I have a friend who saw a Smokey The Bear “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES” poster when she was a kid and took the emphasis literally. She said she started worrying all the time about forest fires because only SHE could prevent forest fires — it said so on the poster! She’d see a story about a forest fire on the news and cry, “It’s my fault!”
I think about that story a lot these days.
How are parents talking to young children about today, if at all?
— wendy macnaughton (@wendymac) January 7, 2021
How much do we talk to our kids about what’s going on? How much information do you give them, especially about the things they can’t control?
* * *
Last summer, the boys had drawings published in the NYTimes. I loved working on this piece, which was about how powerful making art can be in uncertain times. “Much of the art they make is their way of processing fear and anxiety about the uncontrollable terrors going on outside our house,” I wrote.
A producer at Good Morning America saw the drawings and asked if they could interview the whole family. I said no to having them on camera, but I agreed to a solo interview. We talked for 45 minutes to an hour over Zoom. We covered lots of stuff. I tried to encourage her to think of art as a way of exploring emotion as much as expressing emotion, but she kept asking me, “Aren’t you worried about your kids? Aren’t you disturbed by these drawings?” I finally, almost shouting, said, “No, no, no! I would be more worried about them if they DIDN’T draw.”
Here is the final piece, in which they turned children’s drawing into a tool of emotional surveillance:
Parents should pay extra attention to the way their kids are expressing themselves through art during these challenging times, according to a NYT story. @DebRobertsABC has more on how drawings may be revealing their COVID-19 anxieties. https://t.co/1G5yVu3wzO pic.twitter.com/yl84xrGdWZ
— Good Morning America (@GMA) August 4, 2020
Pro tip: if you want your kids to be less anxious, don’t let them watch an hour of morning news waiting to see their drawings on TV! My boys had never seen TV news, and they couldn’t believe their eyes. “More tornados!” shouted Jules, who eventually left the room before his segment appeared.
The experience shook me, but it was a good lesson.
* * *
When I was reading old issues of John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling newsletter, I came across this piece he wrote in 1979. “Many things in the world around me seem to me ugly, wasteful, foolish, cruel, destructive, and wicked,” he begins. “How much of this should I talk to my children about?”
W.H. Auden, in his essay about Iago in The Dyer’s Hand, makes this life-changing distinction: Instead of asking yourself, “What can I know?” ask yourself, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?”
Our boys (now 5 and 8 — age makes all the difference when you’re talking about “children” or “kids”) don’t do Zoom school and we still don’t watch news on the TV, so they have no idea, really, about what’s going on, other than what we tell them.
And we don’t tell them much.
I realize this is an enormously privileged position to be in.
“I am trying / to sell them the world,” Maggie Smith wrote in her poem, “Good Bones,” but I’m not trying to sell my kids the world, I’m trying to make them a world.
I am trying to give my kids the sanest childhood I can. I am trying to give them an experience of a safe, non-judgmental home, full of love and books and art-making, arranged so that they can spend maximum time doing things like drawing and playing and dreaming.
Because I think a good, healthy childhood is something that can’t be taken away from you. Knowing that you are safe and loved is something you can carry forward, no matter what happens.
My hope is that if my boys know what it is to be loved and cared for, to be accepted and to have agency over their attention and their efforts, they won’t go looking for identity in dumbass facist ideology peddled by pathetic men who have nothing real to contribute to the world.
“It’s easier to be a parent this morning.” pic.twitter.com/zQ00S1gXrw
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) November 7, 2020
They’ll start knowing how insane the world is soon enough. For now, let them play.
And if it all goes bad in the future and they have to fight over a can of beans in an abandoned grocery store, they will remember what life can be like.
That knowledge is important. It’s knowledge that artists give us: They don’t just show us what life is, they show us what it can be.
Parents can be artists, too.