For all of the high-falutin historical study I engage in, I don my historian hat most often as a storyteller to my children. And as intimidating as the seminar room may be sometime, any parent will tell you that it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to navigate than explaining the Holocaust to a nine-year-old. And it doesn’t get any easier as they get older, either. The older a child gets, the less productive it becomes to avoid the ugly bits of the stories. When I’m faced with the task of being my sons’ own personal historian, I find myself always coming back to the same question:
How do you explain how fucking terrible the world can be to such a sweet little face?
Which, of course, is really just cover for the real question:
How do you explain how fucking terrible the world can be to such a sweet little face in a way that molds it into the face of a unyielding, rabid champion for love and justice?
Of course, kids learn by example. So, one way to guide them along the path towards social justice warriordom is to exhibit those qualities yourself. But, kids also learn through stories. In fact, I would contend that it’s our ability to craft and learn from stories that makes us human. A bee might build a hive, but it doesn’t write an inscription on the outside, and it’s great-grandchildren won’t erect a monument to commemorate its genius.
Now, no one gives a shit about what historians do (really . . . no matter how many times you tell me how much you love history), largely because we’ve done a poor job of making it clear that the stories we tell, while reflecting reality, also help to shape reality. That’s what parents do every day. Our kids know that sneetches are idiots, a wolf will eat you and all your kin if you dawdle on the path to Granny’s, and that only assholes try to eat Smurfs or turn them into gold or whatever Gargamel is trying to do this week, not out of any innate ability to know right from wrong, but because we tell them stories that teach them so. Of course, sneetches are dumb as hell, a wolf will fucking eat you, and only assholes try to turn stuff into gold, but no one would know that if we didn’t put it into a story so it could be remembered.
I was recently reminded of how important the way we frame stories for our kids is two weekends ago as our family walked around the National Mall (a site dedicated to storytelling). As we walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, our 9-year-old asked about the WWII memorial that lies between. Ten minutes later, I had completed a fumbling attempt to explain the almost surreal horror of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe without resorting to jingoism. I think I was pretty successful (I think), but we still decided to skip the Vietnam Memorial for the time being.
It’s hard to explain human travesties like slavery, the Holocaust, or Phantom Menace to kids because we don’t want to break their hearts. But really, these are the easiest stories to tell in our role as parent-as-historian. It’s all too rare to find non-fiction stories with such little gray space. Where there are clear villains, villainy is easier to identify, if not easier to explain. And where there are clear heroes or martyrs, it’s easier to explain how one becomes a hero and the potential cost of heroism. While there are plenty of fictional/religious stories that are useful to illustrate these themes, none come close to having the impact of a story that actually happened. The Butter Battle was bullshit, sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to My Lai. Maybe, it’s only through telling these stories that we can prepare our kids to face the battles to come. In essence, maybe we have to break our children’s hearts so they can begin to mend them. Maybe that’s the best way to really teach them the importance of fighting for justice.