It Appears I’ll Teach My Son Lies

My current goal: minimizing the things I say that he’ll have to unlearn later.

I remember learning in my high school American history class that Christopher Columbus wasn’t a hero. We also learned that the European colonization of the Americas was, in many ways, just a whole lot of violence and cultural imperialism. I remember finding out that Columbus wasn’t even a hero when it came to the well-documented boldness of his claim that he could sail around the earth to India. That, in fact, many mathematicians and scientists at the time had already concluded the earth was round. (They had deduced this from various observations, such as that a ship could be seen at a greater distance from the top of a lighthouse than from the ground—since a higher position extends one’s perspective of our ever-so-slightly curved horizon.) Apparently learned people of Columbus's day thought he was crazy not “because he thinks the earth is round” but “because he has drastically under-calculated how big this round earth is” (and indeed he had).

I felt like I’d been lied to. Needing to unlearn the Columbus legend that my elementary school days had ingrained in me felt (to high school-aged me) like I had been betrayed by the incompetence of whoever planned this curriculum. I was indignant! If we can’t be trusted with the truth because we’re too young, there must be a better solution than to teach us untruths that we’ll eventually have to unlearn.

I have a son. He’s two, so I hope I haven’t yet taught him too many things he’ll have to unlearn later. But recently I've been feeling some unexpected sympathy for my elementary school teachers, and I’m wondering, is what they did inevitable?

I mean, we’re talking about deeply embedded cultural stories. Christopher Columbus!

My wife and I take our toddler to church. In a lot of the church world there is an underlying message that “the Bible is great, so the more exposure to the Bible the better.” There are publishing companies built on parents wanting “kid-friendly” versions of Bible stories that they can read to their children.

But many Bible stories—like any rich, cultural stories—are heavy and complex and troubling. What if these are just not meant to be kid-friendly? Take the story of Noah and the flood. Any kid in a churchgoing family knows this one because of all the animals. The story sits in the middle of the 11-chapter preamble to the book of Genesis, which develops the argument that people are prone to arrogance, cruelty, tribalism and violence. Tribalism and violence (as well as the details of how many elements this story shares with other flood stories of its era) seem to be a bit too much for children to comprehend, so let’s just say: people were being bad boys and girls. That’s kid-relatable!

It seems to me that the danger of dumbed-down "kid versions" of things that are actually serious or complicated is that they teach that life, the world and the universe can be understood in black-and-white terms. Eventually the real world will break that down, and so sooner or later they’ll need to unlearn a lot of things. If they’re like sensitive me, the process will introduce them to disenchantment and cynicism.

Again, my son is two, so what do I know? But I imagine that when your child poses a hard question about a complex matter you want to respond with something. Or maybe your kid wants to know what’s up when some heavy global (or family) event turns all the adults in their lives somber or prickly. And “I’ll explain when you’re older” just seems mean. So I’m imagining you dumb things down a bit. Does that need to answer questions in a way a child can understand mean that I as a parent unavoidably have to offer simplistic explanations, destined to be unlearned?

Now this may be more important to me than to the average new parent. Come to think of it, I remember being the only one in my American history class so affected by the revelations about Columbus. But I do want my son to grow up trusting me as a provider of worthwhile help. He is not going to be a child forever, and I hope that the way I teach him and shape him will have enough truthfulness and depth to grow with him as he develops. My own disenchantment and cynicism came from my elementary school social studies teachers. But for too many people I know, theirs came from their parents.

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