Thursday, June 15, 2017

Talking to Kids About Difficult Things

I have a five year old daughter. As a result, I've spent far more time than I ever expected talking to parents of young children. One of the issues I've run into lately has been the debate over when kids are "ready" to talk about various topics. There's often a sense that the outside world is just waiting to stream into our children's lives and overly complicate things.

That's probably true, although that same danger exists for us, as adults, and every other human being on the planet. The world is a confusing, difficult place for anyone to live in - but maybe that's the whole point? I wonder if perhaps we seek to keep our children "innocent," as we like to say, because we, ourselves, aren't quite comfortable understanding, let alone explaining, complex ideas to them (especially when they have varying levels of ability to understand in the first place).

One of the kids in my daughter's preschool class has two moms. My daughter's never mentioned it; I'm not sure she's even really noticed. I have heard parents, though, lamenting their frustration about having "that" be forced into their child's life when the parents would rather save "that" for a later conversation.

I'm not sure "that" would be my approach to parenting, but I certainly understand where they were coming from. Then I got to thinking. My daughter wasn't even two yet when she could articulate what a princess was and understood that a princess goes with a prince. She still doesn't have even the remotest understanding of what "romance" is, but she knows that moonlight boat rides, evening strolls, and late night magic carpet adventures are the kinds of things that bring two people together.

She doesn't have much capacity to understand attraction, orientation, dating, or marriage, but she has some semblance of knowledge about what a relationship is. She's already been shaped and formed in the language of relationships and we've never had a conversation about it. In light of that, it doesn't really make sense not to bring up complex topics, because life has already done it.

Sure, she's not going to understand, at five, what it means to seek out a spouse, but she's forming the foundation from which she'll make those decisions in the future.

Like my time talking to parents, I've spent far more of my life than I ever expected working with teenagers, both in and out of the Church. The most important lesson I've learned from those experiences is that kids always have more knowledge and exposure to things than their parents ever suspect.

This is why I've always tried to answer every question my daughter has as completely as I possibly can. We've had conversations about death and dying, about homelessness, poverty, and violence. I don't think she understands much, if anything, about those topics other than they exist and they're problematic. Then again, on the way to school this morning she told me, "Dad, if Mimi (her best friend) and I had lived a long time ago, we never would've been friends." When I asked what she meant she said, "A long time ago they didn't let black people and white people live near each other and if we didn't live near each other we wouldn't go to the same school."

Did I mention she's five? Yeah.

We try to avoid talking with our kids about difficult things until we absolutely have to, because we love them and we want them to be blissfully unaware for as long as possible. But they're going to be aware long before we ever know they're aware. I know we think our kids will be different, but my experience tells me that's just not true.

I've long proposed that the most important tool for Christians to practice and possess is creativity. Creativity allows us to think outside the systems and structures we're given and respond differently to the world around us. It's a gospel creativity that lets us cut through the divisive and partisan nature of our world to present the beautiful alternative that is the Kingdom of God.

It's that creativity we must foster in talking to our kids about difficult subjects while also presenting the hope that we have in Christ. It is the middle way, between sheltering our children and leaving them exposed to the world. As parents, we know them best, and it should be our job to introduce them to the already-not yet world in which they live, one full of great sorrow and tremendous grace. I don't believe there's anything we can't say to our kids, so long as we foster this creativity to speak to them in ways that make sense for who and where they are in life.

Avoidance sends a message of fear. Addressing topics, even difficult ones, puts legs to our faith claims that God is in control, that the victory has already been one, that love and peace and hope will win out in the end. Yeah, it's not always simple, but our kids need to know we wrestle beside them and aren't afraid to wade through the mess together.

One of the more difficult things I've done as a parent was also the most rewarding. I sat down with my daughter and read through her (age appropriate) "how does my body work/where do babies come from" book. The most difficult part was reading all of the proper biological terms without pausing or stumbling or otherwise letting on that this was something to be embarrassed about. In the end, she asked a few questions, but we've had to go back every few months and read it again because she could care less about these topics. At least I know, though, when she has questions, there's a foundation to discuss them together.

A few weeks ago my daughter came in crying about something - probably neighborhood kids being mean - whether it was embarrassment, fear, or confusion, she just wouldn't talk about it. I found myself telling her something spontaneously, and, as I was saying it, realizing, deep down, that it was one of the truest things I've ever said. I told her, essentially, there are lots of things you'll do in life, some things I'll like and some things I won't, but the single most important thing to me, as your dad, is that you'll always be able to talk to me.

I mean that. At least I'm working towards that in my own life. If she makes decisions about boys (or girls), drugs or beliefs or money or any number of other things I may not want for her, I'd much rather she do them and talk to me, than avoid them and not. I don't think this is the typical attitude our churches take towards parenting, but I can't imagine any other way to do it.

Listen, I'm under no delusion that we'll always be able to talk to each other about difficult things - she's only five and it already doesn't go as well as I'd like - but I know these early moments, when the stakes are much lower, are great practice for shaping both of us into the kind of people who can have the best possible relationship later.

I'm convinced it starts with telling the truth - all the time. I answer every question as honestly as possible. So far she understands very little of it, but she knows I'm not hiding anything. I want her to ask questions, to know nothing is off limits, that every question is a good one.

As parents, we've got access to a God-given imagination and an incredible creativity to meet our kids where they are. If we do mess something up, we have great faith in a God who reconciles all things and draws all people - young and old - to God's self. Our children don't need to be sheltered; they need to be prepared, not irresponsibly, not beyond what they can understand, but we're the ones who know what's out there and we have to be the ones preparing them to face the world. If they can't count on us before we think they're ready, they won't count on us when we don't know they're ready.

Parenting is the single most difficult thing we'll ever do, but I'm coming to realize, it's not something you do for your kids, it's something you do with them. Good luck and God speed.

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