This past summer and spring, it seemed that each week, there was news of a new child abduction. From Milwaukee’s little Alexis Patterson to Utah’s Elizabeth Smart, each case left me nauseated and afraid. For awhile, I reacted to the stories as if my responsibility as a mother was to assume an abduction could happen to my two boys — ages 7 and 4 — anywhere, anytime. I hovered on the porch as they played in front of the house. I took note of unfamiliar cars in our neighborhood. My husband and I reviewed the “don’t go with strangers” rule and rehashed our “these body parts are private” discussions. We amended our talks about being nice to everyone and gave our usually-polite little boys permission to yell and scream and bite and kick if anyone ever tried to take them. Mostly, we walked the tightrope between not scaring the boys with too much information and giving them enough to offer some protection.
Protection. The more I thought about the role my husband and I have as our children’s protectors (in addition to being their cooks, garbage collectors, chauffeurs and entertainers), the less likely abduction by a stranger seemed and the more likely abduction by society in general became. While strangers snatching children is still so rare and terrible that it makes front page news, the abduction of a child’s value system is so common, many of us don’t see it anymore.
I decided I needed be less worried about some nameless villain lurking in the shadows and more worried about the dominant American culture kidnapping the souls of my sons.
Every generation of parents has had its own enemy to fight in terms of protecting their young. Ages ago, cold winters, starvation and wild animals posed the biggest danger to children. In the more recent past, parents were terrified of polio. Today, the biggest threats to our children are insidious and in disguise. Materialism, consumerism, and a culture that glorifies violence, casual sex and self-centeredness prey on our children on a daily basis.
For the first time in human history, many stand to gain more — at least in the short term — by corrupting children than by caring for them.
There is money to be made in selling children toys they don’t need and clothes that will go out of style in six months; in convincing them to buy food that corrodes their arteries and entertainment that corrodes their minds. There’s money to be made in taking teens’ natural interest in sex and using it to sell everything from CDs to TV shows to glossy girls’ magazines. Too many stand to make a huge profit if they can convince children that in all things, more is not enough.
I realized, as I watched my little boys play in the front yard, that the Gospel values of living simply, caring little for possessions and reaching out to the marginalized are not only different than the values of society at large, but are actually at odds with those values. And that’s where abduction comes in. Because in order for big corporations to convince my sons that they need to watch a cartoon with rude or violent characters, buy countless plastic action figures or judge people by the brands they’re wearing, they will first need to convince my children that the values they have been taught at home are wrong. They will need to steal our family’s — our faith’s — teachings. And they’re working hard to do it — with clever billboards, slick commercials, and even by using those children whose value systems they’ve already stolen.
But my husband and I, and many parents we know, are working just as hard. Having been given the gift and responsibility of parenthood, we are holding tight to our children, even as our culture strains to pull them from us. We are seeing through the empty promises of commercials and are teaching our children to do the same. We are deciding that driving past is often better than driving “thru.” We are acting as guardians and protectors of our children — making decisions about what music, TV programs and clothes are welcome in our home — and which are not. And most importantly, we are making choices in our own lives that teach our children that we value helping people and protecting the earth over buying more and more stuff.
And yet, I know no matter what we do, it is still possible that our children’s values may be abducted, for there are no guarantees. We offer them the best protection we know and send them out into the world — and we pray they will not be taken.