My kindergartner is eating the school lunchmeat.
This wouldn’t be a problem except that I don’t consider it ethically defensible to eat factory-farmed meat, and I would bet my life that the cow my son is eating was not raised on what he calls a farm. But this post is not about the ethics of meat-eating; it’s about how to deal with the reality that our children will believe and act in ways that we consider to be ethically wrong and/or harmful to them, even while knowing that mommy, arguably the most important person in the world, considers it wrong. How can they stand to break our hearts? And how can we protect ourselves from the tornadoes of pain that are headed our way?
If I forbid my little boy to do something that I cannot, in fact, control (since he is at school when he makes his lunch decision), then I risk a life-long, resentment filled, power struggle. Alternately, I can choose to guilt or nag him, but this tactic is equally unlikely to provide us with an open line of communication. In both cases, he would probably end up lying, either to save me from heartbreak or to shield his fragile self from my disappointment.
He won’t exercise his will solely for the sake of my beliefs; unless they become his beliefs, he won’t comply.
In time, my son’s defiant penchant for lunchmeat will extend to probably all the following categories: friends, academic performance, sports, hobbies, religion, drugs, language, etc. I know, in the end, that I must find a way to position myself out of perennial disappointment and into a loving acceptance of otherness.
The best predictor of who your child will be is who you are. This intimidates me, since it would be easier to just tell my child what I believe. But that’s not enough; I would also need my home to reflect my priorities. Still, even practicing what I preach offers no guarantees: I know plenty of vegetarian mothers of meat-eating sons and plenty of Christians raising atheist children.
At five years old, my little companion has taught me that I cannot force another person, no matter how small and no matter how deeply committed I am, to adopt my beliefs.
Mister Rogers called it “the basic relationship.” He said it’s what we are constantly working on with our children. There are no shortcuts to building mutual respect other than to have open conversations about bristly subjects as well as downy ones. It begins with me digging my cleats into the field of cooperation instead of coercion, and working on this basic relationship.
If we play well, my son will see that he and I are both hustling for team Santiago. Victory begins when I understand that I am raising a human being whose priorities differ from mine, and it ends with this thought: if I want to raise a critical thinker with a strong sense of self and values— one who is capable of resisting peer pressure when his age catches up with him— the power I am left with is to offer him the tools to think through his ethical questions.
The era of supplying him with correct answers is bygone, and in its place, are the years of questioning alongside him. Above all, I must love him through and through, in the midst of his bumpy search for truth.
If I want to raise a critical thinker with a strong sense of self and values— one who is capable of resisting peer pressure— the power I am left with is to offer him the tools to think through his ethical questions.