(This was written in 1993 when I was a shiny new parent but, neither the addition of a third child nor the mushrooming of the internet as a source of information, have improved the situation. The names have been changed, as has the identity of the duck, to protect the innocent.)
Before I had children of my own, I used to think that the most difficult part of bringing them up would be attending to soiled diapers. After they could attend to their own bodily functions the rest, with the possible exception of the teenage years, would be a breeze. As far as I could remember, my parents had managed almost effortlessly. Two children and five years later, I have developed a healthy respect for my parents' abilities, and come to the realization that the diapers are the easy bit.
What is difficult is the eternal battle against the unrelenting stream of stimuli being fed to children who have not yet developed the ethical or moral framework to make their own judgements. Children today are a part of the adult world as never before. They see the same things we do and are just as subject to advertising pressures and propaganda as we are. How can we prepare them to face this onslaught which we find so difficult to resist?
I have a friend who refuses to own a television set because he believes it to be a bad influence on his children. I admire his fortitude but there are two problems with his approach. The first is that he denies himself and his family the benefit of the good on TV. My kids have learned a vast amount from Sesame Street, notwithstanding the occasional times I have been late in switching it off and found two tiny minds engrossed in the machinations of Another World. Good television opens up a world of wonder for a child and feeds the imagination.
The second problem with my friend's approach is more important. All his effort is largely futile. We all try to protect our offspring from unwanted influences, but that is only truly possible for the first few months of life. As soon as daycare, visits to friend's houses and school intervene in our children's lives we, as parents, lose control. I have never brought up the subjects of Barbie or Power Rangers, yet our house is littered with both. All I can do is show my children that there is more to the world than either.
In one sense, children are true primitives. They are not contaminated by the world around them and have no moral basis by which to judge actions and ideas. On the other hand, they have the ability to create entire mythologies from a few snippets of information gleaned from their intellectually overextended parents and this is what makes it such a long, difficult process to provide them with a rational framework.
For example, a few weeks ago, my four-year-old daughter, Megan, asked “How did the world form?” I hummed and hawed and tried to change the subject but, like a dog with a favourite bone, she worried at me until she got an answer. Finally, I dredged up all I could remember about the origins of the solar system and simplified it into something to the effect that once, long before even the dinosaurs, the sun had been surrounded by dust. Very slowly, the bits of dust stuck together until they formed the world and the other planets. I left out the stuff about the big bang and spinning vortices within the dust clouds, not because she wouldn't understand them, but because I didn't. This seemed to satisfy her and, in the ensuing silence, I found myself wondering how long it could be before the dreaded questions about sex began.
I had completely forgotten about the origins of the world when, about three weeks later, Megan asked me to come into her playroom to see a picture she had done on her chalkboard. It was a large circle surrounded by radiating lines. At the end of each radiating line was a small, carefully drawn, white dot.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked. I admitted to being at a loss. “This is the sun,” she said pointing to the circle with the air of someone used to talking to very small children. “Do you know what these are?” she was indicating the white dots.
“Stars?” I ventured tentatively.
“No. These are the little bits of dust which stuck together to form the world.”
The simple little story which I had dredged up to save face and forgotten almost immediately, had been remembered, incorporated into a child's cosmology, and regurgitated as a complete, coherent visual image. I made a mental note to do two things. Firstly, to always draw distinctions between fantasy and reality and, secondly, when reality was the topic under discussion, to try and give as accurate an explanation of the natural world as possible.
My first rule was underlined almost immediately by a problem Megan had at pre-school. She couldn't decide which of two boys in her class she was going to marry, James or Paul. The problem bothered her for a couple of weeks until it was unwittingly resolved by a third boy David. Apparently David had, in some way, been mean to Megan. Paul cavalierly came forward and offered to kill David. No one had an idea of what kill meant, nor did they have the life experience to distinguish reality from fantasy. To Megan it appeared to be the ideal solution to two problems. Paul kills David, Megan marries Paul and Dad makes a fortune selling the movie rights.
Paul probably picked up the idea from television. Even if I were to prevent Megan from watching television, its influence would still make itself felt through her peers. My role could not be to protect her from all potentially damaging influences, but to teach her broader lessons, in this case, that killing is wrong, a task much more complex that it appeared at first sight.
This kindergarten murder plot was a complex issue, but at least my second rule, to explain the natural world accurately, would be easy. I was trained as a scientist. Therefore, I take pride in my ability to view the world around me with a rational eye. The arrival of two hopelessly irrational children has shaken, but not destroyed, this pride. Children are not rational. Therefore, they obey few of the intellectual rules I find so necessary. With a cruelly perceptive eye, they look at the framework of sanity which I have constructed around my life and ask - why? Of course, they ask their fair share of impossible questions, “Why are there trees?” or “Why is that man over there like that?” but, whenever I am able, I try to present them with what I perceive to be the truth.
My approach worked well, until the day we had roast duck for supper. I was preparing to put the defrosted beast into the oven when I thought “What a good opportunity to teach Megan.” Knowing she was going through a phase of being fascinated by internal anatomy, I called her over and asked if she wanted to see what was inside a duck. Enthusiastically, she pulled her stool over and stood enthralled as I explained that the pallid lump in front of us once looked something like the creatures to which we fed bread crumbs at the park. I felt it necessary to explain the processing of the duck because I knew I was going to have to explain why the internal organs came in a little plastic bag.
I explained that ducks, while looking very different from us on the outside, were similar inside. They too had a heart, lungs, a liver and kidneys, the organs I reasoned I had most chance of finding. Megan had reached a high pitch of expectation when I finally allowed myself a theatrical flourish, pulled out the bag and emptied it onto the countertop to reveal - four hearts.
We both had a moment of silent wonder at this remarkable animal, before I realized that I had not taken account of the machinery of animal product mass processing which does not care about the identity or ownership of the contents of the little plastic bags as long as one goes in each duck. I back-pedalled frantically, but my build-up had been too good and I now have a child who believes that, at least some ducks, have four hearts.
This will not be a tremendous handicap in life as long as she can avoid biology exam questions on migratory waterfowl. However, it does illustrate the pitfalls inherent in teaching a mind with no preconceived notions. In Megan's imagination, worlds that form out of little specks of dust and ducks with four hearts are as plausible as white rabbits with watches and turtles named after renaissance painters.
I no longer have to change diapers, but I do have to deal with the morality of murder, the origins of the solar system and the entrails of a duck. The positive side to all this is that I have a clearer understanding of Megan's world. The problem is that I am not sure she is any closer to understanding mine. Fortunately, past experience seems to suggest that children do become adults before their parents regress completely. So it appears that I have some time. In any case, right now I'm busy. Megan wants me to tell her the story of Humphrey the kindly duck, and how he came to have more heart than anyone else in the farmyard.