I came across this excellent piece by Shannon Gaggero about her realization that her (white, middle-class) kids experience innocence differently than children in other households may.
Put simply, maintaining children’s “innocence” is an opportunity available only to parents who are already working from a position of privilege within mainstream society, usually through a combination of sufficient financial/socio-economic standing, social “capital,” and racial identity.
Shannon describes children’s books, resources, and talking points she uses with her very young kids to help them see injustice and respond to that in appropriate ways.
Several years ago, my colleague Jack and I were asked by some VBS organizers at our church to teach the “missionary story” to a group of preschool children. [If you know anything about me, you should be chuckling right now…. the last time I worked with preschoolers, I was a high schooler helping out in my small church’s VBS and wondering what I’d done to make the universe assign me such tiny humans whom I didn’t understand at all. (My lifelong habit has been to work with post-pubescent beings.)] Jack doesn’t have kids of his own yet but he’s got a pile of nieces and nephews and seems to be better at translating toddler behavior into something understandable.
Anyway, the missionary story – for those of you who might not have been raised in VBS culture – is that moment when a VBS worker attempts to compress a complex, nuanced story of someone’s cross-cultural ministry experiences usually in a colonial or post-colonial society into a 5 to 10 minute Golden Book of missionary fervor.
[That comes across as too harsh; I loved hearing missionary stories as a kid because they were human and interesting and a little more connected to what I could envision as day to day life than Bible stories. I’m a little worried that most of the adults in the churches I’ve gone to aren’t aware of the imperialist baggage of white missionary activity among populations in Africa, India, or Asia and how that probably hindered their work for the sake of the Gospel. But that’s a topic for a different day.]
Jack and I had been asked to share a missionary story with pre-K kids for the sake of cross-cultural education. A mission we could get behind for sure. So one of us dug out of our closet a CEF story book about Mary Slessor, the legendary Scotswoman who labored in West Africa for decades and adopted many children who would have otherwise been murdered due to the local custom of treating twins as demon-possessed.
Slessor’s story in the CEF book opens with her childhood, making mention of her upbringing in poverty with a drunken and abusive father. Jack was telling the story on this first day, softening the language into something more palatable for 4 and 5 year old ears: “Her father was a very bad man. He was mean to Mary and to Mary’s mom.”
I’ve told this story myself to groups of kids at Good News Clubs (another high school / college era activity) from a variety of backgrounds. At the time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that some of the kids listening might know far too much about domestic violence. At least I grasped the poverty angle.
But as an adult with several years of teaching experience, I knew this was a touchy moment in the story. I also knew that it might be hard to explain to 21st century white middle-class parents why their little kids were coming home talking about domestic violence. I figured the innocence of church kids would preserve us. Most people raised in similar circles (Christian, conservative, white) don’t clue in to social justice issues until they’re far older.
I’d forgotten about the kid in the room from CHC. CHC is a local charity, one of the very best I’ve ever known, operating group homes for foster children in our area. Despite nearly shutting down when South Carolina went through a phase of refusing to place kids in group homes in a burst of idealism that hardly matched the dire need for foster care in our state, CHC weathered the storm and – as you might expect – is running at capacity. Their kids attend church with the resident houseparents, and in this case, VBS.
I’ve forgotten his name, this beautiful little boy with curly hair and a toothless smile. He was impish – small for his age, a wicked grin, always into everything, fighting every boundary. I didn’t know his story, but every instinct told me he could be a handful.
Yes. “Handful.”That’s how we describe the children who howl or bite or rage against the dysfunction and/or drug abuse and/or sexual assault and/or generational poverty and neglect which ground up their families and spit them out into a state system that tries to provide a pale resemblance of family life and normalcy.
This boy, I’ll call him “Mark,” was listening to Jack tell Mary Slessor’s story today. And he knew. He understood. His 4-year-old body knew what it meant in real terms when Jack said, “Mary’s father was a bad man, a mean man.” So he contributed. This was a story he could grasp. “My mommy is bad. She hit my sister on the leg.”
Later, “My mommy tried to hurt me with a knife.”
I wrote about this at the time, but I bring it up again because 7 years later, I still can’t get that moment out of my mind. I was horrified to confront in that moment a glimpse of what this child had already experienced, a sin-drenched violation of maternal instinct. And I was equally terrified that the other kids would realize what he was saying and start asking questions. And that we would soon be in the middle of a preschooler crisis and then a horde of angry parents would appear at our door with pitchforks.
That, my friends, is probably as close as I can get you to a teacher’s inner monologue. Every lesson, if you’re doing it right, teeters on the edge of incredible discovery and deep learning, but that always comes at the risk of stabbing straight into one of the questions we adults cannot answer, like why mothers of 4 year olds would try to stab them. Or why the richest nation on earth has such a drug problem. Or why South Carolina can’t seem to do anything about the generational poverty that chews up its citizens. And if your lesson crosses over into those churning waters where the real learning happens, your animal brain begins to tingle with fearful anticipation of the phone calls you’re going to get from parents or school board members when they realize your discussion of Dickens robbed children of their innocence.
Friends, I ask this in all sincerity:
How can parents know whether preserving the purity and innocence of their children – whether toddler or teen – is wisdom or idolatry?
I’ve seen this many times in my work with teens and young adults: healing the wounds of dysfunction and pain requires interaction with healthy, functional peers and adults. So if all the healthy, functional families cocoon themselves, who’s left to walk alongside the wounded?
What can this look like, if it’s done well? Is a school community capable of this? Is it a church responsibility? Can a family accomplish this kind of ‘education’ on its own, apart from church or school?