A carpeted hallway runs down the center of the house. Its walls are collaged with family photos in various frames. Shadow boxes take up most of one wall. On their misaligned shelves, a hodgepodge of miniature things rests. The only prerequisite is that they are precious, adorable, or even moribund: the skull of a baby squirrel or the perfectly shed skin of a grass snake.
On one of these lower shelves, in a clear, thumb-size vial rest a glob of liquid mercury. Yes, the kind found in old, glass thermometers. Perhaps the mercury had been collected by intentionally breaking a bundle of thermometers.
Obviously, a curious five-year-old child sees all of these tiny things as toys. There are lots of ‘No, no, no!’ screamed out when a hand reaches up.
Inevitably, the child does end up sitting with the open vial on the floor. How long was the child allowed to play with and push around the slinky, silky element? How much mercury penetrated through their little fingers?
How much of what children are exposed to carry into adulthood?
When objects are tiny, they exude a preciousness even if they’re dangerous. A miniature screwdriver is necessary for repairing reading glasses, but it can still puncture a hole through the couch cushion.
When items are tiny, they’re considered more fragile and delicate. When we can hold an object in our hands, we can squeeze the life out of it.
Humans are conditioned to the cuteness variable. Most are compelled by the desire to squeeze the cheeks of a baby or gather the many wrinkles on a Shar-Pei puppy. A crying baby is unappealing, but they are too cute and unable to articulate their woes, so we go to coddle them. Intrinsically we know the smaller the size, the more vulnerable; the more susceptible to predators; the inability to self-defense.
When I was fifteen years old, my grandmother took me on a trip to Las Vegas. She was never a gambler. We visited the Hoover Dam, a chocolate factory, a couple of Broadway-like, circus shows. She also took me to Reno to see a drag queen nightclub performance. I remember dressing up in our hotel room in a black dress, pantyhose, and little heels. It felt like an upscale occasion. All the performers dressed as pop culture icons: Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Cher…They dressed as these characters then sang and danced to familiar cover songs and skits. It wasn’t raunchy or debauched. It was classy, frankly. The performers just happened to be men. Prior to this, I’d always been around gays and lesbians. It wasn’t anything exceptional; it was just another way of life. I’ve never experienced anything untoward in this regard. I am not unsympathetic to the outrage around the over-exposure of over-sexed behavior being perpetrated on children though. I don’t have a particular answer to mitigate the debauchery either. It is absolutely not appropriate to discuss sexual behavior with young, impressionable children. At the end of the day, parents are responsible for their own children. Parents are the ones who decide what their children are exposed to. It is our society that has embraced overt sexualization. It is more pernicious than it’s ever been, worsened by the accessibility of everything; everything a child can see and hear online, on social media platforms, and through social contagion amongst peers. I can’t imagine the difficulty parents have in navigating what is going on in the schools, in libraries, and in private conversations their children have with teachers.
We often hear, and we want to continue believing children are resilient. How resilient are children really? We’ve especially wanted to believe this after the isolation during Covid. I do not know; I am not a parent. I do know what I personally witnessed and experienced growing up. Through all of it, I do consider myself a very well-adjusted, healthy, and happy adult. My friends and lifestyle could attest. Yes, childhood is a fragile and precious time. And yes, society is trying to squeeze the life out of childhood before it can be experienced. Kids don’t even run and play hide-and-seek through their own neighborhoods anymore. Playgrounds are plastic, not metal. We’re insolating with the same velocity that we are degrading. It’s the foundations at home, the grounding, and the mentors along the way that are more beneficial to the rearing than the occasional snippets to lifestyles. What is going on in the home, and how things about the world are being discussed in the home will always weigh more heavily than anything else a child sees outside of the home. Here, I am grateful. Too many children are left to fend for themselves; this is the hard truth.