One of the things I love about my mom is that she always answers honestly any question that’s asked of her. Once when I was about eight, I asked her if we were poor. She just looked me in the eye and said yes. (But no, we wouldn’t have to sell our house and live in a shack.) When I was ten and I asked her what “getting your period” meant after reading the phrase in a book, she explained the female reproductive system to me. And as a grandmother, she gives my boys the same honest answers to their questions as she used to give me.
Now I have nothing against big cities, but living in a town of less than 2000 people means that my children have freedoms that other children can only dream about. My boys can play outside in an unfenced yard without constant adult supervision. My oldest son can make the five-minute walk to the library or the candy store by himself. And when I need to run out to do a few errands, Zackary sometimes remains at home with instructions to keep the door locked and not answer the phone.
But even in small-town Saskatchewan, there are sometimes dangers. And recently, when a very high-risk sexual offender cut off his monitoring bracelet in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a town just over three hours away, and was spotted around schools at small towns nearby, the security I love about my small town was no longer assured. And I wasn’t even at home when it happened.
In fact, I was having the time of my life at a conference in Toronto with no idea that my small town wasn’t the safe haven that it normally was. Fortunately, my mom was looking after my boys and she was well informed of the danger. So when she needed to run some errands and Zackary decided that he wanted to stay home, she wasn’t comfortable allowing that. He wanted to know why and, as always, my mom was willing to answer the question honestly. But the conversation that ensued was one that I never would have expected.
Zackary listened to my mom explain that there was a bad guy that had escaped from the police and might be somewhere nearby and while he understood and accepted that, he told his “Nan” that he wasn’t worried about bad guys because he would just run away if he saw one. She asked him how he would know if a person nearby was a bad guy and he said that he would be able to tell because of how the bad guy looked.
Now here’s the interesting part. He wasn’t referring to a mean expression on a person’s face. He was referring to the characteristics of the “bad guys” in the video games he loves so much. He genuinely thought that a bad guy would be easy to spot because there would be identifying features such as purple skin, horns or clawed hands. As my mom realized this, she found a picture of the escaped criminal on her tablet and showed it to my son. Zackary exclaimed in surprise, “But that just looks like a man!”
My mom told me about the conversation when I returned home a few days later. I have often thought about the ramifications of video games in my son’s life and I did consider before that they may be giving him a feeling of invincibility simply because in a video game, you can keep trying and trying until you defeat the “boss.” At seven years old, Zackary isn’t playing violent or hyper-realistic video games so I wasn’t worried about his becoming desensitized to violence. I did consider that he might overestimate his abilities by thinking his success in a game equalled his success in life.
I never considered, though, that he might think the characters in the game were anything like the people he might encounter in real life. It sounds a little silly to even say it; surely he knows that he’s not going to stumble across a blue talking hedgehog or a grumpy green dragon in real life. But in our sheltered small town, we don’t encounter “bad guys” very often and since he had never seen one, it never even occurred to him that a bad guy is just a man, a person like any other person he might meet.
Fortunately, the escape of the criminal led to a dialogue being started with my son that has helped to clarify his misconceptions. Because this was a misconception that I hadn’t even known existed and even in a safe small town such as ours, it was a dangerous one. It also reminded me how important it is to take a little time each day to discuss everyday issues with my boys, because their questions and responses are often enlightening and unexpected. I remember Zackary talking to me after learning about “stranger danger” at school, but even with that education, the message didn’t really hit home because of the way he was viewing a dangerous person in his mind.
It’s a little thing, to spend a half-hour or so each day to talk to a child, but it has a big impact at times, and the conversation between my mother and my son was one of those times. I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky that my mom is the type of person to always answer questions and take the time to discuss those answers with her children and grandchildren. Partially because she helped teach my son something very important, but even more so because she passed that same characteristic on to me. And sometimes, we may not even know how much of an impact our answer to a question may have on a child.