29 October 2008

Talking to kids about the end of the world as we know it

A disclaimer: I would not take parenting advice from me if I were you. The object of my parenting efforts for the last 12 years is not a typical child and the results are not yet in.

I spent my childhood in Kingston, Ontario, known as the limestone city. Because of its geology, even though it was on Lake Ontario, there were no good beaches. But there was an artificial sand beach. This beach was on property owned by DuPont, adjacent to the nylon carpet fibre plant. Only plant employees and their families could use this beach, so it was an exciting thing to be invited by a friend to go swimming at DuPont. I felt very privileged to be allowed access to such a place. The actual experience did not quite live up to my expectations, however – the sand portion of the beach was crowded with people and the water, while not suffering from overcrowding, had a disturbing number of dead fish floating in the yellow foam that covered much of the surface. The sand did not extend into the water so the bottom consisted of green slime covered rocks. The one positive feature of the water was that it was not nearly as cold as Lake Ontario water normally is.

It took a few years for my critical thinking skills to develop to the point where I could override the neighbourhood adults’ cheerful acceptance of the DuPont beach and figure out for myself that allowing children to swim within spitting distance of a factory outflow isn’t good. Even allowing for misremembered details. I suppose the moms on the beach were comfortable with the situation because, after all, this beach was provided as a benefit of employment by the DuPont company. One word: sheeple.

If I was presented with the opportunity to bring my daughter to the DuPont beach of the seventies, today, I would not allow her to swim in the polluted water even if everyone else was doing it, and I would explain to her exactly why (of course, she’d very likely have figured it out completely on her own). The idea that a large corporation could be so indifferent to human health would of course be disturbing. But no less true for that. So what about the myriad other inconvenient truths out there? How do you handle those without damaging the fragile mental health of your offspring? Especially when it appears that everyone else is blissfully splashing around in the murky water.

Now, before I get to that, let me remind you that this is a problem of privilege. People have been dealing with difficult, dangerous, and demoralizing situations throughout history and across the planet and parents have figured out how to handle it with their kids. In North America in the last fifty years, parents have not had to exercise this muscle very much, except perhaps to break the bad news that Tickle Me Elmo is on backorder at Wal-Mart. Oh, and there was the Cold War. Perhaps as a kid I was incurious, but I don’t remember discussing “mutually assured destruction” with my parents. I know I was aware of the concept, but it seemed like a vague, if pretty serious, threat. I think I mentally filed it in the same spot as the religious concepts which I was assured by adults were true but couldn’t possibly be. (I had a Calvinist education so in addition to the usual virgin birth and resurrection absurdities, my salvation was contingent on having memorized the Heidelberg Catechism which includes the old favourite: Whence knowest thou thy misery?) Maybe years of the minister preaching (with no regard for my mental health) hell’s inevitability given my moral weaknesses inoculated me against feeling too much anxiety over mere nuclear annihilation.

But I digress; any parents who have followed me this far are not in possession of children with this kind of training. Our kids are going to be disappointed to learn that civilization is as doomed as that goldfish prize they won at the cheesy Wal-Mart parking lot fair. But not too many parents are willing to sit their kids down and inform them that if they survive to adulthood without resorting to cannibalism, they’re still going to be faced with certain unpleasantness, what with the stone age conditions and lack of internet. And most parents are not willing to connect the dots of financial collapse, climate change, peak oil, food insecurity, globalization and runaway consumption and arrive at that picture for themselves either. I try to gently explain things as they come up but just as there’s no point in telling a two year old if he hasn’t asked, that the meat in his hamburger comes from the same kind of animal as the moo moo cow in his favourite book, it’s hard to avoid when the same child at four demands to know the details. Young kids are good at accepting difficult truths – they don’t have much choice. I would suggest that long term, more damage is done to children by feeding unrealistic expectations and feelings of entitlement than knowing about global inequality. And teaching a kid to make her own decisions about whether to swim near the factory outflow regardless of what everyone else is doing will make for a healthier life. I’ve long felt that the best antidote to general anxiety is telling yourself that no matter what happens, you can and will just deal with it. It may not be a bad idea to remind kids of that from time to time as well. Of course, kids take their emotional cues from the adults in their life and keeping calm in the face of world events is the best, if challenging at times, thing to do. After all, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm, I love the disclaimer, Bev!

    The rant makes perfect sense... I am really enjoying catching up with your blog and surfing through the links. So much of what you say resonates in me...I fear, though, I may only read and live the life vicariously through you :(. It's very much on the edge of the "too hard" basket. But I promise to keep reading, and maybe it'll get easier!



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