One of the great contradictions of parenthood is that you, at once, want your children to acquire knowledge, and you want to protect them from knowledge. After all, protecting children’s innocence means deliberately keeping certain types of knowledge from them.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, we have equated increased knowledge with paradise lost. We protect our kids’ innocence to protect the paradise of their childhoods.
I love seeing my children happy to revert to playing babyish games, without embarrassment. I love it that they do not know about the prevalence of crime, or about wars, lies and greed, except in a very abstract, even jocose, ways. Even though the eldest are critical thinkers, and old enough to doubt, the tooth fairy and Santa remain unquestioned.
Innocence is central to childhood. Its loss represents the loss of childhood itself. Of course, we want our children to grow to fully understand the world, including its shadows. They will learn of crime, corruption and lies. They will learn the horrors of history, such as the Holocaust. They will come away thinking less of our species. Yet we want them to gain such knowledge at the right time, in the right way. For now, when they are small, the world must remain for them a beautiful and safe place, full of goodness.
For the modern parent, the protection of innocence often involves tweaking the settings of computers and tablets to the most child-friendly options. It is done by limiting screen time, by not having the news on and by not speaking about last week’s break-in down the road when they are in the room.
As children grow, parents have less control over what they know. They learn more and more from their friends and peer group. The school they go to and the neighbourhood they grow up in will dictate the friends they have. Choosing a school with the right ethos is important. Indeed, many parents spend thousands to send their children to private schools, often as much to protect their innocence as for academic reasons. Parents who can afford it typically move out of cities into leafy middle-class suburbs once children arrive. It is a tragedy that – in urban environments, at least – childhood innocence is often a commodity that only parents with money can afford.
In the countryside, innocence is far more commonplace for children. Its retention doesn’t usually depend on a parent’s bank balance, since everyone tends to go along to the local school together. Most parents agree that country kids have more freedom, yet learn of adult things later, and so remain children for longer.
I grew up in a pleasant area on the outskirts of a large country village. I vividly recall entering another, darker, world when playing with the children in a less than salubrious part of our nearby city. I encountered terms I had never heard and saw a reveling in detailed knowledge of sexual acts. I remember violence and bullying that still shocks me when I think back. Such experiences, along with a love of nature, made me determined to raise my children in the countryside. I love cities, and we spent some very happy years in Dublin with the kids, but that’s what feels right for me.
Our kids go to a small village school. Yet as kids grow up, dysfunction inevitably rears its head. The loss of innocence is contagious. One kid with a horrible home life, with negligent parents, or older siblings amused to teach them things they should not know, can disrupt many others. An erosion of innocence occurs, as children realise from bitter experience a sad truth about humanity: some people – even children – enjoy inflicting pain, and humiliating others.
And so innocence is eroded, and kids become, sadly, wiser as to the nature of humanity. Yet if the foundation of their lives is in goodness, and kindness, they will have the resilience to overcome.