We are about to repatriate to the US and during our last weeks in China we’re making an extra effort to take our two preschool-age kids to historical landmarks. Two weekends ago we visited the Great Wall and other places in Beijing like the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square.
Before we left on our trip to Beijing, the prospect of visiting Tiananmen Square was giving me a little trouble of mind. I wanted the kids to know what happened there, the silencing of cries for freedom and subsequent death blows, the total beat down of hope that echoed around the world but is still silenced here in China. I wanted them to know these things while they stood there, the Square beneath their feet, their adoring parents at hand, and not to be read about in a lifeless history textbook some ten years in the future.
But how would I tell them? I get heart palpitations and sweaty hands when my four-year old wants to know what it means to die. How do I explain? Will he have nightmares? I don’t want him to think about these dark matters.
Yet he does think about them because the world in all its greatness and ugliness is making itself known to him, every day a little more. He wants to know the definition of death, but he’s also asking me to tell him how to feel when something or someone dies. I tell him, briefly, reluctantly, and then do what I often do when I run out of words of my own, go to the bookshelf to find a story written by an author more adept than I at illuminating life’s dark side with humor and grace. (Fairy tales do this wonderfully.)
My mother-in-law, an exceptional 3rd grade teacher and grandmother extraordinaire, looked at me in surprise one time as I read the kids Vladimir Radunsky’s Mannekin Pis: A Simple Story of a Boy who Peed on a War. I was reading the kids a book about war!
Yes, both because it’s a pretty funny story and because it’s through story that we learn to empathize.
When kids read about or witness the beating down of hope, how should they feel? What should they do about it? They want to know, and stories, funny or sad, fiction or biography, teach them.
When they see news clips of children being shot and killed in their classrooms, their teachers’ arms wrapped around them, how should they feel?
When they are bullied, or see someone else being bullied, or themselves feel the shame of bullying others, what should they do?
I’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, as I do every four months or so when my soul needs settling. She teaches me about faith and writing, but also about children.
She writes about the gift of second sight, “that gift which allows us to peek for a moment at the world beyond ordinary space and time.”
Children have this gift of second sight. As we grow up most of us lose this gift, but children filter life through a lens different than ours. Their own stories are as closely linked to the stories they read and hear about as they are to their parents’ and siblings’. They see the middling place between love and hurt, sadness and joy as opposing sides of the same fabric, the magic that makes heroes of cowards and princes of paupers. For all the big bad wrongs of the world for them to know and imagine, they are able to imagine even bigger, more glorious ways of righting those wrongs.
They can be princes.
They will be heroes.
As it happened, when we stood in Tiananmen Square, it was post naptime and the only thing my kids could think about was their promised ice cream.
So when we returned home, taking advantage of our fresh memories of the place and trusting in the kids’ second sight to adapt the story to their own young hearts, I fumbled my way through a brief retelling of the student uprising.
The kids didn’t notice my clumsy words. They’re two and four and think I’m cool. Also, they were playing with their castle, which was being threatened by a two-headed dragon.
The dragon burned down the castle and everyone in it died, except for one lone knight, sitting astride a royal charger on the arm of the couch some distance away.
The knight raised his sword, a hero in the making.
The kids continued playing while I talked, but they heard the story, I’m sure of it. And they understood two important things.
Firstly, that a wrong occurred at Tiananmen Square.
Secondly, how their mom feels about that wrong.
Telling my children the story is what I did about it.