As you may remember from this post, I wasn't ready to talk to the 11-year-old about the Hunger Games. As it turns out, his teacher didn't wait to get permission before giving him the Hunger Games books, and last night I found him about 100 pages from the end of third book in the trilogy. I've been doing a lot of thinking about that today; how to talk about those books, how to have a talk with the boy. Conversation between adults and kids is usually pretty painful, in my experience. Example: "What did you do today?" "Nothin'." "What do you think about that thing you saw?' "I dunno." Scintillating. I want to have those kinds of discussions ALL DAY EVERY DAY! That was sarcasm. I save sarcasm for the blog; I think sarcasm directed toward children is clumsy parenting.
I've been silently simmering with a medium-to-low-grade resentment all day. Underneath the resentment is a sense of helplessness; when the illusion of control is stripped from me, I get cranky. However, I remember being 11 years old, and I don't believe in sheltering. Ask my daughter. She's been in charge of what she's chosen to read and watch since she was old enough to read anything. I made sure that I gave her a heads-up before she started: "You can choose to read this, but it's got some sex scenes, impolite language, and violence." For a long time, she said, "No, thanks. I don't think that sounds like something I'd enjoy." As time went on, she judged herself ready, and afterward, we'd talk. Once, she "accidentally" saw something that freaked her out on the internet, and she confessed, and said it was horrible, and we needed to have a talk about the Internet. ("The internet is really, really great ...")
I've had open communication with my daughter for 18 years, and I feel I can trust her judgment because I've been in her life since she took her first breath, and I've seen her make decisions. I've only been in the older boy's life since he was 7. He and my daughter are nothing alike, and he and I are building trust slowly. Truth is, I recognize myself in the things he does. I didn't like talking to adults when I was his age. I didn't trust them to respect me as a person. I didn't like being talked down to. For this reason, I never used baby talk with my daughter, even when she was a baby. I treated her with respect, for the most part, and she sort of naturally became worthy of respect. I wish she'd scrape her macaroni and cheese out of the bowl before she chucks the bowl into the sink, but if, for instance, she stops seeing a boy because his values are screwed up, I know she's made the right choice for herself.
I'd like to think that all children can just be set loose in a bookstore to read whatever they can puzzle out, like I did growing up, but I believe it's a parent's responsibility to put things into context, to ask sensitive questions, and to teach a child values that will lead them well through life. This is why I didn't disguise my scorn for most reality television from my daughter. I let her watch it if she wanted to, but I told her what I felt about it. I don't like getting a charge out of watching people being cruel or selfish. I don't get a charge out of watching people lose their dignity. I do like competitions, so I was torn about American Idol. I was one of the people who cried soppy tears while watching Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent singing "I Dreamed a Dream." But I'm sour about how much these "surprises" are manufactured by the television producers, and how sometimes the people involved are destroyed by the experience. My daughter's father watched things like Fear Factor with her, and I didn't veto it, even when the contestants were eating raw pig intestines and vomiting, but I refused to watch it, and told her I didn't like it. (Note: a shout out to my prosthetic memory - "What was that woman's name, the one who was overweight and middle aged and turned out to be a great singer on that British version of American Idol?" "Oh, that's Susan Boyle." "Ok, what was that show where the contestants sometimes had to eat live insects and internal organs?" "Oh, that must be Fear Factor.") If you take the cruelty and stupidity out of a reality show, what you can end up with instead, if you're lucky, is a great documentary film, like Kings of Pastry; it's about pastry chefs competing for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France), a high honor in the world's culinary community. This is the kind of reality I appreciate as entertainment.
