When my son was in kindergarten at a local catholic school, a reading teacher of his stopped me in the hallway to let me know that she thought that I ought to let him watch “older kid shows” on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon instead of letting him watch The Backyardigans or Power Rangers, as he liked to do. I remember keeping my face pretty stoic but being inwardly horrified as I listened to her suggest show after show that, while pretty sanitized (it WAS the Disney channel, after all), still seemed beyond his years.
I kept wondering what the rush was and why he shouldn’t be allowed to be both biologically and emotionally a five-year-old?
The teacher went on to say that other peers in his group were “looking at him funny” because he was talking about what he watched on “those baby shows” instead of being more “mature.” At the time, I remember thinking that she was off her rocker, calling my kindergartener “immature,” and giving me suggestions that I would never follow to “grow him a little.”
Fast forward a few years shy of a decade, and what I see with social-emotional norms in kids has me wondering. Sometimes even doubting myself.
My son is in middle school now, halfway through, and he and his sister (my second child of three) are both very innocent and naïve. It wouldn’t worry me if we were living in different times (like, a hundred years ago), but I’m often shocked by how much sooner children mature than they used to.
I’m going to be “old” for a minute and suggest that the accessibility of technological devices, the use of social media, and mature themes featured in television shows like 13 Reasons Why contribute to the growth of this phenomenon. When kids talk to one another, they are referencing what they see and hear, and there is an inherent pressure that filters through their conversations, communicating that this is what’s cool. If I were a kid, I’d probably bow to that social pressure too. That’s nothing new.
But what IS different seems to be the wildfire pace of how things spread and how there really isn’t any shielding of your child anymore (other than raising them in a desert compound, and that’s probably not too healthy). I know I tried to shield my oldest child from many themes that are being discussed by kids recently, and to my chagrin, he still knew about self-mutilation, suicide, sexting, and what is available on the Darknet.
When he asked the inevitable questions about what these things were, I was a little bit frozen. I’m not going to lie. My mind raced in a million different directions, trying to guess at the outcomes of different pathways and their consequences. Should I be vague? Should I tell him that I’ll let him know when he’s older? What if I tell him too much? I’m always guilty of that last one. Will I scar him? Will I (gulp) “teach” him something he didn’t actually know?
So I went to the good old standby of saying, “Er, why are you asking?” to buy myself time.
And followed that question with more questions: “What do you know about this?” “What have you been told?” “Who else was talking about this?”
That all created a conversation, even if I didn’t like all the answers.
And gradually, it became clear that, like it or not; society IS indeed going to grow my child. This is, again, not new. It’s just new to ME because the shoe is on the other foot now, and I’ve become my mother, and it’s me being shocked that the young ‘uns know what they know about the scary world we live in. That part is, I’m pretty sure, a parenting rite of passage.
I still question whether I did the right thing, trying to keep my children as innocent as possible. Did I do them a disservice, not preparing them for the conversations they would inevitably be exposed to? Did I make them standouts for their naivete, making it harder for them to fit in because they don’t fully understand certain concepts?
In the end, I don’t really regret keeping them young because, let’s face it, childhood is everything that is quicksilver and mercurial anyway. They have that innocence for such a short amount of time. If they get some time within that space where their little minds and hearts don’t have to be cluttered by worry or anxiety about topics beyond their scope, I’m glad for that.
Parenting is very personal, and it is every individual’s choice about how they want to raise their child. An argument can be made for both sides, for both the sheltered and those “in the know.” But in my opinion, kids have been learning all the things parents don’t want to talk about from their friends anyway, probably since humans created societies. The social experience of today is just the sped-up version.
So while I can’t fight the tide (and honestly, it’s a part of life), I’m going to put in a good word for some old-fashioned innocence. A little bit of quiet, safe, emotional space where childhood can still be found. Because before anyone realizes it, those conversations will have to come, and those are certainly and irrefutably a necessity. Those are the moments when we guide our children by the words we say and the ideals we support.
So shoutout to the calm before the storm.