Dad on a Lark
A blog by Rand Richards Cooper,
on parenting baby Larkin
Every night, we read Larkin bedtime stories, dream-world fantasies designed to comfort and lull. But almost every day the real world serves up the opposite — "badtime stories" (the phrase comes from New York Times parenting blogger Judith Warner) that frighten and unsettle. Our local paper reports on an 8-year-old boy who killed himself with an Uzi at a gun show his father took him to. The details of the boy's death are unspeakably horrifying, and as Molly reads, she tears up. "Why are you crying, Mom?" Larkin asks, and Molly folds the paper and quickly changes the subject.
When badtime stories are on TV, you can't do that. "What happened to that little boy?" Larkin will ask, watching a story about a boy with brain cancer, his head bald. She'll stare intently at a video clip of soldiers pouring automatic-weapons fire into a house in Iraq. "Why are they doing that?" And on and on.
A three-year-old is full of curiosity, and especially about the hardest things. Larkin has developed an appetite for calamity. She wants to know the cause-and-effect of it. "Why do cars drive in a straight line?" she asks as we're out driving. I explain that if everyone drove around willy-nilly, the cars would hit each other.
She thinks about it. "If the cars hit each other, would the people get hurt and be very sad?"
Larkin's birth was bookended by the deaths of two people Molly and I loved — Molly's brother, who died six months before Larkin was born, and my mother, six months after. We told her about these events, and she learned, early on, to say things like, "Your mother died, Daddy, and you were sad."
A toddler can say these things without grasping all the implications. But such utterances create a vessel – a concept, formed purely out of language – that eventually fills with comprehension. Just yesterday Larkin seemed for the first time really to understand what death is. She was in the living room nuzzling Bert, our aged bulldog. "I love Bert," she was cooing. "I want to keep him forever." Molly explained that dogs live a long time, but not forever; that nothing lives forever. We'd told Larkin this before, but this time she started crying, and quickly became inconsolable. "I don't want Bert to die!" she sobbed.
The past months have seen a general uptick in her fearfulness. Monsters and ghosts lurk everywhere — some "good," some "bad." Her room at night, with both nightlight and hall light on, is now so bright, it's a wonder that she can sleep. She likes games that let her playact at being afraid. On the couch she and I play two rabbits in a rabbit hole, looking out for danger. "A wolf!" she'll shriek, when Molly or Bert goes by. She's learning to deal with fear, making it safe.
But what about the real things that are scary? Our neighbor's house suffered serious damage in a fire started by careless painters wielding a blowtorch. Larkin wanted to hear it over and over, the story of what happened to John and Tracy's house. At one point she went silent. Then: "Daddy, could we have a fire at our house?"
It's the same with the news. She's starting to make the connection between badtime stories and her own life, between the out-there and the in-here. And the world is becoming a scarier place. It's hard to know how to handle this. Molly and I believe in explaining things calmly and factually, keeping in mind that our tone matters as much as the content of what we're explaining. Kids watch very closely how we react to events. Sound reassuring, and you'll usually be reassuring.
But when is something too much? When to shield, deflect, withhold, or cover up? In the blog I cadged this title from, Judith Warner reported on her 8-year-old daughter's obsession with the WalMart worker trampled to death in a stampede of shoppers last Black Friday. Her daughter has long been avid for dreadful stories, Warner writes. Tell me about Hitler. Tell me about when the airplanes went into the buildings. And on and on. At first Warner took these topics on, believing openness was the best policy. But increasingly she became unsure, then worried, and in time she began shielding her daughter. When the girl wanted a young adult novel featuring a Hitler Youth member, Warner bought a different book instead. When she asked her to "tell the story of the atom bomb," she refused. In the end, Warner denies the existence of a Youtube video showing the Walmart trampling death. A lie, she writes; "But it felt like good parenting." Her rationale? "If I allow such stories to enter Emilie's head, I fear that they will never leave."
A lot of the responses to Warner's blog were critical. "Children can be timid," one reader wrote. "But to wrap them in a bubble is doing them a disservice."
Agreed. But there's a limit. I'm not going to tell Larkin about, say, the abduction, rape and murder of a child without a very large dose of euphemism. Some reality is just too traumatizing.
That said, kids have a great capacity for accepting life as it is, and many difficult topics can be handled far more candidly than we might think. In any case, Larkin already knows when I'm upset, anxious, angry or sad. I believe that talking as straightforwardly as I can with her about what's making me feel this way will help her understand emotions and, eventually, handle them in her own life. In the process I've also found, to my pleasant surprise, that it helps me. The silver lining to the badtime dilemma is that familiar fringe benefit of being a parent — in explaining the world to a child, you learn it anew yourself.
Rand Richards Cooper is the travel correspondent for Bon Appétit, and is author of a novel, The Last to Go, and a collection of stories, Big as Life. Cooper is also a board member and judge for the Connecticut Young Writers Trust. He will serve as Co-Master Of Ceremonies for the Young Writers 12th Annual Celebration May 31, 2009 at Mark Twain House & Museum.