The Capacity Conundrum
January 22nd, 2010

They bounce back quickly.  They’re so resilient.  They can handle more than we think they can.  These are all clichés that are offered about children.  Some of them are true.  Actually, all of them are true.  To an extent. 

But lately I’ve been wondering what that extent is.  How much do children have the capacity to handle?

I got a partial answer when I came across this article which poses that very question in the context of a particularly heartbreaking situation.  To paraphrase:  The single mother of a 2-year-old boy is contacted by the boy’s absentee father because he (the dad) has been diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer.  His time is limited and he is calling to ask his way back into their lives.  The mother is torn.  Does she deprive the son time with his father to spare him the pain of the inevitable loss?  Or does she give her son the gift of a father he’s never really known and run the risk that a bond develops between them only to be severed? 

You should read it.  I won’t tell you what she decided or why, but it got my wheels spinning.  

IEP isn’t yet old enough to understand death, natural or manmade disasters, or any other of the myriad points of pain we spend our lives hoping to avoid.  But despite our best efforts we do experience pain.  And at some point during our lives we learned how to experience pain.  Ideally we learned such coping mechanisms with carefully crafted purpose from a loving adult who was invested in helping us understand difficult concepts.  But it’s just as likely that we didn’t have someone shepherding us through our pain, and so we developed coping mechanisms on our own.

There is plenty of advice on this topic.  I think back to 9/11 and can recall numerous stories – on the news, online, on NPR, etc. – that addressed how to speak with children about the terrorist attacks.  In the wake of last week’s earthquake in Haiti many such stories are making their way back onto airwaves. 

Don’t tell them too much.  Find out what has caused them to ask in the first place.  Ask first what they already know and base your answer on that.  Don’t be too abstract – answers that are concrete and tangible are easier for a child to digest.  Etc, etc, etc. 

And so this brings me back to IEP.

Right now he is fourteen months of innocent perfection.  His life is simple, and straightforward, and free from the murkiness of complicated questions.  He has never asked “why?” about something horrible and beyond his control.  But someday he will.  And GAP and I are not yet entirely in sync on how we will handle this event.  I fall into the camp of carefully measured disclosure.  GAP is more protective.  Presumably we will find some middle ground.

But regardless of the path we choose, IEP will come face to face with injustice, pain, and hardship (if not in his own life, then in the life of someone else) long before we’re ready.  And regardless of our best intentions to couch our explanations in terms that make these tragedies scalable down to a child’s mind, he will pick up things from other places that exceed what we had intended him to know. 

And I suppose that at some level that’s okay too.  Naturally I want to teach him how to deal with pain (his own, or other people’s) in a productive and constructive way.  But I also want him to learn how to develop coping skills on his own.  We won’t be standing by his side every time something bad happens in the world.  And as we teach skills that will help him deal with the good and the bad, I hope he learns some skills on his own as well.  I hope he knows that even without a shepherd at his side, he has the ability to navigate a new and frightening situation by himself and make good decisions in the process.

6 Responses to “The Capacity Conundrum”

  1. Anne Says:

    Wow…big topic, and nicely handled. For me, it’s one of those things raises more questions than answers. I think the “middle ground” is what I’ll strive for someday, but then I think of my own tendency to avoid the news and all these terrible images. I hope I don’t teach my own children that same avoidance.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I posted on this topic in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. I received a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment from Sarah @ Momalom that I believe to be relevant here:

    “I am teaching my children how to live in the world–a place that has no rules–and not just in my home (a place that has many rules).”

    I admire her conviction and am intrigued by her idea; now I just have to figure out how to implement it with my sons (also too young to ask “Why?).

  3. Crystal hoganson Says:

    This is wonderfully written! I have the same thoughts. I pray for protection and good coping skills for both our boys.

  4. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Crystal. It’s a little overwhelming to think that we’ll have to answer these types of questions someday. But hopefully by thinking about it now we can prepare ourselves. At least a little bit, anyway.

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    An important post. I guess we just sort of “wing it” when it comes to certain parenting issues–at least I do. Miss D. is in second grade and knows what happened in Haiti, but I’m not allowing her to see CNN coverage/graphic photos, because I just don’t think she needs to see that. Heck, *I* can barely look at those images, and I’m 40 years old.

    I want my daughter to live in the world and know that there are hardships and horrible, unexplainable disasters. But I don’t think she needs to learn about it in all it’s gory detail at age 8.

  6. becca Says:

    I think about this and worry about this often. I don’t handle tragedy or sadness very well and don’t want this to effect my kids negatively. How do I teach my kids to cope when i’m not very good at it? I hope I can find the strength to deal better within me before it’s necessary to show my kids strength in the face of sadness. It won’t be easy, but I’ll try!