My husband and I teach our sons that the most important thing in the world is kindness. I make sure to show kindness whenever I’m out with my sons; I try to never say a mean word in front of them. We never belittle them. We never belittle others in front of them. We’re incredibly strict about their media consumption. But even though they’re homeschooled, they see other children (we obviously don’t want them to live in a bubble). Those other children have taught them words, words you use to talk about people and things you don’t like: Meanie. Stupid. Now they deploy the words against each other, and we have to run interference.
Sometimes it feels like it’s parents against the world when it comes to teaching our kids.
We can’t keep them sheltered forever. And goddammit, we do our best, but no one wants to raise a child who isn’t prepared for the world. Your children are not your children, wrote Kahlil Gibran. And while this is a beautiful and poetic sentiment, it’s also the truth: your children belong to the world just as the world belongs to your children, and you have no right to keep the two completely apart. That means that even my supremely, supremely sheltered kids (my nine-year-old asked what gum was the other day) encounter the world, and I have to fight against it to instill the values I want them to grow up with.
Take guns. I hate guns, and believe in gun regulation as strict as Japan’s. But I live in one of the reddest of red states. My son’s best friend’s mother has a sticker on her car, something about loving Starbucks and guns. It nauseates me, but I like her and I like her daughter — and I know that she and my son probably play pretend guns when I’m not looking. I also know that my kids love Star Wars, and Star Wars means blasters, and blasters are a sidestep from guns. They see Star Wars everywhere — even if I confiscated every blaster that came into my house, they’d still encounter them — and so they play with blasters. The other day, I had them memorize the poem “America is a Gun” for school. My seven-year-old swung a toy blaster around his finger while he recited. I made him stop. He complained. We fight, but we fight against the world that tells us guns are okay, guns are part of the culture, guns are toys.
And there’s sex. You can’t keep your kid from talking about sex, or discovering ideas that conflict with your notions of sexuality. Right now, my children are young and sheltered: they’ve only had mostly us to talk to about it. But they’ve still had toxic messages filter in from the Catholic Church about masturbation, about premarital sex, about birth control (one of the reasons I wanted to leave the church to begin with). Their carefully constructed notions of consent, which we have hammered into them: I don’t like the way you’re touching me, or Stop touching me like that — those have been shaken when an adult laughs them off while they’re hugging our sons. We intervene. But these influences come from everywhere. It’s a rising tide, something all parents have to fight, have to face, have to cope with: how do you fight against the world?
You can only do your level best and pray.
I used to think that if I homeschooled my kids, they would be different. I thought they would never call each other names. But they came into contact with other children — and if we had kept them in a sealed bunker, they’d have heard us tell their brothers not to whine. So they call each other “whiney.” They say “You’re whining” as an insult. They’d have found a way. I thought if we discouraged violence and they never saw it from other children (they don’t, really), they wouldn’t act violently towards one another. But they see it on TV, and everyone wants to wrestle. They only have an old school Nintendo, but everyone wants to play Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Then they want to act it out.
You can’t fight the world. It leaks in. So we pick our battles.
I don’t personally care if my kids curse. So we let them listen to music with curse words in them but I do care if they drink the toxic masculinity Kool-Aid. So I have to fight that battle. We actively hammer in that notion of consent not only for them, but for the girls they will one day encounter: so they know that no means no. We never, never tell them to stop crying; we say, “I see you feel ______ right now.” We simply can’t. The world tells them every day to stop crying, to toughen up, to be a man. We avoid shows for “boys” and stick to gender-neutral TV as much as possible. We let them pick unicorn and kitty shirts, pink and purple ones, from the girls’ department if that’s what they like. Other kids, one day, will ridicule them for this. We can only pray they’re secure enough to tell them to, in no uncertain terms, to (nicely) fuck off: colors and animals are for everyone.
And I sure as hell care if they’re kind. So I discourage friendships with kids who aren’t. When they see unkindness, either from other children or from adults, we talk about it. We know the world is going to invade. We can’t fight against the world, the rising tide of culture invading, pervading everything: the sex and the beauty standards and the devaluing of human worth and the guns and the Trump administration and the list goes on. All we can do is talk about it.
We can try our best to hand our children something better, to live that something better and make it more attractive.
But in the end, they have to pick for themselves.
We have no right to keep them from the world. We can fight against the world. But the world will inevitably win.