Raising a Child While the World Burns
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
One of the most important things we can teach our kids now is the ability to think for themselves
I find it odd that as our world becomes more unstable and disturbing, we don’t spend much time talking about the people who will be most affected by what’s happening: our youth.
As crises mount like Jenga blocks on a three-legged table, our children have become afterthoughts. They’ve sacrificed their social and educational development and meaningful life experiences to keep others “safe” during the pandemic. They’re experiencing the lasting effects of device addiction that's manifesting in higher rates of mental illness, drug use and suicide. They’ll be forced to live with an unfathomable debt tab that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have racked up (and benefited from) for decades. And they’ll have to reckon with the fallout from irreversible climate change.
These young people didn’t sign up for these catastrophic failures, but they’ll be saddled with the consequences. Yet we rarely discuss what we can do to help them deal with any of it. We’re just fixated on what’s happening to us — the people who apparently matter most — right now.
When my son Morgan was born almost thirteen years ago, I knew the train carrying humanity was wobbling on the track. I just had no idea how close it was to derailing. When I first held him in my arms in the hospital, I remember being overwhelmed with joy about his future and what was possible. As good as my life had been, I promised myself that I would do everything possible to make sure his was better.
Over the past decade, that’s all changed. As the future has loomed into sharper focus, I’ve incrementally lowered my expectations for the kind of life that will be possible for my son to lead.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that we probably won’t have the cash to send him to the Ivy League schools I attended; sending him to any four year college without hitching him to six figure debt might be next to impossible.
I’ve accepted that the chances of him earning an income that allows him to live as comfortably as I did are slim and getting slimmer; I’m hoping he’ll carve out a career that keeps a roof over his head and covers decent health insurance and the basic necessities.
I know he’ll probably never be able to buy a home of his own; he’ll be lucky to hang onto the house we leave him and keep up with rising property taxes.
I used to find this reality overwhelming, but now I realize that’s because I was projecting my expectations based on a paradigm of “success” that’s virtually obsolete. When I pulled focus and reminded myself what this brief trip on earth is really about, I realized that building better material lives for ourselves isn’t what matters most; the goal of the human experience is to become better people so we can build a better world for ourselves and everyone else in it.
That’s the kind of “successful" life we rarely talk about because society doesn’t seem to value it (at least not now).
It should be obvious to anyone who’s not in deep stage sleep that humanity is nearing an epic crossroads. Gen Z and the generations that follow it will be the most pivotal in history. They’ll have a once-in-a-millenia opportunity to take our species in two vastly different directions: the chance to tear down the world as we know it and build it anew, or to double down on our mistakes and doom us to a soul-crushing, dystopian-AI-totalitarian future.
They’ll be tasked with making these crucial choices, and it will be our job to give them the tools to do this (which is, of course, horribly ironic and proof that the universe is not without a sense of humor, since our whack priorities and bad judgment have set the world aflame). Ultimately, these young minds will need to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t; to determine what to take from our “old” world and what to toss aside.
That’s one hell of a responsibility.
I’ve tried to be honest with my son about what I see coming without scaring the bejesus out of him. He usually waves it off with a “There goes my crazy mom again” head shake and eye roll, but I can tell he understands the gravity of what he faces. Children aren’t stupid; the in-your-face impacts of climate change, alone, have made it clear to him that his “normal” will look a lot different than mine.
I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how to prepare him for his role in this grand drama. I’ve decided that my remaining years with him will be best spent if I can impart just two things: the importance of love and the ability to think.
Loving and giving love has always come naturally to my sweet boy, as it does with most children. Kids are born with joy in their eyes and light in their hearts. They don’t see color, gender, or disability; they strike up impromptu friendships in sandboxes and parks with anyone who likes to laugh and have fun. They see the best in others — until they’re told not to. Our job as parents is simply to help them hold onto what they’re born with for as long as possible.
Lately I find myself struggling to find a balance between keeping the light in my son’s heart and equipping him with the tools he’ll need to do something equally as important: think for himself and hone the discernment he’ll need to help chart a path for humanity in the wildly challenging times ahead. Finding this balance is difficult for a woman who prefers to take life straight no chaser and isn’t compelled to sugarcoat her views for humans under the age of consent. But a recent conversation with my partner made me realize that teaching our son to think for himself is going to be tricky business — and much tougher than I’d thought.
Sometime last year, Morgan’s grandmother gifted him with a subscription to The Week Junior, a kid-friendly off-shoot of the popular news magazine. Despite sporting playful covers with happy-looking children, Morgan has shown scant interest; they've been accumulating in a pile on his desk.
Yesterday Lisa prompted him to read the last issue, and once again he demurred. When he was out of earshot, she regarded me sternly. “You realize this is your fault, don’t you? You’ve taught him not to pay attention to the news.”
I was taken aback. “How is this my fault? He’s been calling the nightly news ‘the scary show’ since he was six. He saw the bombings, riots, shootouts, carjackings and realized the media was pushing fear. He didn’t need me to tell him it’s not healthy to watch that stuff every night.”
“But this isn’t the nightly news,” Lisa said. “It’s a harmless children’s magazine that covers science, technology, and human interest stories, and he won’t read any of it because he says it’s ‘predictable.’ He’s just repeating what he hears you say.”
(In my defense, I later discovered that The Week Junior offers more than fun and interesting stories that appeal to kids; it also provides “accessible takes on current events” to keep them “up to date”).
“Look, I get that the news is toxic and we need to teach Morgan to think,” she continued. “But how can we do that if he doesn’t even want to know what’s going on in the world?”
I gave this some thought and realized she was right.
