Perfect Ignorance. In life there are two types of ignorance. First, there is the ignorance of the knowable. What is the stock market doing? What will the weather be tomorrow? And why does it rain after I have my car washed? That is all part of the knowable. Learn, read, ask, it’s all there and knowable if you take the time.
Then there’s the unknowable — what I call perfect ignorance. How much homework does my child really need? What books should he/she be reading? Who should their friends be? These and a myriad of other major and some not so major decisions, all fall into the unknowable or perfect ignorance category. It’s not a lack of reading or research that’s the problem. Rather, the problem is, there is no perfect answer because the information doesn’t exist.
In not too few areas, we simply don’t know what is the best thing for them. In fact, no person knows. However, the problem isn’t that we don’t know, it’s that we think we should.
At the risk of getting way too abstract, we don’t know which issues fall into which category of ignorance. This is not just relevant to parenting, it affects everything we do, work, marriage, everything. Sometimes decisions have to be based on the information or knowledge, and sometimes a decision has to be made but the full knowledge doesn’t exist.
That is why we stress. To paraphrase the famous Jewish ethical book, The Way of the Righteous, “Worry comes from wanting something that cannot be had.”
Let me explain. In the good old days, you came home from work very late and very tired. Whether that work was at a place called work or whether it was a place called home. It was physically exhausting and not very remunerative. You just didn’t have the time or the luxury to offer your children a lot of choices. If they wanted anything, they had to figure out on their own a way to get it.
There was very little for a parent to worry about because they had very few options. With affluence comes choices, and it’s these choices that make us think we can do it better.
And we can. If our parents did such a good job with so little, think what we can do with so much more. The problem is that stress and worry don’t help — they actually make it worse. If we as parents stress and worry, all we are doing is teaching our children to stress and worry.
In other words, as we have more choices that we can make for our children, there is more concern and anxiety about which choice is the right one. Which is better — piano or ballet? Karate or space walking? (That’s for all our NASA parents). Do you think your great-grandmother in the Polish shtetl lost any gray hairs over which after school activity was better, soccer or art?
And that is in fact what is happening. Children are becoming more overly stressed because they pick up and imitate their parent’s tensions over which kindergarten playgroup will give them a better chance of making partner. My six year old wants to be a fireman because that’s what big people do. But if all the big people he knows are continuously nervous….
It’s easy to tell your children they should be care free, but they really need role models who can show them how to do it. The wisdom to achieve this is a lot easier to understand than it might be to implement.
Just like in medicine, exposure to many viruses at an early age can often save a person’s life later on because they developed an immunity. In a similar way, children need to experience challenges early in life.
Just imagine a child that never experienced any kind of real challenges and at 20 years old travels the world. How would they manage their first encounter with discomfort?
Does this mean we should expose our children to verbal and emotional abuse?
Obviously and absolutely not, no more than we should expose them to disease or physical challenges. They will experience these things naturally despite our best efforts. We cannot sanitize life – but we also don’t need to intentionally introduce more artificial problems.
All kids get sick, all kids get hurt and all kids receive insults and disappointments. They are better served when we try to teach them how to live in a world that has many challenges, than pretend life is all cushions and pillows.
The ultimate point here is that for sure we should try to protect our children, but they also need personal challenges in order to grow.
It’s the difference between superman and superparent. As much as we would like to remake the world with no rough edges or nasty people – it just isn’t so, nor remotely possible. However, some parents don’t want to believe it — they think they have figured out how to make it so no one gets sick or says a mean word, so they play superman sweeping in to save the day.
However, all they are really doing is pushing the day off, and worrying along the path. The healthy parent has a handle on worry because they realize that ability and knowledge is not for us. Trying to make our children’s lives easier doesn’t in fact make it so. And worrying and stressing actually make their lives worse.
As a healthy parent we try to give our children the best life we can, but when our child’s day inevitably doesn’t go according to either of our plans, we appreciate that somehow it’s good too. In fact it’s perfect for them – we just don’t know how. That’s perfect ignorance.