Other than the overall impressions that I have described above (and also how strikingly beautiful Ms. Strossen was up close in person when I spoke to her afterwards), the only thing that I remember specifically from that debate is something that Ms. Strossen said about protecting free speech in the midst of negative or hateful speech. I’m sure she’s no doubt said it behind a hundred other podiums, but it’s always stuck with me. In referring to how to deal with ugly, negative, or hateful speech, she said: “The answer to free speech we don’t like or agree with is not censorship, but corrective speech.”
Fast forward more than a decade, and narrow your focus away from the typical free-speech debates. I’m not going to use this space to discuss the legitimacy of protecting religious hate speech against Muslims in the wake of the attacks in Libya or to weigh in on the presidential debate. The truth is, Ms. Strossen’s words resonate with me more on an interpersonal parenting scale than on an international political scale. How so? you ask. I have two words for you: birthday parties.
That’s right. Curly Fries turned two this past summer; she is old enough now to be receiving invitations to the birthday parties of her daycare buddies. We think this is great, although a little strange. After all, she only invited – and by “she” I mean “her mother and I” – two of her buddies to her second birthday party, and they were church buddies. Well, more truthfully, they were kids whose parents are our buddies. But anyway. She hasn’t been able to attend any of these parties yet, but we know that we have entered the era in which birthday parties will become a primary social outlet for her. Before long, she will be going over to the houses of kids whose families we don’t know. And there are one or two kids in her class we’re already dreading getting invitations from. Why? Well, these kids have families that very obviously have different values than we do.
I don’t want to spend this space getting into what these values are or why we are hesitant to expose our child to them. I think all parents can relate to what I’m talking about. Your child comes home from a party at some other kid’s house and says, “Well, at their house, they get to do…” And you have to find some way of explaining why that activity will not be acceptable in your house. Or perhaps it’s reversed, and a kid comes over to your house and says or does something you don’t allow. Whatever it is, we’re already anticipating how our little girl will soon be exposed to different values, ideas, beliefs, and practices in the homes of her friends and peers. And some of them we’d just as soon she never see.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself; she is still not old enough to really understand birthday party invitations, and if we received one now from a school buddy we didn’t want her to see, we could just choose not to go. But it won’t be long before she understands and tells us she wants to go. Do we let her? Do we send her to the home of a child where it seems clear to me that values on display that clearly counter the values with which we strive to raise her? What is a conscientious parent to do?
The answer – and I’m giving myself this answer now, in advance, so I’ll be ready when the day comes – is yes, she can go. As long as I feel comfortable that she is not in danger, she will always be allowed to go to her friends’ houses. I’m not necessarily looking forward to the conversations these experiences prompt, but I do believe that conversations are a good thing. The proper way for a parent to respond to lifestyles and values I don’t agree with is not to try and restrict my child from encountering them, but to have conversation with her about them.
I know that I have the easy luxury of taking this position right now while the stakes are still low. I’ll check back in with this blog in the future when these conversations start to actually happen. But I can share an example out of my own life. I remember in first or second grade going to church on Easter Sunday and hearing the other kids in the class regale each other over all the amazing goodies that the Easter Bunny brought them. And I mean some serious goodies; one kid got a new bike, while another kid got several new G.I. Joe toys. I was nearly in tears when I had to tell these friends that all the Easter Bunny brought me was a couple of pieces of chocolate. It felt like coming back to school after Christmas and telling everyone that Santa brought me rocks.
In the car ride home, I asked my parents why the Easter Bunny didn’t bring me new toys. My parents were very blunt with me: the point of Easter, they told me, was not about getting new toys, but about celebrating the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ. The Easter Bunny (I don’t think it was spoken out loud, but it was understood that “the Easter Bunny” was my parents) brought me some candy because it was a festive holiday and worthy of some celebration, but that it would always me modest because it was important that in our family we not let our desire for new possessions overshadow the true joy and meaning of the holiday. I won’t pretend that I like this answer – I wanted my own new bike! – but I understood it. And in following years when my friends at church would brag about their new toys, I would remember that my parents wanted me to focus on something else. I didn’t always like it, but I understood the values my parents were trying to teach me.
My parents didn’t try to shelter me from the reality that some of my peers’ families had different values than we did. Of course, it would have been foolish for them to have tried to shelter me from this; after all, I learned of it at church! But that’s exactly the point, I think. There is no possible way to shelter my child from all the competing and opposing worldviews out there. She is going to encounter them, whether I like it or not. I cannot possibly censor every idea or value that I don’t like. But I can teach my child she will always have a safe place where to talk about what she’s encountered. I know this invites plenty of push-back. I was not happy to hear that the Easter Bunny would never bring me a new bike, and I know there will be moments when I have to tell my little Curly Fries that, as nice as she may think some of her friends have it, we live a little differently in our house. But this is how learning takes place and this is how values are developed, and it’s important to me as a parent to help my child learn to think critically about what she encounters.
And just think of all the corrective birthday parties we’ll get to throw.