I want to start, always and right now, from a place of humility:
As a parent and teacher, I don’t know for sure when myths are acceptable, when they should be replaced by facts, and when those facts should be analyzed and second-guessed and positioned within a context and narrative that itself can have mythical characteristics.
My 5-year old believes in Santa. She believes in the Easter Bunny. Soon, when her teeth begin to wiggle, I will talk with a straight face about the Tooth Fairy, and then I’ll back up my words with cold hard cash. (Or at least cold hard coins — what’s the going rate on kid teeth these days?)
Just yesterday, my kid said, “Daddy, are unicorns real?”
And I said, “I have no reason to say they’re not.”
When she pushed me on my legalese, I said, “Yeah, they’re real.”
What’s more, I currently tell my daughter, when she’s afraid of what’s going to happen in a movie, “It’ll all be okay in the end.”
I’m not at all sure I’m doing the right thing when I tell her these things, but I am sure there’s a place for childhood myths.
But which myths? And when? And for how long?
Teachers must confront these same questions every day. We need to figure out what our students are ready for, what it’s our job to make them ready for, when to answer with answers and when to answer with more questions.
None of this is easy. None of it is obvious. And I distrust anyone who claims it is.
But I will say this with a fair amount of confidence: Our job, as teachers and parents, is first and foremost to help our students and kids become mature and independent thinkers. If a kid grows up in a family that is religious and becomes an adult who has never questioned their religion, something has developmentally gone wrong. If a kid grows up in an avowed atheist family and never considers the role and purpose and value of religion or faith, they missed out on a step of intellectual maturation or just plain never matured.
And I can say this with equal confidence: The anxiety we (and by we, I mostly mean white people) carry about race in America is not the result of premature myth-busting. Just the opposite: It’s the outcome of myths being challenged too late.
I believe the term is identity formation. Students are at a place where they are able to try on different identities because, like their rubbery bones, one particular identity hasn’t been calcified. They can listen, and ask questions, and adapt their understanding in ways that become harder as we get older.
- How is it possible that grown adults can say, with a straight face, that theirs is the party of Lincoln and then vote to keep Confederate statues in our nation’s Capitol?
- How can they say, with a straight face, that those statues should stay up because history can be disturbing—and then go radio silent at best and apoplectic at worst when someone brings up Tulsa or redlining or Indigenous graves under schools?
The answer, it seems clear to me, is because they’re learning about these things too late. They hear this new information and they feel personally attacked because, in a sense, though it wasn’t the intent, their sense of personhood is now compromised. And this destabilization is bone-deep. Does this new information make the old information untrue? Does it mean they’ve been lied to? Does it mean the people they trusted lied to them? If they can’t trust the people they’ve always trusted, can they trust anyone?
I’m not mocking anyone here, by the way. Not at all. Those are heavy questions that do indeed cut to the core.
But when we as adults assume that students will have the same identity crisis when confronted with new information, I think we’re almost always mistaken. When we assume that students will distrust their loved ones or even their country because that’s what the new information makes us do, I think we’re usually unnecessarily projecting.
Kids eventually find out the Easter Bunny isn’t real, and still trust us.
They find out Santa at the mall isn’t really Santa or even one of his elves, and still believe the ground is solid beneath their feet.
In finding out these things, they also discover, of course, that WE were the ones lying to them, but you know what they focus on instead? The fact that now we’re telling them the truth. Indeed, the fact that we’re willing to do that — to admit we lied to them — in the long run builds trust rather than breaks it.
Imagine, though, if they were 30 or 40 or 50 before learning the truth. Imagine if their KIDS had to be the bearer of bad news.
That’s a fairly good analogy to what’s happening right now, I think. And I’m not claiming immunity from it: The stuff I’ve learned over the last decade or so about our history and how it lingers has caused some of the same defensiveness and shame many are experiencing right now.
But this isn’t about us. It’s about our kids. It’s about raising them and teaching them in such a way that they truly are life-long learners. It’s about helping them become fully realized adults who claim as part of their identity the willingness to keep asking questions about the stories they receive from adults and to keep loving those adults as the answers and questions change.