When I was eight years old, my uncle died of complications from the AIDS virus.
For various reasons, my parents decided it would be best to never tell their children about the circumstances surrounding our uncle's death. At first, they were just trying to protect us from the evils of the world. It eventually became habit and the secret stuck—for years—until, one day, my mom slipped up and accidentally mentioned it. Only then did my sister and I learn what had happened.
Had my mother not slipped up, I probably still wouldn't know to this day.
Are children in today's society sheltered too much by their parents? Too little? (Or, is the porridge just right?) And, since this is a question that undoubtedly must be applied on a family by family basis, by what metric does one determine what is or is not suitable to reveal to a child (and at what age to reveal it)?
Unfortunately, this is a question that falls well beyond the scope of one simple writeup—indeed, one could fill E2's entire database with opinions, ideas, and testimonials about this subject without much of a chance of ever really reaching the "correct" answer (much less a consensus of opinions!). After all, parents are going to parent their children however they deem fit, regardless of what a bunch of eggheads on some Internet site have to say about it.
For that reason, I want to focus on a smaller piece of the puzzle. In this writeup, I will be assuming a premise I believe most people will accept, that is: adults can be, and often are, harmed by ignorance. Assuming this notion that a lack of knowledge in and of itself can be harmful to adults, I hope to argue that this can very much be the case (in fact, even more so) with children. The discussion will center around one simple concept/question:
To what extent should children be protected from the "real world?"
I should point out that this writeup attempts to walk a fine line between being labeled "duh, well, that's obvious" and "good lord, he's advocating anarchy!" To avoid starting off on the wrong foot, let's take a quick moment and examine what I am not arguing:
Most people already accept that certain "adult-type" concepts should be shared with children for the child's own good. For example, most adopted children (that I've met) were informed that they were adopted almost immediately, just as soon as they were old enough to know exactly what "adopted" meant. So discussing topics like this one, e.g., suggesting that adopted kids be informed of that fact early (rather than late) in their lives, is bound to draw a groan from the "duh, well, that's obvious" crowd.
Likewise, while many people disagree on exactly when children/adolescents should be exposed to certain things, there's a pretty solid general consensus that there are more than a few things that simply are not appropriate for kids. For example, if I were to suggest that children should be given a copy of All About Pornography: A Pop-Up Book at age 5, or if I said parents should teach their kids how to play quarters at age 9, or if I said kids should be allowed to watch whatever movies they want the moment they can work a remote control, the "good lord, he's advocating anarchy" crowd would be quick to respond with a volley of eggs and rotten fruit aimed at my head.
Clearly, children below a certain age can't possibly comprehend certain things, and thus can be confused (and even harmed) by them. There are pragmatic reasons for shielding children from certain things while they're young. For example, many parents find that once their children hear "dirty words" for the first time, it's difficult to keep them from repeating those words at inappropriate times (in school, church, etc.). So a kind of "security through obscurity" is understandable in many cases.
I'm also going to attempt to avoid getting trapped in common arguments, such as whether it is appropriate to "shield" children from the world through the use of private schools or home schooling. These arguments are important, but in this setting they will simply distract us from the broader inquiry.
So what in the hell are you saying, Springs? Excellent question. My general concern in this writeup is for the situation in which a child is harmed by a parent's natural instinct to "protect" them from the world. That is to say:
In many cases, children who are "protected" from one thing or another suffer unintended—yet quite avoidable—negative consequences.
It is my argument that when parents keep secrets from their children "for their own good," they may actually be robbing them of something vital (knowledge) that, as a result, indirectly harms them...despite the parents' best intentions.
Uncle Steve wasn't officially my uncle; he was actually my godparent. But as is the case with most Southern families, we don't commonly walk around calling folks "Godfather" or "Godmother" unless we're in the mafia (which, for the most part, we weren't). Besides, Steve and his wife were always very nice to my sister and me—much more so than any of our "real" aunts and uncles—so as far as I'm concerned, he very much earned that title.
