gift that society should hold with care. We should learn from them, and build greater trust into our lives. But we also need to teach kids, and learn ourselves, how to balance trust with wisdom. Mature trust has boundaries and wisdom. Sex abuse scandals like the recent horrors at Penn State have reminded us that not all adults are trustworthy. When Jerry Sandusky was interviewed about starting his Second Mile program for children, the program where he allegedly groomed multiple boys for abuse, he said the program was about building trust. How tragically ironic!
What is reported to have happened is unthinkable to most of us. The problem is that Penn State is only one, recent, public instance of a massive, widespread problem. Conservative estimates suggest that 1 in every 3 girls are molested before the age of 18 and 1 of every 5 boys. On the other side of the problem, one in 20 teenage boys and adult men sexually abuse children. If you put these numbers together, a massive number of people have either been abused or an abuser.
How do we encourage kids to trust their intuition, to live with wide eyed innocence without leaving them open to the pathology and abuse of sick adults? How do we teach them to put boundaries on their trust? How do those who have been abused, heal and move on? How do we rid institutions like the church and college football cultures of this disgusting abuse of power? How do we learn to see the signs of abuse and what is the best way to act on what we see? How do we forgive ourselves when we see the signs and fail to act? Is the good that some of these people have done cancelled out by their acts of abuse? These are some of the questions I address in this series on protecting children.
If we can come to terms with some or all of these questions, we can create some meaning out of the madness. We owe it to all children to make sure they are safe to be kids and learn about self identity, healthy boundaries, and wise innocence in their own, gradual way.
We owe it to each other to keep believing that we can create positive change. As Helen Keller said,
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of overcoming it.