Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Kids In Mind

***trigger warning: sexual abuse***

Mom bought a new laptop and gave us her used one. She claims she wanted a new one, but I suspect Mom actually bought it so I'd take her used laptop that's in perfectly good shape, knowing I wouldn't let her buy me a new laptop. She's a sneaky gifter like that. She knows I don't like to buy new electronics. I'm too frugal. I much prefer getting other people's free hand-me-downs. I also can't help but worry about the conflict minerals used to make new electronics equipment. I can't stand to think that someone might have gotten raped so I can have the next new shiny device. Mom's not a worrier like me. She pays no attention to world events beyond her control. Buying new gadgets troubles her not at all. So I have a new (used) laptop.

We are a three-laptop household now, one for each of us--Will, Kate, and me. Guess who uses the crappiest one?

The used laptop Mom gave us is in better shape than the other two laptops we have, one of which is only six months younger than our eight-year-old daughter who kept bugging us to get another computer so she and her dad can play Minecraft together. My computer is too old to handle much more than this blog and Facebook. The audio died on my laptop years ago, so I can watch videos, I just can't hear them.

"Mom! You need a new laptop!" Katie's been nagging me for years.

About a year ago, my brother Jay got us a sweet deal on our second-best laptop. It's used, but it had been refurbished, so it's like new. I used it for about a day before Will and Kate loaded Minecraft on it and designated it as the "gaming computer". I don't understand why they need to hear the villagers mumble, but I don't argue with them. The way I see it, I'm the person who cares the least about fancy electronics, so even though my brother and my mother keep plying my family with good quality laptops, I still use the one on the fritz and let Will and Kate use the good ones when we're all home at the same time.

Kate was so excited when we became a three-laptop family. She's in third grade. She's at that stage in life where she's starting to notice the haves and the have nots, and it upsets her when she thinks we're one of the have nots. Many of her classmates have access to technology that blows my mind. They have their own smartphones. Eight-year-olds. Their families have iPads and computers out the wazoo. When I was growing up, we had a decades-old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a library card. If I wanted to know more about Egyptian Hieroglyphics, I pulled out the dusty old encyclopedia set and read the section on Egypt. Then I asked Mom to drive me to the library so I could check out some library books about Egypt and take a look at their big dictionary.

I loved that big dictionary. Standing on a step stool so I could see it on top of the podium, like I was about to give a great speech of tremendous historical and literary importance. I stood there silently reading words, pretending I was saying them to a crowd of fans, screaming and fainting and weeping after every word I utter.

I was a curious kid. Observant. But only about peculiar things. Not things like math facts and homework due dates. But human nature. The way the words that come out of people's mouths make other people's faces change. "You're so insightful." I've been hearing that since before I was old enough to look up the word "insightful" in the big dictionary at the library. All I knew was that people treated me as if I were wise beyond my years. My sister who is eight years older than I am, then a teenager, came to me for dating advice. Mom talked to me about her relationship with my dad as if I were her therapist. Neighborhood kids would fight and then come to me for advice. I enjoyed feeling helpful. I enjoyed feeling knowledgeable.

But still, I think I'd have fewer panic attacks today if I had been less of everyone's therapist and more of a child when I was a child. Sometimes I think my panic attacks are my body's way of saying, "OK, it's your turn to go crazy!" When I was eleven, my therapist told me that often it's not the person who is put in therapy who needs it, but everyone else around them.

I knew a lot about human sexuality for my age, I realize now. It seems as if I always knew about penises and vaginas and what people did with them. I knew that bodies were shared with other people, sometimes because of love, and sometimes because of fear. I was sexually abused by my brother and a neighbor at such a young age I never really got to go through the whole childhood innocence phase of life. When it was time for the talk at school, where the teachers and school nurse separated us by gender into two rooms and we talked about periods and bras and how babies get made, it was such a ridiculous ho-hum moment to me. We were what, eleven? I sat there listening to the nurse answer one of my classmates' questions about erections thinking,

I saw my first erection eight years ago, when I was three.

