My parents were different from all the other parents I’d ever known in a lot of ways.
They were cheerful, effusive, and warm; their traditions, music, and art were adventuresome and full of unusual whimsy. But most of all, they both made it a point to be communicative about their Christian faith with me and my three brothers, who were then almost all younger than 4. They had faith but were largely indifferent about the details, preferring to brush it off and move on with the lives of a busy family and various jobs.
“What’s God?” was a phrase I overheard being casually and (sometimes) derisively repeated and finally overheard repeated itself as a question. This was a big, precious question for my parents. They paused for a moment, trying to answer it directly. They’d never figured it out. It was the sort of thing that once you tried to answer “what’s God” then everything else suddenly seemed equally puzzling. My brothers wondered whether they should be secretive about this, and why they couldn’t just say: “I don’t know!” My parents answered as sincerely as they could but it was hard to sense even a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
In a poem written by the author Jesse Newton, the South Bronx provides a masterclass in how non-threateningly good and so lifelike the narrative of a toddler and non-existent play can be. The parent narrates an evening filled with other people’s stories in a cohesive and conversational way: “He chose a toy car, put on the right gear, and left it in a field by a coal waste dump where the slag in the ground lifted up to reveal a long clay trunk. The car was loose, like sponges on crystal bearings. He did it so slowly, it seemed for miles.” From the way the father explains the thing before explaining what it was like, the child feels safe and at ease. And as the child then starts trying to move the thing around and explains that he put on the right gear and left it by the coal dump where the slag lifted up to reveal the car, and explains that he’s been trying to put it together, the children are anchored and feel safe.
This explains a lot of why we think children need to be properly exposed to the outside world as quickly as possible. We know that when we don’t give them everything they need early they just watch and absorb less of it. Not being a reader when you’re 3 is not a reason to criticize your mother for reading to you, as if her love of books and knowledge of literature was somehow inhibiting. The whole point is that everyone wants their child to learn by, learning-by-experience. This might sound overly idealistic, but Newton’s language helps remind us that we need not all of our things right away to be useful, whether or not we choose to admit it. It’s this dualism that makes our job as parents of children easier: Give your child the future goods only when they have already built up his own comprehension of the present.
At least some of the responsibility for this lies with us—both as parents and as human beings. We are not the only possible source of meaning to our children, and it’s important to remember that. Our language tells them who we are, but also that the language they use to convey their own meaning is still up for grabs, open to interpretation. Keep that in mind as you talk to your child about his success or failure in school. The best way to make him or her learn something is, as Newton writes: “to hold it open for them, in that empty, lonely land where each of us has only our own mind to play with, to give it each of us a carefully calibrated way to get it working its way through the debris, through the wall, through the need for plans.”