Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Talking about Terrible Things (with young people)

I read this post, "When do we teach our kids about hate," over at VillageQ with interest.  Historical hate is pretty much my bread and butter.  Today I spent a couple hours researching the derivation of an antiquated used racial slur.  And as a teacher, a big part of my job has been introducing students to terrible events in history.

So maybe I should be pro-"teach all the hate and teach it now."  I remember as a little girl growing up in New Hampshire, meeting another little (brown) girl on the beach and playing with her.  She told me that she was afraid of the Ku Klux Klan, who were bad men who would come out of the woods.  I wasn't afraid because that had no meaning for me.  So there's the problem of telling children things that will make them afraid.  In some situations fear can be protective, but if your children aren't in danger, perhaps they can be spared that fear.

But as we teach our children only the fears closest to them, fear becomes an unequal burden.  Some children need to know that when you hear a loud noise you hit the floor, and others don't.  Some children need to hear that "sometimes people don't like people who are different and want to hurt them," while for other children that lesson feels as irrelevant as the Klan was to my eight-year-old self.

The fear issue is a big one, but, for me, I think the larger issue is one of honesty.  I'm all for honesty, but I don't think honesty means telling kids a lot at a young age, rather I think it requires waiting for a pretty high level of emotional and intellectual maturity before discussing really difficult topics.  When we try to explain terrible things to young people who aren't able to comprehend them, our instincts to remove the brutality and despair are so strong that we end up telling a dishonest version.  Or we tell a story that kids can understand in the way that they would understand a horror movie, but not on a deeper level.

I suppose there are people who teach college courses without crying.  I am not one of them.  And I'm not alone.  I've been in a lot of classrooms with crying professors, and I think for many of us that is a deliberate vulnerability among those who teach difficult subjects.  If you can look at the photos from Without Sanctuary, or watch children being deliberately attacked with police dogs without crying maybe you're not fully understanding that this is what real people chose to do to other real people.  That's a devastating lesson.  It may never be fully understandable, but to even begin to comprehend requires some time on this earth.

And having said that, sometimes life catches us and we have to have conversations our kids aren't ready for.  I can understand why a black parent in Chicago in 1955 would send her child to view the body of Emmett Till.  The horror of that viewing was burned into the minds of a generation, and they turned it into action.  I'm more likely to have to explain to LB why there are small children holding "God hates fags!" signs.  Hopefully by the time she can read I'll have a better answer than "haters gonna hate."

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