I felt a twang of jealousy over my classmates' naivete. I found a bookmark at the mall that said, "Ignorance is bliss" and I said to myself, yes. I began to resent knowing too much. I developed anorexia a year after I started having my period in fourth grade and two years after I developed breasts in third grade. I hated my body. I hated the attention I got from it. Teenage boys hitting on me the summer after fourth grade at the swimming pool. Grown men staring at my chest. My mom's ex husband meeting me for the first time when I was in seventh grade at my sister's wedding, looking me up and down and saying, "Your mother was an early developer, too."

I read in a book that anorexia often develops in young women who are just beginning puberty. Losing weight means you lose your breasts, you stop having your period. You regress back to childhood. The childhood I sometimes felt I never had.

It wasn't just the sexual abuse and inappropriate attention I experienced as a child that fucked with my ideas about sex and sexuality. I lived in a lenient household when it came to many rules. The rules I had were doosies, though. More like commandments from God.

Thou shalt not sit in Dad's comfy chair.

Thou shalt not talk when Dad gets home from work and just wants to eat his dinner in peace, Goddamnit!

Thou shalt not drink Dad's canned pop in the fridge. Those are for his lunches, and do you know how much more expensive canned pop is than the 2-liters?

Thou shalt not complain when Dad says it's time for you to cook dinner, do the laundry, mow the lawn, or do the dishes.

Thou shalt not switch the channel on the TV when Dad is in the house. Not even for a sec while he gets up to pee.

Thou shalt not make suggestions for where we will eat dinner or what movie we'll go see. Your sister can take you to see that Muppet movie.

It's true. I remember seeing two "kids'" movies when I was an actual kid. Mom took me to see "Bambi" when it was re-released in theaters in 1975. Mom had been four when Bambi was first released in 1942. I was four when she took me to see it. I don't remember much of the movie, except that I liked Thumper. I remember looking over at my mom during the scene when Bambi realizes his mother has been killed by the hunter. Mom was shuffling through her purse, trying to find a tissue to wipe the tears from her face. I laughed. I know, what an asshole thing to do, right?

I don't know why I laughed. I don't remember feeling anything at that moment except how weird it was to see my mom cry. I'd heard stories of her "nervous breakdowns" that had happened before I was born, but the Mommy I knew didn't cry. She didn't yell. If Dad was throwing a fit, Mom would just turn and walk down the hall to her bedroom and shut the door. Sometimes I'd peek in on her. She'd be reading, or napping. Sometimes she'd be up in her chair, in front of the small TV, embroidering a throw pillow or drawing a picture of some flowers we didn't have in our garden.

The other kids' movie I saw as a kid was "The Muppet Movie" with one of my sisters who is fifteen years older than me. It was such a special treat, getting to go see a movie I'd like with my sister. It must have been my birthday or something. I don't remember.

I just remember seeing too many adult movies when I was a kid. Just going off memory, here's a list of movies I saw way-too-young:

What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, It was the summer of 1971. I was a few months old, asleep in the back seat of my parents car, parked at the drive-in. It was the third movie of a three-movie set. My parents like to joke around that it was my first X rated movie. They took me with them so they wouldn't have to pay for a babysitter.

The Exorcist. 1973. I was three. This movie I remember seeing in the theater with my sisters and my mom. Or maybe my mom just dropped us off, because I can't imagine Mom getting through this horror show herself, let alone letting her three year old watch it. I hated it. And here's a telling part. The scene I remember most was when the girl peed on the floor in front of other people. At three, having an accident in front of a group of grown ups was about the worst thing I could think of. It stuck in my mind. So did the demonic possession, the blood, the vomit, you know, the whole, horrible mess. To this day I still hate horror movies. I can drum up enough anxiety on my own. I don't need to pay someone to fill me with fear.