Although we’d banned Lester Holt, Norah O’Donnell, and the other nightly news mannequins from our home, Morgan was still privy to dinnertime conversation about election drama, Capitol sieges, racism and anti-racism, pandemic weirdness and vaccine mandates — issues Lisa and I never had to deal with growing up, but few children can avoid hearing about now. Yet I’d always taken comfort in believing we were helping him see both sides of these issues and appreciating the nuances: he gets a healthy dose of my “unorthodox” and politically agnostic take, tempered by Lisa’s perspective as a sensible, lifelong progressive (albeit one who has recently awakened to deep Systemic failings that transcend party allegiance).
It never occurred to me that we were raising a ‘tween cynic who distrusts anything he hears, a boy who has literally “shut off” and doesn’t want to consume any news at all. I fretted that he’d secretly adopted Mark Twain’s mantra: “If you don’t read the news, you’re uninformed; if you do read the news, you’re misinformed.” Yet I also worried that unbridled naivete would create blindspots and leave him vulnerable to the kind of groupthink that’s captured most adults.
How was a responsible parent supposed to strike a balance?
In typical fashion, Lisa and I began hashing out our dilemma to get to the core of the problem. We both acknowledged that we hadn’t been raised to distrust the media and avoid news altogether, yet we’d still managed to develop critical thinking skills. So what had changed?
It wasn’t long before we had our answer: it was because the media today is a lot different than the media we'd grown up with.
When we were kids, plainspoken, non-nonsense guys like Walter Cronkite sat at a desk and told viewers what happened each day, without the benefit of “breaking news” banners scrolling on the screen. They relayed facts that were most relevant to the story without adding commentary that “triggered” or inflamed their audience.
But today, commentary is the story. News is chock full of critiques and collateral fluff that slant the “facts” we get. You don’t need a doctorate in journalism to see that media bias is rampant now; the nature of the slant just depends on the source and our political lens.
Years ago, news outlets were companies that just delivered the news; they weren’t part of empires that use news to sell "stuff." Today, highly-rated programs like Meet the Press are sponsored by Big Pharma and other corporations that have a vested interested in the content and how stories land with their audience.
In other words, we're living in a completely different world now.
Deconstructing the issue made me realize I’d become hyper-sensitive to bias after Morgan casually informed us last year that he was required to watch CNN twice a week in class.
“Do you watch other channels?” I asked, puzzled. “Are you reading newspapers and discussing news from other sources?”
“Nope,” Morgan said. “We just watch CNN.”
For obvious reasons, I found this alarming (shouldn’t parents be consulted about this effort to “inform” our children, especially when cable news is so politically biased?). But it was also appalling and hypocritical because Morgan attended an international school that prided itself on exposing students to diversity — yet this exposure apparently didn’t include diversity of thought.
Students weren’t presented with a rotating menu of news sources offering different viewpoints. They didn’t watch news on other networks, and they didn’t get the benefit of an “international” perspective from BBC or Al Jazeera. They weren’t even reading The New York Times, USA Today, or The Wall Street Journal. It was as if they were being conditioned to see CNN as the go-to source for “facts” and information. (Ironically, this is a news source that most Americans are now rejecting en masse. CNN is on the verge of disintegrating because its audience has plummeted 90% and its ratings are lower than HGTV and the History Channel. It's hands-down the most biased and subjective source of news on the menu, so most viewers simply don't take it seriously anymore).
Decades ago, the educational landscape was very different. When Lisa and I were kids, we were allowed and encouraged to see different perspectives. There were fewer sources of news and information, but we weren’t discouraged from sampling any or all of them. My parents weren’t shamed for sharing or discussing unpopular or “fringe” viewpoints with me. We even had debate clubs in school that helped us appreciate and argue both sides of issues. These were valuable experiences that allowed us to exercise logic and suss out what made sense to us and what didn’t.
But that’s not what’s happening with kids today. There’s a cornucopia of ways to access information, yet they’re being indoctrinated to believe there are only a few sources they “should” trust — and one they should primarily turn to; everything else is fake news, conspiracy, and misinformation. I can't help but wonder how many other schools around the country are subjecting children to the same low-information regimen without parents’ awareness.
To be clear, I think most mainstream news today is well-coordinated pablum because the vast majority of outlets are owned by a handful of global conglomerates. Yet the discerning mind can detect slight differences in the pablum. When exposed to news from all points along the spectrum, a person with the ability to think critically can identify nuances and inconsistencies that can help them better understand what’s really going on. But how can young people possibly develop a critical mind if they’re trained to only consider information from a handful of sources?
This is the elephant in the room. This is the biggest obstacle parents face in developing critical thinking skills in our children.
As younger generations face the daunting task of determining who to trust and what to believe when the next pandemic strikes (we all know COVID won’t be the last one) and the global economy collapses (anyone paying attention can see shortages and surging inflation will inevitably take us there), they’ll need critical thinking skills more than ever. Because schools are failing them miserably in this department, parents will need to step up and be prepared to do the job, themselves.
I'm not going to lie. Striking a delicate balance between keeping our kids informed while teaching them to use their discernment won’t be easy, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I plan to start by asking my son to trade his distrust for curiosity. I’m going to encourage him to occasionally watch ‘the scary show’ on different channels and compare what he sees and notices. We’ll sit down and read a variety of different newspapers together so I can get a sense of what he does and doesn’t understand and how he fills his comprehension gaps.
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of push back along the way; after all, he’s less than 3 months from being a teenager, so being obstinate is his “other” job. But I’ll be patient. It’ll just be another task on my ever-growing “Raising a Child While the World Burns” to do list.
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