An innocent child. Photo from Pixnio.

Protecting our children’s innocence

As a parent and grandparent, I’m concerned about keeping children safe. But the cry “What about the children?” has resulted in many types of horrible behavior, from misconduct by youth sports leagues to genocide. Today, repressive legislation comes in the guise of “protecting our children’s innocence.” What does this mean?

When we first look at our newborn child, we see this fragile, unaware person who depends on us for all their needs. We want to shield them from the world. We don’t want them to feel scared and unsafe. We don’t want to expose them too quickly to ideas they’re not ready for. But we also want to shape them into the type of people we want them to be. We want them to have values we consider good, believe the same things we believe, and like the same things we like. If you’re a Dodger fan, you want your children to grow up to be Dodger fans. If you’re Lutheran, you want your children to be Lutheran. And if you have certain beliefs about the world, you want your child to have them too.

But life gets in the way.

There are news events that impact your children’s lives, like the pandemic. Your children will meet people who differ from your family. They may have different ethnicities, beliefs, and lifestyles. They may be richer or poorer than you.

And there are your children’s own bodies.

As much as we would like to have grandchildren someday, the idea of our children as people with genitals, hormones, and desires makes us uncomfortable. But children are aware of these things much earlier than we’d like to admit. They already had to focus on their private parts as they learned how to use the toilet, and they’ve seen pregnant people. Their awareness and curiosity will grow as they enter puberty.

The wise and responsible thing is to discuss these issues with children openly and in an age-appropriate way. Books can help. I’ve reviewed several that cover difficult subjects like the pandemic and divorce in honest, sensitive, and reassuring ways.

Or you can shield your child from anything that challenges your world view. You can homeschool your children to give them just the curriculum that you deem acceptable and keep them away from anyone who might be a bad influence. You can deny them access to smartphones and the Internet and only play TV shows and watch movies you want them to see. Eventually, you must interact with the rest of the world, and those challenging beliefs will creep in. You go to the grocery store where you must pass the kosher food aisle to the meat counter where a Muslim woman in a hijab is ordering halal kabob meat next to a lesbian couple picking out a pot roast. Even if you limit those interactions or dismiss your child’s questions, eventually your child will grow up to be an adult and must go out to make their way in the world. And they will be unprepared after spending 18 years in the bubble you created for them.

Or they come out of that bubble and become something you didn’t want them to be. Like an Auburn fan when you’re devoted to the Crimson Tide. Or worse, when they reject your beliefs or the roles you define for them. Such as when they come to you trembling and crying and tell you they’re gay.

That’s why a desire to protect a child’s innocence turns into a vicious crusade to destroy anything that challenges your beliefs. It’s not only out of fear that your children won’t turn out the way you want. It’s the deeper fear that everything you believe in and hold dear might be wrong.

It’s ultimately a futile campaign. Think of the story of Sleeping Beauty where the evil witch declared the baby princess would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep. So, the king and queen had every spinning wheel destroyed. But the princess eventually found a spinning wheel and pricked her finger. You can’t shape society to be exactly the way you want. You must teach your child to operate in the world as it is.

Education is the best way to protect our children. Teach them about the world. Teach them how to get along with different types of people. Teach them about their own bodies, how to understand the feelings that are emerging, and how and when to respond to them appropriately and safely. Educating children about sex is the best way to protect them from the abusers we all fear. Note that the religious and political organizations making the biggest accusations about “groomers” are the ones who are getting convicted or facing huge lawsuits because of those crimes. For them, keeping our children innocent means making them ignorant—and vulnerable.

I’m concerned about keeping children safe. The best way is to introduce them to the world step by step as they are ready to understand it. To let them know they’ll always be safe, and they’re safe to come to you with their questions, no matter how uncomfortable. And to teach them to stay away from those who claim to protect their innocence.