Long story short: I think much of reality television is morally ambiguous, emotionally treacherous crap. It requires explanation, and context. Children need to be taught that the people involved are choosing to do these things, people are choosing to watch these things, and choosing to take entertainment in these ways, and this has an effect on our spirit, on our culture, and on our compassion. Children need to be taught to make mindful choices about what they put into their minds. A parent that allows a young child to experience cruel reality TV without providing context is a careless parent, and may experience unhappy consequences later for not teaching their children how to add joyfulness to the world, rather than perpetuating ignorance. I want to be involved in my children's learning experience, and provide context, but I also understand that I can't stuff them in a bubble and shelter them. I wouldn't do it if I could, because people don't grow and learn sitting in a bubble. The best I can do is be trustworthy enough that they can come to me afterward and say, "I saw this thing the other day, and I need to talk about it."
That's where I am now.
I picked the boy up from drama club, and we talked about the The Hunger Games. It's his birthday today, and I told him I had a present for him. I asked him if he'd finished Mockingjay, the third book in the trilogy, and he said yes. He's devoured it, barely aware of the rest of the world continuing on outside the book. This used to be me when I was 11. Nose in a book, uninterested in other humans. As a small child, when I did speak, it was in complete sentences using a college vocabulary. It annoyed adults to speak with me. I asked the 11-year-old what his favorite character was, and he said Buttercup, the cat, because Buttercup was old and ugly, but loved the little girl who'd saved his life. When I asked what his favorite human character was, he said Gale, because Gale was cool and could hunt and set traps, and because he really cared about his best friend, Katniss. He valued his friends and family more than anything, and that's why he was the favorite. I felt stupid for not wanting to talk about the Hunger Games yet, and for being afraid I didn't know how to talk to the boy about values. It turns out I don't know what his values are because we don't talk very often. about things he cares about. I talk about the world of brushing teeth, doing homework, and keeping one's room clean. Only tonight was I willing to talk about children who fight each other to the death, about which characters in the book are admirable, about which characters are to be despised, and which characters are helpless dupes of society. I've never had a conversation with the boy like the one we had about the book about kids who kill each other.
My birthday gift to him is something my father did for me. It's a monstrously big shopping spree at the bookstore of his choice. Books only, not games. I told him that I enjoyed talking about books, and movies, and that I'd done so a lot with my daughter, and that I was looking forward to talking with him about the books and movies he likes, and especially about why, and how he feels about what he sees and reads, what he values, what he thinks about. I told him I'd be very interested to see what books he buys, and asked him if it would be okay if I read some of those books too, so we could talk about them, like we'd talked about the Hunger Games. He was bright, open, chirpy, and engaged. Yes, he'd love to talk about the books. He said he thought I'd make a good school counselor, because I was good at talking to kids about their feelings and thoughts. He asked if I would be a certain kind of D&D character, if I play D&D during his birthday party tomorrow, and I said his father thought I'd be something called an "ardent" if I existed in the Dungeons and Dragons world. The boy said, "Yeah, because you can read people's minds."
I can't read people's minds unless they talk to me. I couldn't read this child's mind, because he wouldn't talk to me, until I was willing to talk to him about the books I wasn't ready for him to read. I'm still sad, to have missed so much of the Disney stage (I wasn't around for much of that), but we're in the Hunger Games stage now, and that's that. We're entertained by swords, and traps, and fireballs, and dungeon crawls, and grim reaper costumes, and morbid comic books like Cyanide and Happiness. I myself as the proud owner of little plastic figures called Halfsies, which are cute little baby animals you can pull apart in the middle so they look sawed in half, and bloody, so I have no room to talk about morbid. This little male person is a lot like me, and it's probably why he irritates me so much, and worries me so much, and why I was sulking about having to figure out how to parent him. I know how difficult a child I was. I'm 40 years old, and there are people in my family who STILL delight in telling me just how difficult, as if still asking me to apologize for what I did when I was 9. I talked to the boy about the Hunger Games, and we connected, and I'm sad and happy about it at the same time. We have a chance to know one another if I can just be brave and take more risks, and give more, and stop worrying that if I parent the wrong way, he'll end up in prison, or lose his dignity on some reality show, digging for his 15 minutes of revolting celebrity.
Happy birthday, boy. I recognize you. It's ok to be strange, especially when you're 11.