Open the door

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?

Stephen Sondheim

If you ask the parents you know, would you rather have a few moments of discomfort or have your child feel pain, I guarantee the overwhelming majority of them would take the discomfort on themselves.

There’s an curious dichotomy going on in our country.  In some ways it seems childhood is shorter.  Our kids seem more adult than we were at their ages.  How many times have you heard someone express shock over what a thirteen year old is wearing, or a provocative photo on a tween’s Facebook page? They’re exposed to things on the internet that we couldn’t have imagined.  They seem more worldly than we were.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn

On the other hand, our kids are so much more sheltered in a lot of ways.  I know I sound like the proverbial grouchy old man- Why, in MY DAY… up hill, both ways…IN THE SNOW, WHIPPERSNAPPERS!  

Some of my fondest memories of being a kid were the summer days when my younger sister, our best friend, and I would run wild.  Like HOOLIGANS. We would take off on our bikes first thing in the morning, go into the woods, to the pond, to the cranberry bogs- and explore, and make believe, and wander and wonder.  We’d come home at dinner time, filthy and exhausted.  After dinner- back outside to play kick the can or flashlight tag, until well after dark.

My kids never had that experience, sadly.  And I know full well that I say that from the absolute cheapest of seats.  That I would be singing a very different tune if anything tragic had ever happened.  I feel sick with awareness of that as I type this.

Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen

Some interesting conversations have been sparked by recent events in the news.  Parents being arrested or investigated by CPS for letting their child play alone at a park, or walking home by themselves.  Parents who view this as neglect, versus parents who come down on the side of allowing their kids more freedom. (side note, Good Lord, can we stop all of the versus-ing??)

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free

I think our generation of parents struggles with finding that balance between caution and fear.

Our parents were likely not worried enough, and we probably worry too much. Part of that’s to do with the advent of 24 hour news and the internet.  We seemingly hear about every bad thing that happens everywhere.  I think it makes us parent from a place of fear. Terror, really.  We fear the loner lurking in the park.  We warn our children about strangers, when statistics tell us that most crimes against children are committed by people they already know.

Even, unimaginably, by family.

Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. On that beautiful Tuesday morning, I was sitting with my little daughter on the floor of our Massachusetts apartment.  She was playing with Mega-Bloks, I was watching the Today Show. Matt Lauer was interviewing a man who’d written a book.  I want to say it was about Howard Hughes.  Then the expression on his face flickered, as someone told him in his ear that a plane had hit one of the towers.

It wasn’t until the second plane tore through the impossibly blue sky and hit the other tower that we knew we were under attack.

That was when my brain and heart began doing battle.  I wanted everyone I loved under my roof, immediately.  I frantically called my husband, my sisters, my mother.  I wanted my little boy, who was at school, HOME.

And I desperately, viscerally, feared the moment he would step off that school bus.

As much as I wanted to see him, and hold him, and know he was safe, I dreaded the conversation.

I knew we would have to give him some version of what had happened.  Some stripped down, simplified version- because he would find out anyway, and we needed to arm him to be able to deal with it.  But I DID NOT WANT TO.  I knew that, on some level, it would change his child’s eye view of the world in which he lived.

It was the same thing when it came time to have a talk with my kids about good touch/bad touch.  Stranger danger.

We say we’d rather feel the discomfort, and we mean it- but there are some conversations that are just hard, or awkward and embarrassing- so we avoid them.

It’s one thing to caution your child about their interactions with strangers, it’s quite another to introduce the notion that they could be harmed by someone they know. The thing is, your child can’t defend themselves against an evil they don’t know exists. How do you give your children enough information that they are equipped to handle themselves in the world, but not so much they are terrified?  Especially when you are terrified?

Despite what happened to me, I didn’t want my kids to know the evils that exist in the world. It felt like I was robbing them of a piece of their childhood just by introducing the concept.  There was the moment before they knew, and then the moment after.  And a seismic shift in innocence between the two.

How do you say to a child who’s in flight
“Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight”
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won’t be misunderstood.

I think we need to do a better job of respecting one another’s parenting styles and judgment.  I think you need to know your own child, know your environment and then make the best, most informed, well intentioned decisions that you can.

What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in it’s head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too

I wish I’d been brave enough to have more of the uncomfortable conversations with my kids.  I wish I’d let them have a few more adventures.  I know why I didn’t, and I know I need to let it go.  I did the best job that I could.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful you do them too
Children will see
And learn

That conversation I was afraid to have with my son on 9/11?  The one I was afraid would change the way he saw the world?  I was right.  It did.  And that is something to be mourned.  BUT.  After that talk we had with him, when he had questions or concerns about what was going on, he could COME to us.  Because we’d opened the door.  We didn’t tell him every awful detail.  We told him what he needed to know.  And that leaves the door ajar, just enough.

“Baby.  If ANYONE, and I mean ANYONE, ever touches you, or asks you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or scared, or icky, or unsure- you come to me- no matter what they say.  If someone tells you not to tell me something, they are not your friend.  You TELL ME.  You tell me, and I will believe you, NO MATTER WHAT.  I will protect you, NO MATTER WHAT.”

ANYONE.  The conversation can’t just be about strangers.  ANYONE.  The song running through this essay is from Into the Woods, my favorite musical.  There’s another song that works here, too.  Little Red Riding Hood is reflecting on her time with the Wolf.

“And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting, NICE is different than GOOD.”

Maybe start there.  By explaining the difference between nice and good.  And there is a BIG difference.

We are mostly all doing the very best job we can, and knowing that, it seems as though we could all cut one another a little slack.  Extend a little more grace.  Have the uncomfortable conversation.  Try to prepare them for the world that is, but then, moms and dads?  Exhale.  Just a little.

Guide them, but step away
Children will glisten
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”

8 Comments on “Open the door

  1. such an important and touchy subject. I have been seeing a lot of conversation in my newsfeed about how to talk to kids about consent. I think that conversation is two fold; it teaches children to respect other people when it comes to touch and it also teaches them to understand that they have the power of consent and to understand that consent is given under very specific circumstances. It is a bigger conversation than just consent – golly it’s stomach churning to consider that a child needs to have the wit to identify when they are being coerced into something by an adult. I do not have kids and may not ever have kids. It would be nice but oh my… Hats off to the parents of today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YES! thank you for shining a light for parents and littles who deserve to know the true profile of “the boogie man.” i think it’s quite possible this post is going to save some children from harm, and what is more important than that? this is a beautiful mission you are on, laura.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing about this. I agree with you that the conversations must be had. When my daughter was a teenager, she came into contact with a man who would have abused her if she hadn’t stood up for herself. Others in her peer group didn’t, and it nearly killed me when I found out that he’d been under our noses for months without us being aware of who he really was. I also felt so grateful that I’d had those hard conversations about the world with my child. I like to think that her awareness of the danger gave her the courage to say no.


    • I am so glad it worked out that way for her. I do think it is important to note, though, that many children who say no are are still abused. I said no. These conversations- and I am so glad you had them with her, good job, mama!- are not a failsafe against abuse, but they are the best tool we have.

      Liked by 1 person

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