Exposure Fallout

Starting school can be an unsettling experience.  We usually think about that as  relating to our children.  Parents are often concerned about the issue of children separating from them, about whether their children will measure up to others in a group.  Yet children going off to school for the first time also presents certain challenges for parents themselves.  In particular, parents begin to lose their status as the sole influence on their children’s development.

The impact of this reality unfolds gradually as children form attachments to teachers whose opinions and expectations grow in importance.  The behavior of other children also has an influence, particularly as children begin to visit other homes and are exposed to the attitudes and behavior of other parents.

Parents often begin to experience these influences in an unsettling way.  They may hear their children say things like, “My teacher says. . .” as a challenge to something a parent says or asks of them.  A familiar one is, “Billy’s mother lets him have . . .” as a reproach to mom or dad about something they are being denied.  Increasingly as children grow, they begin to compare their own parents and family life to those of other children and families.

In the course of their development, children are exposed to different ideas from teachers, books they read, friends, and these days the media in all its forms.  When children’s language or behavior begin to reflect a departure from parental expectation or wishes, it is not unusual to hear parents point to school, or other children as the culprits in the changes of which they disapprove. 

When children are little they look up to their parents whom they see as their models.  As they develop, however, they begin to explore a sense of their own identity and as part of that exploration may reject parental values or ideas and try out others.  This process may become intense in adolescence but even at earlier stages the fallout from children’s exposure to a wider world is often confusing, worrisome, and challenging for parents. 

This has been especially true during the seemingly never ending political conflict in which differing points of view have been expressed in harsh ways.  Recently, two different parents described upsetting incidents involving their middle school children.  In one, a child of a different ethnic background whispered a derogatory insult in her daughter’s ear.  In the other, the girl came home upset from a visit to a close friend’s home.  The father of the other child had described both candidates in an insulting and demeaning way which she found shocking.

These incidents reflect two different challenges for parents.  The first one verged on abusive bullying.  The mother, concerned about her daughter, but also about the potential spread of such behavior, told the girl she was to go to the teacher if something like that happened again or else the mom herself would.  In the other example, the girl’s father talked to her about how to question the other father in a respectful way about his expressed view, which differed from her own.

A recently published book, “Muslim Girl, A Coming of Age,” written by a young girl who lost her father on 9/11, is about how she and others like her have been affected by the merging of the idea in the society at large of Muslim and terrorism.  It is a powerful example of how differences between people has moved into a form of expression that runs counter to what many parents have tried to impart to their children.

The social media have played a large role in exposing children to opinions and ideas expressed in ways that are hurtful and used to attack rather than to persuade.  Now, more than ever, it remains the role of parents to share their values with their children, to enable them to explore a world of many ideas with a critical eye and ear.