We’ve reached that place in her life where Little Bean has begun to, maybe not wrestle with, but comprehend a bigger picture; a sort of foggy realization that – how do I put this diplomatically – life and humans can be unpleasant.
Further, that she won’t be able to ignore or avoid that unpleasantness.
In fact, pain is actually a feature of living, rather than a bug. And that’s where I come in. I can’t keep her away from it, but I can help guide her through it, and perhaps, develop methods that allow her to stay grounded and maintain perspective.
This is all tricky going, and I’m not certain I’m any good at it. In fact, it’s not yet clear to me if I even know what I’m talking about. But I try.
Over the course of the past couple weeks, a few moments have led to uncomfortable – though not surprising – discussions. We’ve been visiting Memorial Stones across the state that will appear this spring in a field guide we’re writing. One of them we visited recently was Henry Wilson, U.S. Grant’s vice-president and a stanch abolitionist who helped pass the county’s first Civil Rights Act. The other was Richard Potter, the son of a slave and the country’s first black performer to gain nationwide fame as a magician and ventriloquist.
As one would expect, in particular because my daughter has been learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in school, issues of equal rights and slavery came up.
“That’s when someone is holding someone like a prisoner and forcing them to do work for them, right daddy?” So, there we were, myself and my 8-year-old, standing near the grave of one of New Hampshire’s most famous black men, talking about slavery.
That discussion was between us and I’ll leave it at that. But don’t underestimate a child’s ability to comprehend emotional input. Don’t lie. Keep it general. Stay with the facts. Give them time and space to ask questions.
I’m not grappling with anything new here, but it is a different world. It’s always a different world, isn’t it?
I recall a conversation not too long ago with an acquaintance who surprised me by suggesting that I was reading too much into these moments, that in responding to moments like these, I was allowing my daughter to “control the narrative.” She said it just like that.
Despite her cringe-worthy “advice” I sort of understand what she was trying to say. I understand because my father would have said something just like that. To him, children were children, unable to deal with such dense subject matter.
“Don’t worry about that, Daniel,” he’d say. “That’s for when you get older.”
But looking back, now, with my own child asking those same sorts of questions, that approach just feels, what’s the best word, lazy? I get that this parenting thing is tough, and we’re tired all the time. But that’s just kicking the can down the road.
There’s a living history approach to these visits that affords me the opportunity to bond with my daughter, and perhaps takes the edge off some of the sharper realizations about life and people for her.
I don’t mean LARPing living history. I mean the sort of interactive connection with real-world history – even if it’s a plaque on a rock – that begs questions, and helps her think about her role in this whole crazy experiment.
I didn’t have a whole lot of that growing up because my father either didn’t want me to worry about those deeper questions or, more likely, he was just exhausted when he got home and it was easier to not engage.
At the very least, I want her to ask questions. Of me. Of her teachers. Of her miraculous place in the cosmos. And I’ll try to answer
Some days are better than others. Some days, sometimes history itself, tests you. I want her to learn that even though we’ll never have all the answers, we’ll at least keep asking the questions. It’s the least any of us can do.