My son has been reading voraciously for the past couple of years. Somewhere between seven and eight, when we moved into a house where he had his own room, his own nightstand, and his own reading lamp, everything clicked. He went from reading Bob books under duress to devouring Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the whole Narnia series, The Boxcar Children, Beverly Cleary, Jennifer Trafton, and on and on. His excitement has brought me so much pleasure, and most mornings we spend a few minutes talking about what he read the night before.
One morning over oatmeal, our conversation took on a different tenor. Silas was troubled by what he’d read before bed. It was one of the Hardy Boys books, something (I thought) my husband had read as a boy, and I couldn’t understand why it would bother a kid who’d already read three of the Harry Potter books. I asked a few more questions and found that the main characters were being bullied and threatened by someone who was videotaping them, watching them while they slept. I was horrified. No wonder Silas was upset!
A little research revealed that this was not one of the original Hardy Boys books, but a mutant monstrosity, part of a modern re-release written by a variety of authors and marketed under the name of the original author. A little trick of the publishing house. How lovely. My anger at their deceit, however, soon turned to frustration with myself. I had failed. I was an inadequate researcher, a lazy gatekeeper, and my son had paid the price.
At this point, a half-forgotten conversation with a friend came to mind. We’d been chatting over cheese balls and dips at a Christmas party, and I’d asked her how she knew what books and movies her young teenage son was able to handle. What she said was this: “I tell him he has to pay attention to what he’s feeling when he reads or sees something. If a story or an image makes him feel uncomfortable, or if he’s aware of any kind of negative reaction within himself, I tell him to close the book, turn off the movie. He does pretty well with it.”
Her words were revolutionary, and so freeing for me. They were a reminder that I cannot control everything my son sees. Through friends, family members, commercials, billboards, YouTube, and countless other avenues, my boy will be exposed to images, ideas, and worldviews I don’t endorse. As he gets older, the exposure will only increase. Do I want to protect him from everything, to guarantee that his childhood is a shining pavilion of goodness and virtue without the smallest crack or shadow? Well, yes. I do. That strategy would certainly shield me from pain and guilt. But what about when he leaves this house? Will he enter college or the work force and find that I’ve not just protected him but done all his thinking for him?
The exercise of discernment is truly exercise. It cannot be done in a vacuum. Discernment isn’t necessary in an environment of perfect truth and goodness. The real world—the world of media and politics and relationships and temptation and faith—is a world of uncertainty. How will my son learn to sort truth from lies if he never encounters a lie? How can he develop strength to cling to what is good if he’s never caught a glimpse of evil?
I’m grateful, now, for the Hardy Boys Imposter. I had a talk with Silas, as my friend suggested, about being aware of what is going on inside him. Like every believer, he has the indwelling Spirit of God, the Spirit who has promised to lead us into all truth. He is capable, even at nine, of sensing the whisper of the Spirit within his heart. We know that little angsty, icky, something-isn’t-right feeling, the gentle warning that this thing we’re reading, watching, doing, might be fine for someone of a certain age in a certain time or place, but it isn’t fine for us in this moment. That’s the grace of God, guarding our hearts from whatever would darken them. Our children can hear it same as we can. They can shut the book and donate it to the library. They can turn off the screen, close their eyes, walk away.
That’s what Silas did. He never found out what happened to the boys in the story. My son is flexing his discernment muscles. I’m so proud.
Image credit: Tony Delgrosso, FLICKR // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0