I think I had a pretty good run. 7 years, 1 month, 28 days, 2 hours, and 40 minutes: how long it took me to accidentally scare my daughter so badly that it gave her nightmares. I remember when it happened to me as a kid. I think I was about the same age. My dad was watching “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” There was a scene where a very sick looking John Lithgow was trying to sleep on an airplane that was traveling through a terrible thunderstorm. He kept looking towards the closed window shade, even putting his hand on it to feel it. He closed his eyes; about to fall asleep. All of a sudden he hears a noise, his eyes open, he slides open the shade, and then—the monster on the airplane wing. Its face was onscreen for less than 2 seconds, but 25 years later, I still remember exactly what it looked like. (I obviously remembered enough details about it to be able to google a movie that came out over 30 years ago!) I used to go to bed each night praying that God would make me forget that monster’s face. I was too scared to go to bed or even close my eyes, because I didn’t want to dream about it—and the more I wished that I’d forget it, the deeper it sank in.
My daughter and I weren’t watching The Twilight Zone, we were watching a video on YouTube. See, we had been watching the various Oompa Loompa songs from the old and new versions of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Then, YouTube does that thing where it recommends another video to watch. I watch a lot of videos about math and science, and that night YouTube recommended a video called, “5 Myths About Space that are Completely False.” The image preview for the video showed that the earth was not perfectly spherical as many pictures and movies often show…it’s actually shaped more like a potato or a weird pear. Anyway, we decide to watch the video, which expertly debunked two myths about space and space travel. The third myth, however, was “People in space without space suits explode.” The video gave no warning of this, but instead showed a video clip of a guy from a movie who swelled up, and whose eyes bugged out of his head before exploding in a red gooey mess. Once again…less than 2 seconds of screen time, but enough to cause a nightmare and an overcrowded bed in the middle of the night.
My daughter’s thoughts and emotions were the same as mine. “I just want to forget it and get it out of my head,” she said several times as we tried to help her calm down. Finally, mom had the right answer—just don’t be an astronaut when you grow up. Be something else. It was good enough for that night and we all went to bed.
After a day of sitting and thinking about what I’d done, I started to wonder. I had showed my daughter something terrifying, completely by accident, and it would probably stick with her a lot longer than I or anyone else might expect. The scary question for me is this: What have I shown my kids unknowingly; when I thought they weren’t listening, or they were out of earshot, or I just assumed they were too little to understand. What have they learned from me that I did not intend to teach? That’s the stuff of nightmares…
The reality is that we pass stuff on every day—we model relationships in front of our kids, we react to the news in front of our kids, we follow, and comment on the election cycle in front of our kids, we pray in front of our kids, we go to church, we skip church, we give, we don’t, we serve, and we don’t. Very little is hidden from our children’s eyes, yet all of those things begin to shape their worldview. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary has stated that the biggest influence on a teen is not Sunday school, Bible study, or confirmation–it’s the parents and how they model faith to their kids, both implicitly and explicitly.
If you’re like me, and you have kids, you may have asked yourself at one point: “Have I just ruined my child?” No. No, you haven’t. The good news is this: Children are remarkably flexible, resilient, and forgiving. Over a life, all of us end up carrying a backpack full of stuff that has been placed, dropped, or dumped inside by ourselves or by someone else. From time to time, it can be helpful to dig around in the backpack and ask if the things we carry are still worth carrying. It’s in those moments that we can reconcile, forgive, reorient, and rethink our lives. After a while, I got over my fear of the monster on the wing, because when I finally asked myself what was so scary about it, I realized how silly it was, and the monster’s face finally faded into a distant memory. Perhaps my daughter will one day ask herself why she’s so scared of somehow, one day, ending up in space without a spacesuit, but for now she’s content to be a ballerina when she grows up. And I’m going to pay closer attention to what my kids are learning about life as they watch me live mine.