It’s our job as parents to manage how the world reaches our young children and to provide context for the messages.
When I became a father, I knew that it would involve taking on a number of new roles that I’d never held before – caregiver, provider, waste management and disposal specialist – but there was definitely one role that I hadn’t adequately anticipated. That was the role of a father as a GATEKEEPER. And being a gatekeeper for your child is one of the most important parental responsibilities there is.
Now I sometimes have a hard time with the term “gatekeeper” because it either a) invokes an image of me standing watch with a shotgun while I lock my daughter up in a tower and protect her “virtue” (whatever that is) or b) it just makes me want to make a Ghostbusters joke, but, “Keymaster” puns aside, like it or not, every parent is a gatekeeper for their child.
What that means is, as parents, we all have the ability to control and curate the flow of information that reaches our children. You control the TV. You buy the books they read. You largely get to choose where they go and where they don’t go. They’re not getting to the library or onto the internet unless you let them. Whether they accept it or not, parents have an enormous amount of control when it comes to how their kids experience the outside world.
“Gatekeeper” is the word I use for that responsibility, but maybe a better term would be “content curator” or “reality docent” – whatever works for you. The important thing is that, particularly in the early years of a child’s development, I feel strongly that it’s a parent’s job to attempt to manage and contextualize how the world reaches their children every day. (And, by “every day,” I mean, “as much as they can within reason.”)
Some people won’t like that definition. Anytime you talk about selectively controlling information, you begin to sound like the Stasi or Big Brother or, at the very least, the dreaded “Helicopter Parent.” But let’s not confuse responsibility with totalitarianism. The reason why parents need to control the information that goes to their children is because kids are born free of context. As children, they are constantly being handed random puzzle pieces of information without ever being shown the big picture. A parent’s job is to help their kids assemble those pieces – those random urges, images, and data points – into coherent thoughts and emotions. As parents, we should be the people holding up the picture on the puzzle box and encouraging them to find the corners and work on the borders first.
This becomes a parent’s job because, in theory, no one should know their kid better than their parents. (Place your own italics around “in theory” as needed.) A parent should have a pretty good idea of how their kid processes information, what pushes their buttons, and when they need annotations for reality and when they don’t. I’m not saying that, as a parent, you’ll always be able to catch those moments 100% of the time, but I am saying that it’s the responsibility of a parent to ATTEMPT to catch as many as they can.
The hard part is there can be a lot of legwork involved in being a gatekeeper. Your kid will have their own individualized needs, but being an effective gatekeeper can mean pre-screening movies, researching topics on the internet, not letting your kid watch the TV show that all of their friends are watching, not browsing certain websites when your kid is in the room, trying to anticipate when you should and shouldn’t have difficult discussions with them – it’s not easy. And you will screw up more than once.
Yes, other parents will feel judged by what you’re doing (“You haven’t shown him Star Wars yet? We showed Billy Empire Strikes Back when he was three…”) and, yes, you will feel judged by those same parents too (“Oh, you guys never give your kid your iPad and let them watch Netflix by themselves?”), but the key to being a good gatekeeper is tailoring your gatekeeping to the SPECIFIC needs of your SPECIFIC child. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.
For example, last week, I specifically didn’t take my daughter out to eat a certain restaurant she wanted to go to because it’s one of those restaurants with a million TVs on every wall and I KNEW that some of those TVs would be tuned to coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. And, while I definitely don’t think it’s my job to shield my daughter from the horrors of the world, she’s only six years old, I have a pretty good sense of what gives her anxiety, and I feel strongly that she should learn the details about an event like that from her mother or father and not from flashing images of horror, flickering over her dad’s shoulder while he eats a hot dog.
I’ve spoken to a few parents who regard the idea of “parental gatekeeping” as something indulgent, that it somehow suggests that the world should be tailored to their kid’s individual whims and preferences. That’s not it at all.
What I am saying is that – if you decide to care for a child, a child who comes into the world as a blank slate, a child with his or her own idiosyncrasies and anxieties, I feel it’s the job of a parent to provide context to their child in a very personal, individualized manner. For some kids, everything might roll off them like water and the job is relatively easy. For others, you might have to prevent them from attending a sleepover because you know that movie they’re going to watch is going to give them nightmares for a month. It’s a hard job – and you might frequently be cast in the role of the bad guy – but that’s just part of being a parent.
For my part, I enjoy the challenge of being a gatekeeper for my daughter. I try to point her towards quality information, books, friends, movies, and experiences, and sometimes I even succeed. Lots of other times, I fail. For example, I really wish I hadn’t read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark before she actually WAS afraid of the dark, because I’m pretty sure that book kicked off several months of nightlights, nightmares, leaving the hallway light on, and assorted reassurances that NOTHING under the bed was, in fact, drooling. That was my bad. I should’ve known my audience better.
But, despite my successes and failures, I think the best part about being a gatekeeper is the knowledge that, eventually, my daughter won’t need me to fill that role anymore. That, by providing her with context, I’m also teaching her how to gather context by herself and, at one point, she’ll be experienced enough to seek out those deeper meanings all on her own.
In the meantime, I will continue to turn off the TV news whenever she comes into the room, refuse to let her watch the movie that her best friend loves (but that I know will scare her), and engage her in conversations whenever I get the sense that she’s struggling to understand certain feelings or concepts. Because, as her father, I need to accept the responsibility that, for better or worse, I am one of the lenses that my daughter uses to look out into the big wide world and, as such, it’s my job to provide as much clarity as I can.
It doesn’t matter what you call the role – gatekeeper, guide, curator, sherpa – all that matters is that you take your child’s hand and you try to lead them through the world in a way that makes sense for them. It’s not the easiest aspect of being a parent, but it’s definitely been one of the most rewarding.
—photo by charlesfettinger/Flickr