One of the funniest broadcasts of This American Life, originally run about 10 years ago, is called A Little Bit of Knowledge. In it, Ira Glass explores the hilarious consequences of adults clinging to a childhood tidbit of marginally-accurate or utterly-inaccurate information long past when they normally would realize the truth.
A woman named Robin chats with Ira and tells him that growing up, her mother served the family baked chicken for dinner…every single day. “It was like Monday, chicken. Tuesday, chicken. Wednesday, chicken. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, every night of my life until I left for college,” she says.
When she arrives at college, she astonishes her friends by exclaiming over the incredible variety of foods served in the cafeteria. “I was like, how can you criticize? I mean, it’s a testament to what great chefs they must be that they can make a different meal every single night of the week. And they just kind of stared. And they’re like, what? And I’m like, what, what?”
It’s a hysterically funny story. The whole podcast is worth a listen, which you can do here.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we as parents or guardians function as inadvertent gatekeepers of knowledge and experience for our young children; of how at times we unintentionally omit vast swathes of awareness in their lives because of choices we make.
Clearly gatekeeping is an important parental role. We shelter young children from overwhelming darkness. We turn off the TV when it’s judicious. We put parental controls on the Internet. We vet the sleepover plans. There are critical reasons we function as gatekeepers for kids.
What I’ve been reflecting on, though, is not this business of shielding kids from danger, but the unconscious embargoes on ideas, understandings, perspectives, which we bring about in our children’s lives as a result of not expanding our own knowledge-base or even being aware of the idea-boundaries we’ve put in place.
What I mean is, if I as a parent am utterly disinterested in hockey, it is less likely that my daughter will know or care about the game, much less thrill to a blistering slapshot or a diving save at the net.
In time, as she moves out into the world, much as Ira Glass’s friend Robin in her foray into the college cafeteria, she may well discover hockey, but for now, she’s as unaware of it as Robin was that something other than baked chicken might be served for supper.
Of course, being oblivious about hockey and baked chicken are not earth-shattering information-gaps, though in Robin’s case it did lead to some consternation! The hitch comes when we act as gatekeepers in much more influential realms, partly because they’re hard to discern. Discovering them is like looking at the negative space in an image. We’re focusing on what isn’t there. What’s missing from my child’s experience and mind-fodder simply because it’s missing from mine? What am I blasé about, which renders it invisible from my child’s world?
As I look ahead to themes I want to explore in children’s literature in 2016, I wonder which entire subject areas me-from-the-past, and Marmalade-readers-in-the-present, may shrug off and say, “Meh. Not of interest to me.” Black history? The environment? Latino lit? Native American stories? Religion? Art history? Women in science?
A lack of interest on our part often means we don’t bring those books home from the library. We don’t have those conversations. We don’t purpose to hear, along with our children, new voices, unusual voices, voices we’re not sure we agree with. We don’t seek to understand, right alongside our kids, another’s passion which hasn’t previously crossed our radar screen, or grapple with vastly-different lives, dreams, sorrows of people unlike us. Thus, we effectively shut those gates.
Certainly one of the delights of books is the kindred-spirit-comfort they can bring. It is so normal to gravitate to our own interests. To read what makes sense to me now, rather than something I have to struggle to make sense of. I certainly did this as a young mom raising my children and we have buckets of good book-memories as a result. But I could have used a push in some new directions, a push to open some new gates, as well. One of the profound joys of my life as a mother of adult children is the chance to learn from them about subjects and ideas they are exploring and mastering that I know little about, that I had nothing to do with encouraging. Environmental Microbiology. Music Theory. Literary criticism. Contemporary Portraiture. Oh, the world is incomprehensibly vast with ideas.
My encouragement to you, whether you are nurturing children or feeding your own mind, is to try something new this year. Open up the gates to new avenues of knowledge.
Pick up that recommendation on something you never really cared about. Read about someone you’ve never heard of. Listen thoughtfully to ideas that challenge your mindset. Seat your children, and yourselves, at a banquet-feast of ideas and exclaim, with Robin, over the incredible variety that may have been absent in the past.
A children’s book, amazingly, is a grand way to accomplish this. It won’t take much of your time, but you can make surprising gains in the breadth and depth of your experience by reading children’s literature.
On Monday, I’ll have a list of Civil Rights themed books. If you haven’t dipped into this area much, it would be a great moment to begin! You can also peruse my Subject Index for something wildly new.