Fumbling into a discussion of difficult realities, and finding there's no right time.
It started, as serious conversations sometimes do, with spaghetti and meatballs.
Earlier in the week, my son had received a bookmark from his first-grade classroom. It was for a reading initiative sponsored by Fazoli’s, the fast-casual Italian restaurant chain, and it challenged students to read and log five books (with sign-off from a responsible adult or, if one was not available, me.) Once completed, it would entitle the bearer to a free children’s meal with the purchase of an adult meal.
Now, my son had never been to Fazoli’s, and wasn’t terribly familiar with the concept, but he loves a challenge and surged through it with competitive relish over the course of a couple days. Saturday, he proudly brandished a full bookmark, and so we piled the family into the van to go claim his hard-earned spoils at a location a few miles away.
We had always intended to bring the food home, but had decided it would be easier to go inside and order from the counter, where the kids could get a better look at the menu. Arriving at the doors, though, we found them locked, with a note tacked up inside indicating that the dining room was closed.
“No problem, guys!”, I cheerily noted. “We’ll just go through the drive-through.”
“Why is the inside closed?”, he asked, climbing back into the van.
“Well, they must not have enough people able to work right now, so they’re just doing what they can. See that sign there? It says they’re hiring. All these stores are.”
“Why can’t they find people to work?”
I could’ve veered off into some Dad-from-Calvin-and-Hobbes obfuscation at this point, but I didn’t want to, much as I respect the man’s entire oeuvre. (I still believe the sun sets in Flagstaff.) I’ve always tried to tell my kids the truth when I think it possible to do so, and I’ve had to listen to too many people grousing that “no one wants to work” recently to let this one go by.
He’d inadvertently opened a can of worms.
“There’s a lot of reasons, really. The pandemic changed a lot of things for people. There are older people who might’ve wanted to work part-time, even though they didn’t need to, but decided that it was too risky these days. Same with teenagers who might just work to make a little extra money. Peoples’ priorities shift, and it might not make sense for them anymore. There’s also a lot of people who’ve gotten too sick to work, or even died.”
No need to gloss over that. These kids have had portions of three school years interrupted by the pandemic. They know about it already.
“Oh. So it’s all because of the pandemic?”
“Well… not entirely, no. A lot of businesses have relied on people coming here from other countries to work, and the government stopped a lot of people from doing that the last few years.”
“Why would they stop people from coming here?”
There’s a lot of explanations I could have given here.
“If you want to move to this country, there’s a process you’re supposed to go through called ‘immigration’. You take a bunch of tests, and do a bunch of background checks, things like that. The thing is, it’s very hard and very expensive and it takes a long time to do. I’ve had friends go through it, and it took them years to finish. Some people don’t have that time or money, and they need work right away, so they just come here anyway. That’s against the law, but they’re just trying to take care of their families, like we take care of you guys.”
“If they’re not allowed to come, what happens if they get caught?”
“Sometimes they’d get kicked out, or put in jail. Sometimes the government would even take kids away from their parents.”
“What happens to the kids?”
“They’d go to camps… they called them detention centers, but they’re sort of like prisons.”
He went silent. I wondered if I’d gone too far.
“No one is going to take you away from us, kiddo.”
“… but what if we have to go somewhere else?”
“We are very fortunate. We’re lucky to have been born in this country, lucky that we’re citizens of this country. We’re lucky that Mommy and I both had families who were able to care for us, and that we could get good educations and good jobs. We have a nice warm house and food and beds to sleep in. That means we’re very lucky. That’s called privilege—it doesn’t mean that we haven’t have to work hard, or that we don’t have tough times now and then, but it does mean that a lot of things that other people have to deal with don’t happen to us.”
He was listening intently.
“Of course, that privilege means that we have the responsibility to stand up for the people who do have to deal with those things. Just because something doesn’t affect us personally doesn’t mean it’s not our problem. Does that make sense?”
He nodded quietly. We were almost home.
“I want you to know that you’re safe, buddy. Bad things do happen in this world, and we’re lucky to be safe from a lot of them. It’s important to know when they happen, though.”
I let it drop from there. We unloaded the car, the kids ate their pasta and breadsticks, and we all moved on for the evening. I wondered if I’d screwed up; I’d just wanted to be honest, but over the course of a fifteen-minute care ride I’d ended up burdening a six-and-half-year-old kid with the evils of the world simply because a Fazoli’s dining room was closed. Was this really an age-appropriate thing to tell him?
That phrase crops up a lot, and often for the wrong reasons. It can be wielded as a cudgel against teaching children the truth of the world, as it was last week when a Tennessee school board voted to bar the teaching of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 graphic novel Maus to schoolchildren. The book, an unflinching retelling of the real-life horrors of the Holocaust, was deemed “inappropriate” for 12-year-olds on account of a few instances of nudity, profanity, and—according to one board member—its depiction of “killing”, as though there’s a way to educate about the murder of millions without mentioning killing or being rude about it.
I read a thoughtful Twitter thread by writer and illustrator Gwen C. Katz yesterday that suggested the ultimate response would be one of “pajamafication”, referring to a Holocaust-related book often deemed more “age-appropriate” than Spiegelman’s novel, John Boyne’s 2006 novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is tailor-made for classroom use. It's taught at countless schools and it's squeaky-clean of any of the parent-objectionable material you might find in Maus, Night, or any of the other first-person accounts of the Holocaust. It's also a terrible way to teach the Holocaust. I'm not going to exhaustively enumerate the book's flaws—others have done so—but I'll summarize the points that are common to this phenomenon in various contexts.
First, obviously, the context shift. Maus, Night, et al are narrated by actual Jews who were in concentration camps. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is narrated by a German boy. The Jewish perspective is completely eliminated. Second, the emphasis on historical innocence. Bruno isn't antisemitic. He has no idea that anything bad is happening. He happily befriends a Jewish boy with absolutely no prejudice. Thus we're reassured that you too, gentle reader, are innocent. You too would have have a childlike lack of prejudice and you too would be such a sweet summer child that you would have no idea the place next door is a death camp.
The whole thread is excellent, and worth clicking through to read, but one key point that Katz illuminates is the tendency among many of us to cast the default state of the unaffected as that of the innocent.
This does not affect us, so it is not on us. We had nothing to do with it. We’re the good guys.
Sunday morning, I opened Facebook to see a flashback to a post I’d made five years prior, in response to the first of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel bans. The post included a news photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015, shortly after my son was born.
I don’t think a single piece of photojournalism has ever affected me as much as that photo, and though I’m not especially quick to tears I find myself blurry-eyed even thinking about it, let alone looking at it. A child much like my own, forced to flee his home, a boy who never made it to a safe shore. A family who only wanted the kind of life we have—safe, secure, free of painful truths—shattered in doing so.
There is never going to be an appropriate age to tell someone about the world, because so much of what happens out there is inappropriate for any age. Some children find this out early. It’s only fair to tell the truth to the ones who don’t.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
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