I read a Curious George book to my children a few weeks ago. It was a library copy – one of the very old ones, wrapped in protective plastic with decades-old, handwritten due dates inside the front cover.
The story was typical H. A. Rey fare. The man with the yellow hat was exasperatingly clueless while George was up to no good with a family of ducks in the park. Gosh, we love that little monkey.
Suddenly, though, in the midst of the mischief, I noticed something: People were smoking.
There, on the pages of a children’s book, mothers and children picnicked on checkered blankets in the park while their fathers sat casually beside them,smoking cigarettes.
I don’t know how much time you spend browsing through the pages of children’s books, but I have put in enough hours to tell you this: Smoking is unheard of. Grownups do not smoke in the presence of children or monkeys. Not ever. That would be setting a bad example.
And yet here sat these vintage daddies, puffing contentedly away on their illustrated cigarettes, while women, children, and monkeys stood idly by.
I was enchanted.
Not because I’m a fan of smoking, mind you. In fact, a good way to fall fast out of my good graces is to light up a cigarette in the presence of my kids. And I have promised each of my children a good old-fashioned throttling if ever one of them dares to start such a nasty habit.
But I was enchanted nonetheless. Because men smoking in children’s books flies in the face of the modern day epidemic I would describe as “sanitized childhood.”
We’ve given our kids’ childhoods a power washing. We filter and sanitize their worlds and experiences in a way that past generations never thought to do.
Did you know, for example, that you can buy DVD copies of the original episodes ofSesame Street, but that they come with a disclaimer?
“These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups,” the insert says, “and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”
I think it would be far more accurate to say that classic Sesame Street episodes where Oscar the Grouch is truly grouchy, where children ride bicycles without helmets, and where Cookie Monster overindulges in saturated fats, may not suit the needs of today’s parents of preschoolers.
The needs of today’s preschool child are really not very different from those of children of previous generations. When we sanitize childhood, though, we run the risk of neglecting some of these needs. Here are three basic ones I think get lost in the “sanitation”:
A child needs to get dirty.
Dirt makes mothers nervous. We worry about germs and laundry. When our children venture outdoors, we cover them with protective gear and stand ready at the door with a box of disinfecting wipes and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
But a child learns and grows when he touches, hears, tastes, sees, and smells the real world. A child has a basic need to connect with the grass, air, trees – and yes, dirt. We need to break them out of their carpet and linoleum prisons and set them free. Whatever they get into out there can be cleaned up at the end of the day with a warm bath before bed.
A child needs to fail.
Parental fear of failure is the reason things like sports try-outs, monkey bars at the playground, and academic competition have been sanitized from many of our children’s experiences.
It is by experiencing failure, though, that a child can come to know himself – his strengths and weaknesses. If we protect them from failure, if we tell them “Good job!” regardless of their performance, how can they ever aspire to improve? It is when we allow them to fail that our children learn the consequences of good and bad behavior and appreciate the value of hard work.
A child needs to know the truth.
Sometimes the truth is ugly. While we don’t want to fill our kids’ heads with nastiness, we aren’t doing them any favors either when we fail to acknowledge real-life human weakness. Kids suffer when there is a disconnect between the real world as they experience it and the sanitized version we try to feed them.
In those early episodes of Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch’s personality had a nasty edge that has been considerably softened in recent years. But don’t we all know someone like the original Oscar? He’s real.
It gets even more serious when we sanitize painful truths about sin and divorce that can directly affect our children’s lives. When we are tempted to sanitize the truth for our kids, we should ask ourselves: Is it real? Is it true? If so, then even if it’s ugly, our kids have a right to our acknowledgement of it in an age-appropriate way.
As we parents are slathering our kids with sunscreen and adjusting their elbow pads in preparation for sending them out into the world, we need to remember that our children belong to God first. We can never fully control their experiences.
In the end, the best gift and the most priceless protection we can offer them is to be a channel through which they receive God’s love – unchanging and real.
(This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.)