Thursday, August 15, 2013

Living beyond your walls

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is known as the hermit kingdom. Their government prevents its citizens from interacting or even observing foreign cultures in order to suppress knowledge of life outside the country’s border. Kim Jung-un is not someone any parent would look to as a role model, but since becoming a parent, I recognize that I can be as guilty as the North Korean leader of creating an isolationist environment.

Our domain is a household rather than a nation, but Amanda and I have built the walls of our own hermit, miniature kingdom. They are not literal walls, but we exert a great amount of control over the world Ezra, our sole citizen, knows. We do this both intentionally and unintentionally.

One of the responsibilities of parents is to determine what our young children are exposed to. We do this with rules and limits. These are both good and necessary. For example, Amanda and I are selective about the types and amount of media Ezra views so he rarely watches anything outside of PBS or Pixar.

More commonly, we, as parents, influence what our children are exposed to without much thought. Our children live with us; therefore our life choices, the types of food we prepare, the activities we engage in, the entertainment we enjoy, become our children’s worlds. No matter how strange others may find your cuisine or your interests, your child knows: This is how we eat. This is what we do. This is how we live.

Establishing a strong family, with a unique culture and identity, is an important component to parenting, but these little, private societies' strength is not dependent upon ignorance. I have become aware of my own tendency to shelter Ezra from knowledge beyond our walls.  

A recent evening reminded me of how much we limit our children’s worlds unintentionally. After returning from a day trip, Amanda, Ezra and I ate dinner at a local brewpub. As we were leaving, a three-piece band was finishing setting up their keyboard, drum and upright bass on the patio among the outdoor tables. They began to play their set, and Ezra’s feet began to drag as we started to walk to the car. His eyes and ears were completely drawn to the performers.

Though Amanda and I were tired from traveling and ready to be home, his interest in the music was so obvious we asked him if he wanted to stay and listen to a few songs. The band performed music from the Great American songbook; songs written by Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers, Hoagy Carmichael; and made famous by performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. Ezra loved the music, and instead of a few songs we stayed and danced for the duration of the performance.

I don’t dislike or even avoid this genre of music, but I also have not listened to it since Ezra was born. Without this happy accident we would have never known of Ezra’s love of the popular music of his great-grandparents generation.

This warm, lively summer’s evening filled with music and dance was a beautiful reminder of what a huge responsibility it is to guide another person’s life. Though a parent’s instinct is to protect their child, this does not mean isolating them from the world. There are many positive, interesting, and even challenging experiences to introduce to your child, and even more importantly, give them an opportunity to discover on their own.

The walls of our hermit kingdom were not built on purpose. They were subconsciously erected as a defense to help protect our child from the outside world. I constantly have to remind myself that we cannot protect him by limiting his exposure to the world, but must teach Ezra to be a part of it.

Now is a good time to add a few more windows and doors to the walls of our hermit kingdom.

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