Can you think back to a time when you were a kid and something totally freaked you out? I’m specifically talking about a thing that wasn’t necessarily going to harm you, but that captivated your imagination in a way that sparked fear.
A movie? A clown? A bug? A theme park ride?
I can. I can remember in exact detail a scene from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves that stole a part of my innocence. I can remember details, like the friends we were with and the general area inside the movie theater where we were sitting. As an adult, I can think about that scene rationally, “sure it was a little graphic and gross”. But as a child, I was undone. I would lay in bed and think about it. It brought fear into my mind. A piece of my innocence had been replaced by fear...”what if that happened to me?”
More recently, we figured out that our seven year old was experiencing bad dreams due to a harmless iPad game. A game that was in no way scary at all, definitely not as traumatic as my movie scene, but somehow, his subconscious had taken him somewhere he was never intended to go.
It all made me think about how little we know about our children’s brains. We know some things, but the world is changing so fast that there’s no possible way to know for sure the effects of each individual piece of our modern and developing culture on our children up front. Plus each individual kid is remarkably different. But here’s one thing that we do know…
Researchers at Yale “found that stress reduces the volume of grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control. So experiencing stress actually makes it more difficult to deal with future stress because it diminishes your ability to take control of the situation, manage your stress and keep things from getting out of control.” (1) (emphasis mine)
Did you read that!?
- Stress changes our brains, specifically gray matter.
- Stress hinders our ability to develop self-control.
- Stress prevents us from learning coping techniques for later.
Can you think of anything more stressful for a child than to be afraid? To lack a safe place? To know and understand and fear things bigger than they should?
In pediatric medicine, we have a phrase that “children are not small adults”. You can’t treat them the same way, with just a little bit less. Their organ systems are smaller, less developed, but functioning differently. Their metabolisms and their hormone levels are drastically different. Their brain connections are less complex, yet rapidly forming new pathways. Every single system, from their bones to their hearts to their intestines must be treated in line with pediatric protocols.
Children are not small adults.
Not physically. And not emotionally.
We can’t expect them to be.
We can’t carelessly throw the darkness of the world into their hands, even in small amounts, and expect them to be able to process, deal and cope. If we do, I’m afraid we’ll see a manifestation of what the Yale researchers found. A new generation of humans who were overexposed to stressors as children who have underdeveloped coping skills and lack awareness and self-control.
But we also can’t raise our kids in a silo. We can’t protect them from everything bad that’s ever happened. Nor should we. I love this quote…
“Although we over-involve ourselves to protect our kids, and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news “kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me.” -Julie Lythcott-Haims
So there’s obviously a balance, but what do we do?
There will be times when they are accidentally or inevitably exposed to realities that they aren’t yet ready for.
Here’s my simple answer.
We are THERE.
We are PRESENT.
We listen when they’re afraid. We remind them that our homes are the safe places they can always run to. We offer them guidance when they’re exposed. We offer them wisdom when they ask questions. We tell them that we’re afraid of some things too. We tell them that we believe in them. We practice what we preach by protecting our own hearts and minds from some of the darkness of the world. We point them to Jesus as a source of comfort and peace.
There will also be times when they want to be exposed to realities that are beyond their years…when they’re begging and pleading for something that they think they know that they want. And we know that they don’t. We know that it would be best for them to retreat back to their childhood of innocence and bliss. We know they need protection from themselves.
Here’s my simple answer.
We are the parents.
I know, as a kid, I promised myself I’d never say it because it felt so unfair to be on the receiving end of that statement. But that’s the reality. Once you’re the parent, you can see more things. You understand more. You realize the gravity of certain things. And the answer can be “no” just because it’s “no”. I don’t have to explain why.
We have a phrase that we say in our family a lot.
“We are going to look different.”
And it’s not a phrase to belittle anyone else or exercise superiority. It’s practice for teaching our children that assimilation is not always the goal. It’s preparing them to not always expect to be the same as those around them.
We aren’t meant to look like every other family. And their family won’t look like ours. And that’s okay.
Right now, this phrase is used in pretty minor situations. But one day, the stakes will be higher. One day, they’ll want to do something, be something, experience something that I know is too much.
And on that day, the foundation will have already been laid that my children don’t need to fit in. They don’t need to be doing what everyone else is doing. And sure, blame it on mom and dad. And someday when they’re parents themselves, they can reserve that right too.
So while innocence may not be the highest societal value of our day, I think science is backing me up. The more we learn about childhood brain development, the more we must realize that our children are not small adults. They need us to be proactively protecting them during these years of development and brain connections and wild imaginations WHILE ALSO speaking truth and wisdom to them and building up their coping skills. They need us to treasure and protect and value their innocence while also speaking into their self-confidence and ability to choose good for themselves.