Since I was so young when he died, I barely remember anything about him. I know he was a gentle and compassionate man. I remember that he's the one who taught me how to play "chopsticks" on the piano. I know he loved his wife very much; and I know that when he died, it pretty much killed her, too.
When Steve got sick, my parents told my sister and I that he had pneumonia. We weren't taken to see him while he was in the hospital, nor were allowed to attend the wake or the funeral. Ostensibly, this was because it would have been hard for us children to see a close friend die (which undoubtedly would have been the case), but truthfully, they were shielding us from the doctors, family members, friends—anyone who might have accidentally let slip the truth about the circumstances of his passing.
I wouldn't learn the truth about Steve's illness for almost ten years.
It wasn't such a difficult ruse to pull off, actually. Around that same time, Jim Henson, a celebrity close to most gen-xers' hearts, had died at a relatively young age of a respiratory illness. So the concept of a healthy man in his twenties rapidly deteriorating and subsequently dying of pneumonia wasn't that difficult of a concept to swallow...especially for an eight year old who still believed in Santa Claus.
As the years passed, my tiny adolescent mind would occasionally pick up on clues that suggested there was more to Steve's death than I had been told. The most palpable example comes from when I was about eleven or twelve years old and a trip to the family doctor revealed (and I believe I can quote this almost exactly), my runny nose and sore throat were "nothing too serious, just a bit of bronchitis and maybe the beginnings of pneumonia."
I wonder if my parents ever explained to the doctor why I suddenly (and inexplicably) started freaking out in his office, totally convinced that I was on the verge of death.
My parents calmed me down, explaining that "the beginnings of pneumonia" is nothing at all like a full-blown case of the disease—the disease that had taken away the only uncle who ever seemed to enjoy spending time with me, the only uncle I ever really liked. In retrospect, knowing that my survival was never in question, the whole thing makes me laugh. But consider: did my lack of knowledge regarding Steve's condition impact my life in any way?
From adolescence until about age 17, I was quite a little conservative twat. No offense to any conservative twats who might be reading this, but for a while there, I was the teenage equivalent of a Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reiley love child. Chalk it up to my being born in the South, or the influence of my various redneck friends, or some kind of genetic predisposition for acting like an idiot, but I had all the bases covered: women belonged in the kitchen, affirmative action and welfare were just African Americans' way of getting stuff without having to work for it, abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin, and the Democrats are all going to Hell.
I was viciously anti-choice and anti-gay. And like all of my other friends, I figured AIDS was God's way of punishing homosexuals—a punishment that had somehow managed to spread to the heterosexual population. (Apparently God isn't quite so picky when he decides to wipe out a group of people, and his shotgun approach to genocide was "accidentally" taking out straights, too.)
These twisted beliefs were encouraged by pretty much every person I ran into, because all my friends had grown up in "good, conservative homes," and thus had the same whacked-out, intolerant views as me. It wasn't until my senior year in high school, when I came to the conclusion that I was no longer a Christian, that the various bigotries began to melt away.
Over the next few years, for better or for worse, I developed into one of those very same liberals my younger self used to curse all the time. Once I decided to leave religion behind, concepts like "fetuses have souls" and "gay people are sinners," just kind of fell by the wayside, as they had no meaning anymore.
So, here's the $64,000 question: could any of this have been avoided?
Time and time again, studies have pointed out that it is much more difficult to hate something with a human face than it is to hate a stereotype. I spent an enormous portion of my life hating people for no damn reason whatsoever. I hated the pro-choicers because I'd never met anyone who'd ever had an abortion (as far as I knew). I hated gay people because I'd never met one (as far as I knew).
All the research seems to suggest that usually, when people actually meet the people they've grown to hate, they often change their tune. Hell, for a relevant example look at Vice President and rabid conservative Dick Cheney, who attacked gays every chance he got until his daughter came out of the closet, after which he almost immediately backed off his intolerant stance.
