People often refer to explaining sex to children as ‘the talk.’ Parents fret about having ‘the talk’ with their kids and wonder how young is too young, etc. I’m not worried about talking about sex with my kids. We’ve doled out bits of information as seemed appropriate and taught our kids the proper terms for anatomy for years. In my mind there is no one ‘talk,’ there is a process of adding to my kids’ knowledge over time about their bodies and how bodies work. This doesn’t make me squeamish or nervous. It’s just simple information.
The really hard talk, as far as I’m concerned, is about evil. I
think our true loss of innocence begins not when we learn how
reproduction happens or explaining the connections between sex and love,
but how human beings who look and act and talk just like people we know
are capable of monstrous acts and unpardonable crimes. The world can
be a horrifying place. That’s not a truth I’ve looked forward to
sharing with my children. They see so much beauty it’s tempting to
never draw back that curtain to expose the horrors that exist in our
midst, but not to do so is dangerous at some point. It would leave them
too trusting, too vulnerable, if I let them remain innocent forever.
My children are sensitive. I’ve written about this before,
and how I worry that they will be too fragile if they don’t learn to
accept that bad things happen in the world. But it seems to me that
knowledge of evil comes on a need to know basis, and that need to know
is determined by how much they are in charge of themselves. If I can
adequately protect them from danger then they don’t need to know about
it. But if I send them off into the world without me, they need to be
able to protect themselves.
Aden is nine and a half. She looks older than she is because she is
tall, but emotionally she is a young nine. She has a soft spot in her
heart for animals and she is a deeply sentimental person. Aden is also
capable enough that we’ve started extending her more freedom and
responsibility. We don’t need to walk her down the street to get to her
friend’s house. We’ve been able to leave her in charge of her little
brother for short stretches when we need to. She’s even been able to
go down the two blocks to Target for us to pick up milk when we run
out. It’s exciting to see Aden growing up and becoming a more
independent person, able to maneuver in the world without our guidance
every step of the way. I’m proud of her for that.
But then I read the news about the killing of Leiby Kletzky
last week. I wept at my bench in the violin shop and hoped no
customers would come in. That is the nightmare that makes loving
parents rein their kids in close and not want to let go. That story is
too horrible for words. What are we to do with it? There are no
lessons to be learned from it, aside from the fact that life isn’t fair
and that I will never understand people who can harm children. I think
about that poor little boy and the unspeakable grief his family is
suffering and wish it could be different, but I have no such power. All
I have are tears.
So I did what probably many parents did after reading that story. I
hugged my children and sat them down for a review about never ever ever
getting into a car with a stranger. That people who hurt children
usually seem very nice but it’s a trick. That no trustworthy grown-up
asks children for help finding a puppy or counting kittens in a van. I
told my children if someone makes them nervous they are to run, and be
loud, and to find someone they know. All the rules about being polite
go out the window if something is suspicious. That if anyone ever tells
them to keep a secret from their mom, that’s a warning sign. They can
tell me anything. I am home base. I love them no matter what.
These are hard lessons to teach sometimes, because I don’t want to
scare my children. The odds are that nothing will ever happen to them
just walking around our neighborhood, or running off to Target for
something. But they still need to understand that something could
happen in order to make decent choices and remain out of trouble. The
problem is I don’t want to go into detail about WHY they should avoid
these bad people. I tell them there are people who want to hurt
children and leave it at that.
Or, at least, I did until last week. I ran through the ‘bad people
safety review’ and then the kids went off to play and later we went to
the Y for swimming lessons. Quinn and Mona took swimming this summer,
but Aden chose not to. She just played in the small pool on her own or
with friends until her siblings’ lessons were over. Last week as I sat
in the pool observing Quinn’s class, Aden swam over to me. She cuddled
close and was her cute playful self, and then she said she had a
question. Aden wanted to know if a kidnapper did get her (and she
interrupted herself to assure me that she knew it would never happen,
but still….), what would the kidnapper do to her? What kinds of things
do kidnappers do to children?
I debated in my mind what to say. Do I keep my sweet girl innocent?
Or do I pull back that curtain? That’s not an easy decision to make.
But I decided she needs to know. She needs to be aware of why I get
scared when she isn’t where I expect her to be when we give her a curfew
or if she wanders off on her own in a crowd.
I held her hands and gave her the bare facts of the Leiby Kletzky
story. I did not tell her that the monster who killed him dismembered
the body and dumped it in garbage cans. I said an eight-year-old boy
tried walking home by himself, but that he got lost and asked the wrong
person for help, and that man tricked the boy into coming home with him
and killed him there. Aden’s eyes filled with tears. “He was only
eight?” she asked. I told her it was the scariest story I’d heard in a
long time and that it made me cry, too.
Aden hugged me there in the pool. I told her I didn’t know why some
people are just bad, but she needs to know they are out there so she can
do sensible things to help keep herself safe. Then Aden realized how
upset the whole thing made me, and in typical Aden fashion she decided
to balance things out to make me feel better. She doesn’t want me to be
sad. We read Charlotte’s Web this week for her book club, and when it
made me cry she suggested we take a break.
There in the pool she
managed a smile and asked if I wanted to see her float on her back. I
told her of course I did. Aden floats beautifully.