Annie Hall. 1977. I was seven. I used to say this is my favorite movie of all time. Then I realized what a creep Woody Allen is, personally, having an affair when he was fifty-six with his then-girlfriend's daughter, who was nineteen at the time. Eww. I also realize now that it's weird for a seven-year-old to enjoy an adult sex comedy so much that she claims it's her favorite movie for years. When I was seven, my favorite movie should have been Star Wars, regardless of what the Academy said.

10 by Blake Edwards. 1979. I can't imagine Edwards intended his film to be viewed by someone who wasn't yet ten years old. I was nine when my parents took me to see this film at the theater. It was my first introduction to Ravel's "Bolero". I felt classy.

Kids growing up in the Seventies had it different. There was no 24/7 TV channel devoted to children's programming. There was "Sesame Street", "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", and "Captain Kangaroo", but by the time Dad got home from work, it was switched to the news, "All in the Family", and "Police Woman".

"Angie Dickinson's got a nice rack," Dad would say in between bites of popcorn.

To this day I can't stand the use of the word "rack" to name a woman's breasts. The funny thing is, I've got a nice rack. People have told me I've got a nice rack my whole life and it doesn't make me feel good. I hate that word. I hate having a nice rack. My breasts? They're great! They fed my daughter. They're huge and bouncy and fun in the hands of my husband. But dang, I like to share my breasts with a select few, so when you call out "nice rack" please understand that your words are hurtful, not a compliment.

My parents were pretty awful when it came to protecting me from sexual abuse. They were too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to what negative lessons I was learning about life from the movies and TV shows I watched. But I don't really blame them. They didn't know better. It was the Seventies. Have you seen "The Ice Storm?" Life really was like that. Key parties. Affairs. Not my parents--they were movie buffs, but they didn't act out those sexy dramas in real life. They didn't swing. But my friends' parents did. And worse, they didn't talk to their kids about sexuality. They hid it from them like a dirty secret. My parents fucked up a lot, but the one thing they gave me by being so lenient is an open, curious mind.

The thing about having parents like mine--parents who didn't want to pay for a babysitter, so they took me to see adult movies when I was a kid, who told dirty jokes in front of me, who didn't put a lock on the cabinet where Dad kept his stash of "Playboys"--having permissive parents led me to feel comfortable in my curiosity. I didn't feel ashamed of my questions about how the human body works or why we have certain feelings. I felt like sex was a natural part of life. And just like everything in life, it could be both good and bad and you have to sort things out for yourself. With help from people who care about you.

It's no wonder I became a librarian. The number one law of librarianship is that people deserve access to information, good and bad. It's called Intellectual Freedom, and it's something librarians take very seriously. It's the idea that just because someone wants to read The Anarchist's Cookbook doesn't mean they intend to set off any bombs. And when it comes to kids, it's up to their parents and caregivers to help them navigate their research.

My mom helped me navigate the best way she knew how. Through pop culture. Through lots of no-holds-barred conversations. When I was in junior high, Mom and I would watch The Dr. Ruth Show on TV together. Mom got me Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex for Christmas when I was fifteen. I memorized the answers on the backs of the cards and quizzed myself often.

I had no interest in having sex during this time in my life when I was the most fascinated by sex. I remember feeling like a late bloomer when it came to my libido. I didn't have my first orgasm until I was twenty-six. I had mad crushes on both boys and girls from the time I was about four, but the tingle I felt around them was in my heart and in my brain, not in my clitoris.

In tenth grade biology, my teacher, a forty-something man with a son just a couple of years older than me, held up my test in front of the entire class and pointed to my score. 100%. My hands covered my face as I sat silently trying to ignore everyone around me. I knew he was trying to embarrass me. He didn't like me because I refused to dissect a frog. I told him it was against my religious beliefs. He rolled his eyes at me and gave me an F for that test. I still got a B in the overall class, thanks to my knowledge of human sexuality.

"Well looky here! Becky got a 100% on her human reproduction test! Good job!" he said to the class.

I don't remember hearing any snickering from my classmates. I just remember silence. And the warmth under my hands from the blood rushing to my face. Maybe I just ignored them. Maybe they were too embarrassed, too.

