Don’t Trap Your Kids!

I’ve recently had some work done on the house we live in. It’s a cozy little place, and my wife and I are happy with it. That said, our back hallway had this lovely funhouse feature where the paneling on the walls was warped and bowed in various places creating a disconcertingly Tim Burton-esque feel to the house. We had it repaired, but it got me thinking about walls. (It’s a lame segue-way, I know, lay off.)

Walls are some of the oldest human inventions… or maybe natural inventions. Regardless, we’ve been huddled in cave walls, hut walls, house walls, and city walls for millennia as human beings. We take comfort in knowing there’s only a few ways in or out of a place. It certainly makes defending the fort easier. It’s funny, then, when Moses sends the spies into Canaan and they come back talking about the huge walls of the cities they saw, and the giant people in them. Compare this description to how the Canaanites are described later as having heard what God had done in Egypt and being terrified of the Israelites. Suddenly, the walls aren’t a sign of strength. Walls become a symbol of fear.

This was pointed out by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his “Inspired Parenting” series. (Honestly, there are some great points worth hearing.) He notes that his parents allowed him to come into contact with ideas and people that were outside of his normal sphere. His experience was that these encounters did not erode his faith, but instead encouraged his faith to grow, to flourish, as he became more aware of the beliefs he was beginning to own and the covenant that he lived with God.

Every child is different. It bears repeating. The things one child can view or hear and process will be completely different from another. Some children learn to spot sarcasm early, some still need a sign after they hit the age of adulthood. Some kids can handle darker storylines, because they know that good will triumph over evil. Some kids can handle violence because they know that what they’re watching is fake and that the only time to fight is self-defense. Some kids can handle the issue with Bambi’s mother and the forest fire, and others are traumatized later in life. (A story for another day.) I say all this before making my next point because you know your child and their limits.

Don’t trap your kids behind walls. Walls will always have leaks and your children will run into ideas that run counter to yours eventually. Walls keep things out, but also keep people in. (Keep in mind that sieges are horrific experiences.) Remember, it’s better to be equipped early than to run headlong into college (or even high school for that matter) with no body armor and having never really considered one’s own beliefs and worldview. No amount of TV screening, “net nanny” programs, or Amish living will protect your family from the world’s influence. What can help, though, are fences.

No, not white picket ones. But boundaries that allow your children the freedom to explore, question, and develop, but that keep them safe as they do so. There was an experiment done a few years back that noted that children playing in an area with no fence had trouble leaving the safety of their teacher, but felt free to play and explore when boundaries were set. Fences are often see-through, which means that the views beyond the fence are part of the conversation, but still outside the boundary. (Keep in mind that the teacher was always present in these experiments, which applies to your constant presence and supervision of this process.)

For example, I was not allowed to watch “Professional Wrestling” (also known as “wrastlin'” in our part of the country) while I was in elementary school. Here’s why – I would have imitated the fighting, because my parents had already observed this behavior after watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers. My parents often explained why I wasn’t allowed to watch, and later in life I realized I hadn’t missed much. Or take my wife’s upbringing. She wasn’t allowed to watch movies with witches or villains who were more interesting that the hero. Why? Well, my wife had (has?) a very active imagination and would have mimicked the witches and villains over the heroes or princesses. This boundary stood until she was old enough to really differentiate villains and heroes.

The boundaries for your family may be different than the boundaries for mine or someone else’s. Just don’t build walls. Be willing to field questions. Rabbi Sacks told a story of a mother who instead of asking what her child learned that day asked instead, “Did you ask a good question today?” Suddenly, the mother had a better idea of how her child was thinking and questioning rather than getting a pat response that her child’s mind was acting like a passive sponge. Encourage your kids to ask, to explore, to play with ideas. Accept that you won’t always have the “right” answer. Honestly, “I don’t know, let’s go look that up,” is an awfully exciting answer for a child. Suddenly, the two of you are on a quest for knowledge like the heroes in their favorite stories. What could be more fun? (I learned this response from my dad, who loves learning and searching for answers to questions. We’d often go on these searches, and still do.)

Be brave and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you. Don’t build walls. Set up fences that fit your family. Let the fences grow with your child.

What fences do you have for your family? What questions have you been asked? What does this say about your child? How can you encourage more questions and exploration in your child?

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