When I have no idea what I’m doing, I tend to behave according to what I think of as “The Script.” The Script is made up of all of the external advice and expectations that I’ve compiled throughout my life, things that I’ve filed away under headings like “How to be a Good Girl,” “How to Not Make Mistakes,” and “How to Blend In and Not Look Stupid.” It’s pretty safe to conform to The Script, but not very exciting. In fact, I’ve never made a good decision when I followed The Script; the best things I’ve done in life have all happened only when I took a deep breath and decided to improvise.
The Script has been there for my entire life, but it’s felt especially near during my life as a parent. As a parent, I have no idea what I’m doing almost all of the time. So I tend to grab onto a special parenting script for topics like, “What Would a Good Parent Do?” and “What’s Best for the Kids?”
I have no idea who wrote The Parenting Script, but I suspect it’s been drafted throughout history by all of the grandparents.
Please understand: I’m not knocking the grandparents. But in my experience, grandparents tend to be a little bit tighter on the safety (and looser on the purchasing) than parents. It’s completely understandable, really: they want their grandchildren to be happy and healthy. Most grandparents will question things like whether it’s safe to take your toddler backpacking in the Congo — or why you haven’t seen the doctor about baby’s runny nose.
So when I say that I suspect my parenting script has been drafted by grandparents, that’s because it’s so safe. The Parenting Script is all about protecting children, isolating them from any sort of harm (physical, yes, but mostly mental and emotional and spiritual), raising children who will never, ever end up in therapy.
According to The Parenting Script, I should have answers for my children. And the answers should be final and reassuring. Because otherwise, my children might feel insecure.
Child: I’m scared.
Parent: What are you scared of?
Parent: There’s no such thing as ghosts.
How many of us have had that exact conversation? Numerous times? (Perhaps with something else in place of “ghosts?”)
And, on the surface, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong with reassuring your child. Nothing wrong with telling them that the world is a safe place, that evil doesn’t exist — at least, not under our roof, not in our closets.
The problem is: It’s not true.
I don’t want my children to grow up paralyzed by fear. I don’t want to expose them to all the world’s evil before their minds can handle it (Can any of our minds really handle it?). No question: my children should wait a few years before learning about the Holocaust.
But if I answer with a definite, conversation-stopping “no,” when the truth is, “I don’t know” — am I draining my children’s world of possibility and complexity, of wonder and creativity? One thing’s for sure: I’m lying to them.
Are there such things as ghosts? I honestly don’t know. I’ve never encountered a ghost that I’m aware of, but “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio….” and all that.
If I follow The Parenting Script and act like I have all the answers, I’m trying to protect my daughters from uncertainty and confusion. Do I want to protect my daughters from uncertainty and confusion? Life is about uncertainty and confusion. There’s no failure in never having all the answers. Far more important is to ask lots of good questions and be comfortable with lots of “I don’t know’s”.
So, I’m okay with not being the final authority on all questions. I’m okay with not totally shielding my daughters from the reality that life contains evil and scary things. We’re quick to deny the presence of ghosts and monsters and things that go bump in the night, because we love our children and The Parenting Script tells us to keep them from worrying. But they already do. My own children — like most children — have already experienced the deaths of animals and people. Furthermore, they were born with a sense of fear, an aversion to the shadows. Ghosts and monsters are just where they put that fear until they can find better words for it. To shut down their fear with a simple “No” may not be reassuring at all.
So I say “I don’t know” a LOT these days: to questions about fairies and 9/11 and when we’ll die and a whole lot of questions about God and Jesus and the Bible. These are the BIG QUESTIONS, and I really don‘t know — none of us does.
It feels a little scary, a little squishy, to go off script. But it’s where I prefer to do my parenting, because a life that’s totally secure and question-free seems pretty boring. It’s like I tell my girls: If you removed all the problems from fairy tales, they’d be duller than dull. “Rapunzel woke up, ate breakfast, brushed her hair, went to work, ate dinner, and went to bed. The End.” Without questions, you never have to think, to ponder, to be creative. Without evil, you never have to love, or pray, or experience redemption. Without problems, there’s no chance for a happy ending.
Then again, what do I know?