I told my mom about it. "My biology teacher is such a jerk!"

"He's just jealous because he knows you learned that stuff on your own, not because you were paying attention in class," Mom said.

Mom knows me well.

When we got home from picking up our new (used) laptop from Mom's house, Katie immediate sat down in the comfy chair and pushed the power button.

"Are you going to play Minecraft?" I asked.

"No," she said without looking up from the screen.

"Why not?" I asked. 

"Because it's not installed on here. Yet." Kate looked up and smiled a little too confidently for my taste. No doubt this "yet" would cost me money.

"So what are you going to do first on our new computer?" I asked.

"I'm doing research," Kate said and returned her gaze toward the screen. I leaned over to get a better look at the screen. She was on some kind of Wiki for Five Nights at Freddy's. "Oh! Are you going to play 'Five Nights at Freddy's'? I thought you said it was too scary?"

Kate looked up from the screen and stared at me blankly. "Mom. I'm not going to play 'Five Nights at Freddy's'. I told you that. It's too scary for me. I'm just doing research about it. That way when Arianna and Brayden talk about it at lunch I'll know the story."

Kate is eight. She's a sloppy eater. She can't stand to sleep alone. She leaves her toys all over the floor and then yells at the dog when she finds the toys mangled and shredded, chewed to bits on the dog's blanket.

"Wipe your mouth!"

"Go to sleep!"

"Put away your toys!"

We shout these things in our home on a fairly regular rotation. It rarely works. On the occasions when shouting does not help our daughter mature at a rate that pleases us more, we grit our teeth, look to each other and say, "She's only eight."

Eight is still a kid. She has plenty of time to grow up. Til then, I'm doing my best not to stifle her curiosity while protecting her from abuse, from growing up too fast, from innocence lost.

"Do I need to put some kinds of parental locks on this laptop? I'm afraid you're going to stumble upon a site that's too scary or too sexy and it might frighten you," I said.

"No, Mom. Don't worry. I'm just doing research," Kate assured me.

"Well, I want you to come to Dad and me with your questions about sex and, well, anything. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, Mom. You've told me that a thousand times. I'm not researching sex. I'm researching a game my friends like to talk about," she said.

A game I know nothing about.

"Let's look it up on Common Sense Media," I said.

Kate sighed. She knew I'd stand there nagging her until she handed over the laptop and let me do some research of my own.

We looked up Five Nights at Freddy's. "Wow, it suggests the game's for ages fourteen and up," I said.

"Yeah, Mom. I told you it's scary. I don't want to play it. I  just want to know what the story is about. I want to understand what my friends are talking about," Kate explained.

"Your friends who are in third grade? Why are their parents letting them play this game?"

"I don't know, Mom. They probably haven't done their research." Kate smiled at me like, it's OK, Mom. I'm going to be fine.

It's hard not to hover when you want to protect your child. Some helicopter parents worry about letting their kids play outside unsupervised. I worry about letting my child google unsupervised. But I trust her. She's smart. She's confident. She knows what she likes and what she doesn't like. She knows she can ask her dad and me anything. She's going to be fine.

Deep breaths, Mom. Deep breaths. It's a scary world. Our kids grow up too fast. But we can't lock them up and take away their internet searches. They need to learn how to be responsible, and they can't learn that if we don't trust them. We can guide them without smothering their fiery curiosity.

If you worry about the games, movies, and books that spark your child's curiosity, do your research! Here, I'll help:

Here's a good site for reviews of video games, movies, books, and all sorts of media: Common Sense Media. It's one of my favorites. It doesn't simply give you a rating, it explains in detail how much sex and violence and profanity there is in a story so that you, the person who knows your child best, can decide what they are capable of handling. Another resource I like that's just for movies is Kids In Mind. The name itself sums it up. Kids in mind. Instead of expecting our kids, with their immature needs and innocent minds, to watch whatever movie we want to see, let's keep their needs in mind until they're old enough to think for themselves.