We tell them inspiring stories. We tell them the history we’re proud of. We tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tell them that everything is going to be OK. That they are safe. Of course, we are lying. Or at least we are not being fully honest.
“Life is short and the world is at least half terrible,” Maggie Smith writes in her beautiful poem Good Bones, “and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children.”
We keep this from our children, she writes, because we are trying to sell them the world. We are trying to paint a picture for them of the world at its best, a world defined by cooperation and compassion, not by fractious tribal primates fighting over resources. That is the picture we’re painting over, because we need our kids to have hope. We need them to believe in a better future. We need them to buy in.
There may be a part of us that wonders what the point of all this is sometimes. We all have that part of us that feels guilty about the deception. And sometimes that guilt coalesces into a movement toward confessional transparency. These days it has taken the form of political pressure to drop the full weight of the awfulness of the past and the present on school children.
But we can’t do that. We must not do that. We have no right to weigh down children with our cynicism. We have no right to deprive them of their innocence too early. It is our obligation not to do that to them, because our only hope as a species, as a planet, is to sell them the world and to support their goodness and hardwork and earnestness, so that they might manage to craft a new reality with the world we leave behind for them.