My son is on the cusp of five, and he’s started asking the big questions. No, not about where babies come from. He’s asked those already! I mean the deep stuff, the hard to answer queries that have me just as confused as he is — the questions about good and evil.
The other day at lunch Felix said:
“When I watch cartoons and mean guys get hurt, I don’t feel bad that they’re getting hurt, because they’re mean guys.”
My initial instinct was to challenge his statement, to encourage him to see the situation from multiple perspectives. Even though the guys are mean, they’re still conscious beings in pain, and deserve compassion. We shouldn’t wish for anyone to get hurt, or feel pleasure in their suffering. Plus, shouldn’t we wonder why they’re acting mean in the first place? Some of them have painful histories and deep seated grudges against the powers-that-be, and while their “mean” actions might not be right, they aren’t entirely wrong either. But then I paused.
It seems that every week Felix expresses himself more clearly, and so I’ve come to realize how often I say things that don’t make a stitch of sense to him. Recently, while walking home and talking about age — which friend is younger than he is, and which friend is older, and how those relationships will always stay the same even though their particular ages might change — Felix said, “When I get older, I’ll understand more of what you say.”
“Sure,” I said. “Wait a second. Does Daddy confuse you a lot?”
“Oh, yeah. A lot a lot a lot. But I’ll understand more later, and then when I’m a grown-up, we can talk about grown-up things.”
I’ve been turning this exchange over in my head ever since. What he said makes sense. When I went into teaching, I chose to work with middle school students, because I lacked the patience or interest for dealing with little kids. Middle school age children have a wonderful mix of childish wonder and teenage attitude, and they’re able to grapple with complex concepts. They can, with a little encouragement, see the world in a wide palette of grays. In fact, they’re ripe for this kind of thinking, eager to flip their heroes upside down to reveal feet of clay, and to view law-giving authority figures as the hypocrites that they sometimes are. It’s a great age! And it suits my general disposition toward life.
But it’s not a way of thinking that an almost-5-year-old can follow. In general, I’m fine with this. Like Felix said: as he gets older, he’ll grasp more of what I’m saying, and I’d rather give him the straight truth then instill oversimplifications, myths, or downright lies. Besides, there’s no harm in not understanding the full complexity of something, is there? Otherwise you wouldn’t be hungry to learn more, or aware of the blind-spots in your judgement.
My son’s questions about morality are interesting though, because it seems developmentally right to me that he’d be forming a basic conception of good and evil, or, to put it another way, right and wrong behavior. “I don’t worry too much about how my movies are going to end,” he told me yesterday, again over lunch. (What is it about peanut butter and jam sandwiches that put him in a deep mood?) “The mean guys never win.”
Just as I bit my tongue when he said that it was ok for mean guys to get hurt, I stopped myself from telling him that in real life the bad guys do in fact sometimes get the upper hand. In time, Felix will learn that on his own. For now, I felt a level of comfort knowing that he’s still a child, and that the fantasies he sees on screen are powerful to him, and make a sort of moral sense that real life oftentimes lacks. It’s important that he believe in goodness and justice, in ways that I am, perhaps, unable to myself. It reminds me that there’s something in us, deep down, that wants the problems of the world to work out in a beautiful way. For a little while longer, at least, I’m going to encourage that shine in him, and seek warmth from it’s glow.