In the story of Rip Van Winkle, a colonial era man falls alseep on a moutain, only to awaken twenty years later to a world he barely recognizes. Many of us may feel something like Van Winkle’s character today, except we have witnessed profound change in the world as we know it in the span of weeks and months, not years.
The world is on fire with the flames of a dangerous virus, endemic racism, and economic uncertainty. For some of us, our personal lives may also be in upheavel. We cannot know what the world will look like when the flames finally die down, only that it will certainly be different from what was before.
Parents feel the reverberations of these changes keenly: tension, hostility, and a lack of empathy seem to seethe from our culture, especially online, creating toxic spaces for families who instead long for support and guidance in the hard work of childrearing. Many working parents now find themselves as stay-at-home but often still working parents, and many have been thrust into the role of “crisis homeschoolers.” The support networks for parents, whether seasoned homeschoolers or new, have collapsed, and both parents and children feel the stress and pressure of new routines and limited options.
And while figuring out how to teach math and keep the kids entertained are certainly important issues for most parents, there is also a far deeper concern. Inside the hearts and minds of many parents, including myself, there is a frightening question beating like a tattoo, again and again…
“How can I possibly protect my children from this strange and scary world?”
I think most of us know the answer, too. At least, the answer came to me as I ran down a beautiful gravel path this morning, on a brief respite from the problems of my own life and the larger world.
The answer is, simply, we can’t.
We cannot shelter away pandemics, racism, or the realities of dwindling bank accounts. We cannot conceal from our children, who are always more perceptive than we think, our own internal crises as we question our priorities in this fragile life and deal with the unrelenting forces of change, always change. We cannot lie to kids and prepare them for a world that doesn’t exist, a world of ease and predictability.
The best we can do, I think, is to be deliberate, loving, and present for our children as we gently and age appropriately talk with them about the world’s troubles and our own struggles within that world. We can answer their questions and give them as much grace as possible when they balk against what they cannot control.
We can be compassionate when they complain about how hot and uncomfortable it is to wear a mask. We can read them stories of great civil rights leaders who cared and made a difference. We can be an example of love and tolerance in a sometimes hateful and angry world. We can remind them that poverty can breed creativity and that people are more important than things.
We can turn off devices and the news and show our kids the baby birds in the nest on the porch, reminding them that there are still good and beautiful things in this world. Our children will learn from us whether to be led by awe and curiosity or to be led by fear and cynicism.
The only thing we can truly predict is that our love for our children will always be there; letting them know this, every single day, may indeed have the power to ease the pain of the slings and arrows of this life.
Love is the only thing that will have the power to help us and our children be strong enough to adapt to whatever strange new world awaits when we, like Rip Van Winkle, descend from the mountain and begin the brave and challening work of starting again.