Prepare the child for the road

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

During coffee hour after church years ago, I watched a toddler crawl under a table. His mother followed her child, and placed her hand between him and the underside of the table top.

The mother was, of course, instinctively protecting her toddler from standing up, banging his head, and crying out in pain. I've done the same kind of thing many times when my children were that age. Now I watch my daughter protecting her 1½-year-old in the same way.

But I got to thinking. What if that mother at the coffee hour did not protect her child? What if the little tyke stood up and banged his head on the table top? He'd be in pain for a minute or two, but he'd never stand up under a table again, and he would have learned a painful lesson about "looking before leaping."

So I am asking myself, "Did that mom do her kid a favor by protecting him from pain? Or did she rob him of an opportunity to learn something about how to move around in a world with limits and consequences?"

I read a soundbite recently that goes, "Prepare your child for the road, not the road for your child."

The saying is based on the metaphor of life as a bumpy road. Most of us, I assume, would agree that the road of life has many bumps, some of them very painful. So here's the question I'm asking myself: "Should I teach my 4½-year-old granddaughter that life will often be difficult and sometimes painful, so that even at her young age she will be at least a little prepared for the inevitable bumps that upset her ride? Or do I try to pro-actively smooth out the bumps I see in her future before she gets to them?"

Or, to get current: "Do we prevent this young girl, whom I love, from hearing about Larry Nassar?" That, of course, is a judgment call I'm going to let her parents make. But I think you get the point.

As I listened last week to story after painful story from Larry Nassar's victims, I heard some of them acknowledge that they had been naïve and taught as children to trust people in positions of authority. I'm not trying to blame victims here. And shame on me if I ever let someone hurt my granddaughter. But I wonder what might not have happened if those young athletes had been taught that a small percentage of adults should not be trusted and if they had been coached on how to distinguish between the bad actors and the vast majority of adults who are trustworthy.

A second reason for telling those stories is that, in the telling, I will be reminded of my own responsibilities as an adult. When my granddaughter is placed in my care, I, as the adult, am the one responsible for her protection, not her. I will have to strike that balance between letting her experience appropriate amounts of independence while also shielding her from danger. Not protecting a toddler from banging his head on a table top is one thing. Letting a creep like Nassar scar my granddaughter for life is another. None of the many men I know in this town are, to my knowledge, creeps like Nassar. But, based on statistical probability, I have to suppose that there is at least one out there waiting.

Another reason for not always telling stories with happy endings is what we've learned about our bodies' immune systems. We've learned that white blood cells — which are designed to battle alien invaders — become better fighters and increase in number when they are exposed in manageable doses to some of those invaders.

One church management consultant taught me years ago a way to create a resilient, healthy congregation. He said every once in a while I should introduce a "non-lethal" controversy to the members, an issue which would expose divisions among them but not so toxic that it would produce permanent harm. His argument was that, in so doing, the "white blood cells" in the faith community would get strengthened. They would learn they didn't have to avoid controversy but could respond to it in healthy ways.

Larry Nassar's victims, like many combat veterans, experienced bumps in their roads which were so devastating that they overwhelmed their white cells, if you will, instead of strengthening and increasing them. Some wounds take a much longer time to heal, if they heal at all.

That said, public awareness has been raised and people are finally taking the problem of sexual assault seriously only because some women had the courage to risk their careers — and risk the humiliation of not being believed — to speak out publicly about what happened to them. I have to assume that the parents of those women prepared them for the road instead of trying to smooth out every bump because they "just wanted them to be happy."

It's always a judgment call when we try to decide how much of the world's fallen-ness to expose our children to and at what stage of their development. But no matter how difficult it is to apply the principle to real-life situations, the principle remains true: Protecting our children and grandchildren from all harm and struggle is doing them and our society no favor.  

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