Recently my son saw a movie that upset him so much that he chose to leave. The incident came up in conversation with a few adults, and the comment was made that my children are sensitive. It was meant as a neutral comment, but it stayed on my mind for the rest of the day. I walked away from the conversation and thought hard about what it means to be sensitive, and whether or not I want to raise sensitive children.
I looked up the word “sensitive” and found that it means, “to be aware of one’s environment.” It can also mean “easily hurt or damaged.” Did I want my children to be aware of all the yuck that exists in the world around them? Did I want to raise children who are easily hurt or damaged?
But isn’t there more to being sensitive than that?
As it turns out, sensitivity is a complex, multi-faceted thing. There are varying degrees and forms of sensitivity. I can look at my three children and attest to that. I have one child who is sensitive on almost every level—sensitive skin, sensitive to crowds, sensitive to noise, and cries easily—and then I have another child who is like a Mack truck and knows only one noise level (loud), one speed (fast), and one way to live (intense). He almost always has scraped knees but sheds few tears. These two children could not be on more opposite ends of the sensitive spectrum.
Just as there are varying degrees of sensitivity, there are also varying forms of it. There’s a healthy form of sensitivity, called innocence, and an unhealthy form called naïveté. One form we must fight for. The other we must fight against.
Innocence is tender and it must be guarded carefully. It means to be pure. It’s a freedom from guilt or knowledge that’s too hefty and it’s synonymous with chastity and blamelessness. We must fight to keep our children’s innocence intact because its purity makes it incredibly sensitive to the tainting of evil. As we fight for innocence, we must be sure not go too far and foster naïveté, because naïveté is unhealthy and even dangerous. Naïveté is being susceptible or overly-sensitive to outside influences, which can be hazardous when those influences are left unchecked. It is believing something or trusting people without question.
So do I want my children to be aware of their environment, maintaining a sense of perception and a healthy responsiveness? YES. Do I want them to be susceptible to the negative influences of the world around them? NO. My goal is to raise cautious, watchful, down-to-earth humans who are in the world, but not made of it. Sober, not cynical. Guarded, not gullible. Aware but not wary.
How do I do that? Where’s the five-step program that tells me how to maintain my children’s innocence without fostering naïveté or going to the other extreme and over-exposing them, forcing them to know too much too soon, and making them grow up well before their time?
How do we raise healthy sensitive children?
We harden them.
Not harden them like turn them into cold-blooded villains. Harden them like strengthen them. Harden them like you would a plant.
Plant hardening is done by gradually exposing a seedling to outside conditions. The hardening process refers to the strengthening of a plant’s tissues, which is necessary for it to survive the elements of the outside world. The elements—the sun, wind, and rain—are all things the plant needs to survive. But too much too soon will wreak havoc on the plant as a delicate seedling. It must be hardened first.
Our children begin as seeds, planted in our homes and grown in warm, protected, controlled environments, like greenhouses. Gradually we expose our children to the elements of the outside world in small, healthy increments. As their root systems grow stronger and their hardiness improves, we increase their exposure. At the end of the hardening process, our seedling-children are ready to be transplanted from their safe little pots of soil under our watchful eyes to the ground outside, just beyond our eyesight.
The results of careful hardening are healthy seedling-children, appropriately sensitive to the elements of the outside world. These children, protected and nurtured, have strong, healthy root systems and are ready and able to withstand the changing elements. And ultimately they will bear much fruit and flower.
Hardening is more of an art than it is a science. It’s not an easy process and requires patience and wisdom.
But the yield of sweet, innocent and sensitive children is oh, so rich.
I should know because I have sensitive children.
At least, that’s what I’ve been told.