This afternoon before I ran, I grabbed the last Gatorade in a pack of eight. Since it was the last, I was stuck with an empty set of plastic rings. Even though I was behind schedule, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the rings up so that each of the eight rings were broken. I am not as environmentally conscious as I would like to be; we recycle but we could do more. Yet, going back to childhood, I have always cut up these plastic rings. Why? Well…cartoons.
Like any kid of my generation, I was up early on Saturday mornings to watch my favorite cartoons. Typically in between the adventures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Captain N, corporations would do their best to peddle sugar-coated cereal or the latest video. Occasionally, someone would get a guilty conscience and they’d try to teach us lesson. Usually these PSAs were delivered by one of our favorite cartoon characters (like the Ninja Turtles Oscar-worthy turn guiding us through the epic “I’m not a chicken, you’re a turkey!” anti-drug PSA).
One of those PSAs talked about those plastic rings. The cartoon character informed us that if we just threw out our plastic rings and they somehow got into the river or the ocean then fish would be trapped in them and die. As they explained this, an animated fish was shown getting trapped in one of the rings. It was horrifying to pre-adolescent Chris. But if we cut the plastic rings—as I did this afternoon—then we could save the cartoon guppie from unavoidable doom. That stuck with me. No fish, real or animated, was going to get rung on my watch.
It’s funny how even though I am adult of nearly 30 that I still abide so stringently by some of the rules I learned in childhood (I still feel guilty if I eat more than two cookies in a day; holidays excluded). I know why I abided by those rules as a kid. Kids are impressionable, especially when a parent or cartoon character tells them to do something. But why today?
I am sure there is a developmental psychological answer, but my amateur take is that those lessons build a foundation for us. Even if we shake them, they stick with us. Thus it is incredibly important that the lessons we teach children are good lessons. Not just about protecting fish and sharing with friends, but about love and faith. I am reminded of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
The lessons we learn as children are critical. It’s not universally true, but I think a lot of the baggage that we have about God as adults come from the lessons that we learn about God as children. Or maybe the lessons aren’t bad per se, but perhaps the foundation that we are given is not solid enough or too small-minded for the complexities that growing up throws at us.
Regardless, those childhood lessons are important. The gravity of that reality is becoming increasingly clear to me as a very smart two year old runs around our house (and as another child is on the way). There are so many good lessons I want our kids to learn and bad lessons I want us to avoid teaching them. The scary thing is that it is both in our hands and out of our hands.
Teaching a child is a challenge, privilege, and great responsibility. I’m glad it is ours rather than a cartoon character’s. It is my sincere prayer that we teach our children well and that God’s grace will patch over the places where we will inevitably screw up. How’s that for the close to a prayer? God, help us through where we screw up. Amen.