Keeping all that in mind, consider the following:
I grew up thinking I'd never met a gay man, yet my uncle was bisexual. (Later, when my parents divorced, my father also came out...though he wouldn't tell his family for quite a while longer.)
I grew up thinking AIDS was punishment for bad people, never knowing one of my favorite people had died from it.
I grew up thinking only evil people had abortions, yet my mother had one when I was 6 years old. (I actually didn't find out about this secret until I was 24.)
So the obvious question is, would any of the information above have affected the way I lived my life as a teenager? Had I been given information when I was younger, rather than being shielded from it, would I have taken a different path than I eventually chose?
I believe the answer to this question is a clear and resounding "yes."
When I was a child, had I been given the chance to interact with someone I knew to be gay or bisexual, I never would have fallen for the religious hatemongers' claims that "homosexuals are all evil"—yet without that exposure, I did indeed fall for those claims...hook, line, and sinker.
Similarly, if I had been given the chance to come to terms with the fact that my own mother had had an abortion, it seems inconceivable that I would have been as quick to judge others in similar situations.
As evidence for these claims I submit that when I was 17 and had my dramatic about-face with regard to religion, one of the very reasons I began questioning in the first place was that when my father finally "came out" to his family, I had trouble reconciling my feelings for him and my religio-political views on homosexuality.
And thus, my argument would be: if this tiny bit of trivia (my father's homosexuality) was enough to cause me to rethink—and, eventually, abandon—my entire religious and political world view, isn't it reasonable to believe that I would have never adopted those views in the first place, had I been better equipped with the knowledge (my uncle's disease, my mother's abortion) that was already available?
Besides trying to "shelter" us, my parents had other reasons for keeping certain things from my sister and I, but most of these reasons were simply unacceptable. First of all, we were never told about my uncle's AIDS in part because my parents were afraid of being associated with the ensuing "scandal." (Remember, this was back in the 1980s, and especially in the South, AIDS was still something very much to be ashamed of.) The same type of logic applied to my mother's abortion—under the flawed assumption that there is something wrong and shameful with terminating a pregnancy, my mother opted to keep it secret from her children, for fear that the neighbors might find out.
But even taking the excuses above into account, the question simply becomes: should parents keep things from (and/or actively lie to) their children "for their own sake?"
Considering that most of my parents' concerns were unfounded, one can hardly claim that I was lied to "for my own sake." In fact, it would seem that the lies came very much at my own detriment. I rely on an age-old axiom: people cannot be harmed by information, but they can be harmed by ignorance.
It is highly unlikely that, for any of the examples above, knowledge of the "secrets" kept from me would have caused me any harm. At worst, I would have simply ignored them and continued on my merry way toward rabid conservativism. But at best, and (it would seem) quite probably, that knowledge could have better equipped me to handle the temptations of prejudice and bigotry when I would later encounter them.
The point of this exercise wasn't to call into question the parenting skills of my mother or father, nor was it to blame them for the choices I made during my tenure as a bigoted ass. My parents did what they thought was best at the time; their motives were postive even if the results weren't what they might have hoped.
What I hope I've done here is to question the concept of keeping secrets from children "for their own good." The suggestion is that, in most cases, such omissions are rarely beneficial to the child involved.
As for questions of timing—i.e. at what age a child is emotionally and intellectually able to comprehend certain subjects—anything I would say would be pure conjecture on my part, as I am not a child psychologist. Clearly, however, such determinations are relative to the maturity and intelligence of the child, suggesting that parents themselves are the ones best suited to determine when and if a certain secret should be divulged.
Despite this uncertainty regarding when it is appropriate for parents to "let kids in" on the family secrets, I would posit that there is still a quite palpable moral to be gained from all of this, which is:
Within a family, as children grow towards maturity, most (if not all) secrets should vanish. Eventually, a family should have no secrets at all.
To restate it from a slightly different angle: the more knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to handle the future. But the opposite is also true: with less knowledge, we are less equipped—and therefore more likely to be taken in by evangelists of bigotry and intolerance, more likely to be taken in by those who prey upon ignorance.