Tuesday, December 11, 2007

another thought

My previous post just sparked a remembrance.

As I was thinking about how adults communicate right and wrong, good and evil, good choices and bad choices to children, I remembered an incident that happened during my job.

I am part of group that does a presentation for 4th grade students about bullying, stereotyping, and prejudice. It's a puppet show performance that I introduce and then help perform. There is also a third grade program about physical and sexual abuse.

The students I see each day have almost always seen the previous year's performance, and sometimes have a question about it or related to it. They usually don't ask those kinds of questions until after the performance, while they are getting up and informally chatting with us. If a question or comment seems to indicate that there might be some issue going on at home or in the child's life, we take their name and speak to the school counselor to make them aware of it. Our boss follows up to make sure that happens.

During the intro to our performance at a particular school, a girl raised her hand as high as possible and for as long as possible. I don't normally take questions in the intro, but was confident enough in my ability to improvise and redirect things that I figured I would see what she was so excited about.

I pointed to her and said,"Yes...did you have something you'd like to ask?"

"Um yeah. If someone is a sex offender...does that mean they're a bad person?"

I gulped and took a moment before responding. I realized that she wouldn't be asking that question unless there was someone in her life who was a sex offender, and with whom she was unsure about what to feel towards them.

"Well....sometimes people make bad choices, but that doesn't mean that they always will, " I said, trying to find a way to reassure her and yet not endorse a sex offense.

"My mom's a sex offender. She did something bad."

OK...mental note. No more questions before the performance.

"You know, we have to start the show now, but I think that when we're done you should ask the counselor more about what you're thinking. I think he could really help you and would be happy to answer your questions. Will you go over to him when the show's over....as soon as we're done?" He was sitting in on the performance.

"Yeah."

"Great. I know counselors love to answer questions and talk to students."

I extricated myself from the situation and started the show. Oh...and she did speak to the counselor right afterward.

That moment popped into my mind as I mulled over what to tell children about views, choices and beliefs.

We can try and explain things in an even-handed fashion, but children don't usually see things in such a light. That girl felt she had to decide whether her mother was "good" or "bad". In her mind there was no middle ground. If I said sex offenders were "bad" that would have created conflict within her about how to relate to a "bad" person in her family.

And yet...don't we all have to do that. We all have people in our lives who we have difficulty with because it is hard to label them simply as "bad", because they aren't always bad. They can also be loving, funny, kind....and still have poor judgement, or addictions, or a never-ending need to cause drama.

As we get older, we learn how to hold those competing concepts of a person in our minds, separating out a person's choices from the actual person....but it's still hard and confusing.

So....explaining how God loves sinners...or how people can simultaneously be "bad" and "good" isn't a problem exclusive to childhood.

I'm still learning it myself.

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