Kids Have the Right to Be Rightly Disturbed

It wasn't a proud moment. There I was in the Toys “R” Us checkout line clutching “the thing's” face to my thigh, trying desperately to avoid eye contact with any of the other shoppers.

As I slid the object onto the checkout counter, I deftly obscured it with a box of dominoes, just so no one watching would be confused as to my moral caliber. There I was, plunking down $14.95 to buy for my little nephew John Thomas the hideous, snake-headed villain Hydra, dastardly nemesis of action figure Max Steele.

The checkout lady picked up the toy and pronounced a guttural sentence on it: “Yehhhhck.”

I was ready with the 4-year-old wisdom that had prevailed on me to make the buy: “Auntie Barbara, you have to have a villain or there is nothing for Max Steele to do.”

You have to have a villain. Villains make heroism possible.

Later on — I admit it, after a beer — I asked John Thomas why Hydra is so ugly. Again, the thinking came back clear and unambiguous: “Because,” he said while practically rolled his eyes at me, “he's bad.”

There will be a time for John Thomas to find out about nuanced evil.

Very soon, his own nature will teach him how to say one thing while feeling another. He'll learn soon enough that evil can disguise itself as a very good and desirable thing. He'll learn to associate evil choices with an interior ugliness. Right now he is 4 and learning there is such a thing as evil. There are good choices and bad choices, and bad choices are ugly.

Apprehending nuance is a gift of maturity. It is a later step in development that, however, is dependent on these simpler truths.

There is so much smut and crassness raining down all around us in this culture that the impulse of Christian parents is to try to ward off all faces of evil from their kids. We have become victims of a reactionary pendulum, which has us resisting anything that might introduce darkness into our kids' lives.

This kind of parenting might actually cripple kids by rendering them completely inadequate to live in their own very perilous times. Kids need help to come to grips with the evil and darkness that are a constant part of life in “this valley of tears.” The Wicked Witch, Captain Hook, Darth Vader and, yes, Hydra, can all be means for kids to make sense of the evil in the world around them and even do battle with it.

At a screening of The Prince of Egypt a few years ago, I remember a critic for a Christian magazine agreeing with me that the film was an amazing work of art that had really moved her.

But then she noted, “Of course, I probably won't let my 8-year-old see it, because the images of the slaves early on were just too disturbing.”

Indeed they were.

The film opens with an extended sequence of the sufferings of the Hebrews at the hands of the Pharaohs. The Hebrew cry to God rises up out of the mud pits with a compelling desperation. I have only experienced that kind of prayer a few times in my life, but I know it was real and probably holy.

The question is, do we have a right to keep these kinds of truths from children? The story of salvation belongs to them as much as to us. It's like a doctor deciding not to tell the patient that the diagnosis is cancer. Is it really the best thing for the patient, or is it more the easiest thing for the doctor?

Being disturbed is not the same thing as being violated. When I was younger, my mother used to “disturb” us kids awake by 9 a.m. during summer vacation. She'd walk in our bedroom, snap up the shades and loudly proclaim, “What a beautiful day! How can you lay in bed?” It wasn't really a question.

There is no easy way to parent today. Get over it. It's unfair that Britney Spears has introduced sexiness to kids who should be more concerned with Elmo. It's infuriating that Clinton's Oval Office antics made unmentionable acts the stuff of “South Park” parody.

But this is the cultural hand our kids have been dealt.

These are challenging, complex times, and it is an evil to try to reduce a complex moment to a simple one just because it is easier to handle things that way.

Trying to block out the culture is absurd and futile. It is like a mouse tapped in a white room with a starving lion with the mouse saying, “I'm just going to ignore him.” Good luck with that.

Even if you could block out the culture, how is that a Christian response?

A better strategy is to parent with the media, not against it.

The key is to introduce your child to a kind evil before the world would introduce it to them. Parents need to get there just a few moments before Satan does with his tricks and disguises.

Video games, music, television and movies need to be encountered in a family council. One at a time. In a painstaking process of teaching essential skills for this generation: How is this production working on me intellectually? How did it make me feel about myself, my family, my country, my faith? What are the mistaken assumptions here? What is good here? What techniques make the message of this show so compelling?

We need to recall that our children were chosen for this time by God himself. The kids God is creating today have the stuff to cope with the challenges of this time and be the Gospel to it. Our job as the breeders of the next generation of apostles (and — somebody needs to say it — of martyrs) is to nurture that stuff, not stifie it with fear masquerading as protectiveness. The emphasis should be on preparation, not protection.

Barbara Nicolosi writes from Los Angeles, California.