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30 Jan, Monday
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Montreal Families

Preserving a child's innocence

I was at the supermarket with my then 8-year-old daughter when she noticed a poster asking for help in finding a young girl named Cédrika Provencher. She looked at the poster and then asked, “Where is she, mummy?”

My stomach clenched. I was speechless.

“Let’s go grocery shopping and we’ll talk about it a little later,” I said, buying myself a half-hour to figure out the right words to administer a spoonful of reality to my second grader.

Later, I explained (to both my daughters) that the police suspect Cédrika was lured away by an adult pretending to need help looking for a lost pet. I told my daughters that if either of them is ever approached by a stranger with such a request, they should run like the wind back to me or their guardian.

But that’s just one example of how parents must dole out doses of reality to our kids. What am I to do when my daughter innocently asks, “mummy, can we buy Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie CD?” What about the computer games, so readily accessible at some of their friends’ homes, that allow kids to shoot and kill on screen?

Protecting children’s innocence has become alarmingly challenging for parents. My gut tells me to just say “No” to pop culture overload. So I consistently reject my children’s repetitive pleas for a Game Boy, X-Box or Bratz dolls adorned with black eyeliner and high cut T-shirts. They are forbidden to wear a camouflage-patterned backpack, even if it’s pink, because camouflage is symbolic of war. I don’t allow them to watch the TV news.

Innocence is so precious and, once lost, it’s gone. Game over. The innocence of childhood is the most precious of all. But each child’s days of innocence are numbered. It’s called growing up.

I realize my little girls will grow up, too, whether I like it or not. Slowly, they are learning that there is no Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. And soon they will learn about genocide, murder, abduction, pedophiles, rape and racism. They’ll learn about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ll read about the Holocaust. They’ll discover cancer sometimes kills, that life isn’t fair and that there are dangers out there too horrific to imagine.

But do they have to learn this now?

No one wants to see that painful wave of realization chisel off bits of their children’s innocence, not even a nanosecond sooner than necessary.

Right now, my daughters’ be-all-end-all is getting an ice cream cone after soccer games. Or being allowed to wear lipstick to a wedding. Or being allowed to get those striped pencils for school.

Their agony-of-defeat tragedies are having a tiff with a school friend or having to share the last cupcake, and the peak of their deprivation is not getting a Game Boy. They shout out: “This. Is. The. Worst. Day. Of. My. Life,” when their Thermos tips over at lunchtime or they skin a knee on the playground.

I’d like to stick to those “worsts” for now. I can handle a spoonful at a time of what’s really the “worst”, but I’m not ready to turn on the reality tap or open the flood dam. I am the protector of their innocence. They don’t have to grow up any faster than they need to.
So that might mean I hide my copies of the Economist and Time like my father hid Playboy when I was a kid. And I explain what I have to when they ask. These days, with news about children being killed by their parents, bombings in Gaza, terrorist attacks in India and deadly arson in Australian forests, the most feared question I face at the dinner table is “why, mummy?”

How can there be all that and Santa Claus, too? Which brings me back to Bratz, Baghdad and violent video games. I know I’m not alone in my attitude about racy clothes for grade-school girls. Nor am I a solitary voice in the quest to keep kids away from the sordid details of war and video games that let them kill on screen. I am confident that I’m doing the right thing by protecting them from some headlines and giving them information on a need-to-know basis.

What I’d like to think is that maybe when they’ve grown up and have kids of their own, they’ll look back on their ice-cream, skinned-knee, Shakira-less childhood and thank me. Just as I recently thanked my mother for not telling me about the starving kids in Biafra, the 1979 Afghanistan war and The Diary of Anne Frank until I was old enough to handle it.

I know my kids despise my sheltering ways. Maybe they really, really feel they deserve a doll that looks like a prostitute. Maybe they feel entitled to wear high heels, high-cut T-shirts and carry a camouflage backpack to school. Too bad, is my feeling. Not on my watch.

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