Most movie fans know Christopher Nolan as the renovator and director of the recent Batman movie trilogy. But many may not be aware that one of his early films, Memento, is considered by some critics to be one of the best suspense films of the century’s first decade. In the film, the protagonist is searching for the killer of his wife, yet suffers from a form of amnesia in which he’s incapable of maintaining short-term memories. What’s notable about the film is that he works through the problem with the aid of polaroid photos, which he posts to a board and then strings together in an effort to create linkages that make sense to him, a sense of context. This metaphor stays with me because as a parent – whose principal job is to raise the children to take their place in the great, wide world – I’m helping the kids string together their mass of experiences and memories into a recognizable form that gives rich context to the world in which they live.
Ask kids who are home from school what they did that day and you’re liable to get an i dunno or perhaps one or two snippets of something. Many won’t take the time to process unless they’re prompted to do so and those experiences will most likely remain isolated photos on the memory board unless something happens – by chance or purpose – to pull them together. This isn’t about speaking to them as soon as they walk in the door or you pick them up, but it’s about making the time and effort to talk with them, to draw them out and learn the experiences so that any conversation can lead to the possibility of making the connections. The conversation can lead to any number of potential topics: how do you complain to the bus driver – or any adult – if you feel you’re being unfairly singled out (without sounding like you’re whining?); what is the point of reading "The Great Gatsby", or any older novel?; why can’t you punch a girl back, and what does it mean if she’s smacking you in the arm?
Conversation might not flow the way that you’d like, and it sometimes doesn’t even flow at all. Well…how ’bout those Mets? The unfortunate reality however, is that there is an ongoing conversation with your kids and it’s coming from the entertainment/media complex. For decades now, the complex has offered up examples with lousy messages, going back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Spiccoli, through Beavis and Butthead, South Park’s Cartman and all of the gangsta culture thrown about via multiple media. Violence is endemic, women are demeaned – it might not matter now, but it will when you have a daughter – and poor behaviors such as drinking, drugs and gratuitous sex are celebrated. I’m not Amish and our kids have access to the electronic media, but the point is that unless you’re willing to fully disconnect their media access, you have to be prepared to engage them whenever possible so that they begin to make the connections that you know truly need to be made.
Helping them make these connections, helping them build a coherent framework through which to interpret the world and interact with it, is not a one-off process. This is a life-long endeavor and commences from the day of their birth; if we handle it properly, it will continue until the day of our death. But the connections that are made will take these seemingly isolated instances and not only link them, but transform them from a two-dimensional board into a three-dimensional structure that helps them navigate their own lives and sustains them in those truly dark places that can exist in adulthood. This is our purpose as parents, to raise them to make their way. Leaving the conversations to the media complex is ultimately as harmful as starving them.
They do want to eat. And while they can’t or don’t always want to show it, they do want your attention and conversation.