Last night a mom friend wrote me, asking advice on resources to educate her 3 year old son about war without scaring him too much, but in a way that would head off romanticization of might, violence, and male warriorhood. I sighed. This is a parenting arena in which we have struggled mightily. It seems that no matter what we do our six year old is fascinated by bellicose activities. While it pales in comparison to some of what I see other kids his age doing, it’s still too much.
In the midst of the Trump nightmare, the epidemic of gun violence in America, the neverending spectre of sexual violence, and the ratcheting up of male rage, getting it right seems of monstrous importance.
We are pretty close to being pacifists and there is no violence or intentional shaming in our home. Until recently there were no toy weapons or media exposure to violence, either. Violence is a fact of life and we aren’t trying to pretend otherwise, but the natural world is full enough of life, death, and struggle without adding sensational, romanticized aggression into the mix. Yet our six year old son latches on to even the slightest reference with a vengeance. I thought Bed Knobs and Broomsticks was about a magical flying bed. He only cares about the five minute clip of zombie armor fighting nazis. We’ve read every Magic Treehouse book and what has stuck with him is a powerful fear of and desire to protect our family from nazis and confederate soldiers.
And yet this is an empathetic child who sings songs to the forest and reassures the poison ivy that it, too, deserves love. What drives this obsession with battle and war? It was easy to produce narratives about existential fear, abuse, or excessive media exposure before it was my kid, with none of those factors at play.
I recently had an “aha!” moment that felt ridiculously obvious and earth shattering at the same time. I was extra sensitive because it was the day of the Orlando shootings and he was trying to get his toddler brother to kill big imaginary bad guys with sticks with him. I just couldn’t. I pulled up a photograph of two men embracing, tears streaming down their faces. I showed it to him and told him what happened in Orlando. I didn’t go into detail and I’d never show him violent imagery. But I wanted him to see the human impact of what I felt he was making a game of. His eyes grew wide. He sat quietly for a moment and said “Is it okay if I make some security upgrades to the house? I want to put in some cameras and booby traps to keep us safe.”
He says things in this vein not infrequently. I always deal with it by talking about how safe our world is, how uncommon violence actually is, and how having weapons in your home and behaving aggressively toward possible intruders just makes it more likely that someone will get hurt. He has never been hurt or seen anyone hurt or heard of any people he knows being victims of violence. He is unbelievably privileged.
But this time he said “But these bad things DO happen all the time” and rattled off everything I’ve shared with him over the past few years. It hasn’t been much, but I talked to him about the Charleston killings. That was the first time I ever discussed current events with him and it prompted a thoughtful few weeks reading about slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. He knows that white supremacists–KKK and neo-nazis–tried to kill my parents before I was born. I’m sure there has been more that I don’t remember because it wasn’t as poignant.
I have been careful not to expose him casually to terror, and there is plenty of it no matter what you do. But as the mother of middle class white boys, I also feel this powerful tug to make sure they don’t walk around blind to the world they need to help bring down if we’re gonna make it.
But in that moment I realized that it doesn’t take much to terrify a child. “Much.” When I write down what I’ve told him about, it seems like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the horror I know and absorb every day as a grown up in our society. My six year old is just like the fearful hordes driving Trump’s success. I can only hope that we’ll have given him better tools to cope with his worries by the time he’s of voting age.
His little human brain–that spent thousands of years evolving to kill or run–senses vulnerability and responds by trying to give him tools to reconquer his uncertain and scary world. All his obsession with war and weapons took on a new light. Yes, we need to dismantle that response to fear because this is not the world our human brains evolved for. But no, I don’t need to be scared that somehow I am raising a sociopath. He needs love, safety, and more love and more safety. And reminders of how good people really are. And promises that we will protect him because for six year olds, that’s what parents (should) do.
I felt like an asshole for sharing too much of the world’s ugly, too early. I thought I’d been so careful. But I felt a burden lifted, too. I had started looking at my child and feeling I couldn’t connect because I couldn’t understand his fascination. It’s fear. It’s always been fear. And if we are to be our best as a society we have to remember that even for the grown ones, it’s fear. That’s no excuse for becoming a terrorist–whether to your children, spouse, or everyone else–but to not reproduce these people we have to understand how they came to be.
So this morning my six year old came into the kitchen with tears streaming down his face. He looked at his father.
“Did you tell her?”
My partner had been out in the driveway with the kids and our eldest came over nonchalantly and informed his father he’d touched something that “looked like a slug, but wasn’t.” Pop’s parental instincts went on high alert. We live in the heart of copperhead country and I’ve already killed two babies this year and had two more get away from me. Sure enough, it was a baby copperhead and our son watched as his father killed it with garden loppers. At first he had asked to do the deed himself. He wanted to make us safe. But watching us take its life was too much.
He has been in mourning all day. He vows he will never tell us if he sees another one because he can’t bear the thought if it dying for no reason. When I killed a mother black widow last summer as she sat on her egg sack, we both went through the same sadness. But this time I saw it differently.
This is my small human, seeing something that could kill him and those he loves and feeling great empathy for it because it is alive and also deserves to be here. He buried it beneath a black walnut tree in our yard and made it a gravestone. And I feel hope for humanity.
“Snake died 6-26-2016”