I Don't Want to Know

Many of us are attached to a hope that if we don't know about something, it's not really there--and there's nothing we need to do about it. How can we invite our growing children to tell us things we don't want to know?

A bunch of grown-ups were talking about sex and sexual behavior that's out of the mainstream. One woman said that she was basically disgusted with the whole subject. It hadn't been going that well for her. She didn't want to dwell on it--and she certainly didn't want to hear the details of other people's experiments, compromises and struggles. It was all just too embarrassing and painful.

As I listened--and sympathized--I wondered if our culture's extreme "anything goes" attitude toward sex grows partly from that common embarrassment and pain. Rather than listening fully to people's experience around sex, giving them the space to sort out motivations, notice the roots of fantasies, consider what they're really looking for, grieve for what they're not getting, we'd rather let them be as irrational or hurtful or kinky as they please--so long as we don't have to be involved.

I certainly don't want to know. Aside from a certain voyeuristic curiosity, I don't want to know about people's sexual traumas and struggles--or any deep internal turbulence, for that matter. Knowing, particularly with people I love, always brings with it a measure of responsibility. At bare minimum I have to face how that knowledge affects me. And there's usually more--more that makes sense to do with regard to the other person once I really know what's going on. It's so much simpler to just not know. Then we can all maintain the fiction that everything is fine and life can continue smoothly--on the surface at least--on its way.

I was thinking about this as an adult peer of other adults, but it's never long before my role as parent comes to mind. Now I know that this attachment to "everything being fine" (regardless of what we have to hide to make it appear so) is not in the best interests of growing children. I've tried hard to give them the space to not be fine. I've invited them to show what is under the surface--all the little hurts and disappointments, the griefs and rages--even though part of me would rather not know. In general they've been ready enough to take up the invitation that the bit of reluctance with which it was given didn't get in the way.

As they get older, however, and barriers to showing all that stuff start to build up, I think my reluctance becomes more of an issue. One child has already passed the threshold of adolescence, the other is not far behind. I'm starting to imagine more and more things that could be happening that I don't want to know about. I don't want to hear about social conflicts that leave my child feeling lonely at school. I don't want to hear about friends who are into hard rock, friends who smoke. I certainly don't want to hear anything about drugs or sex. If I can just not know, my mind says (with a certain lurking panic), everything will be fine.

What can I do? I know the right answer, but I can't quite find my way to it. I think that journey has something to do with remembering that the people in our lives, and our love for them, are our most precious resources. And, in order to claim them fully, to have them fully, we have to be willing to know what's going on for them--all the struggles and pain and bad choices as well as the accomplishments and joys.

The only way I can get my children fully and keep them is to communicate a deep and abiding interest and openness to hearing about whatever they are working on, whatever they are excited or troubled by, whatever they are trying to figure out. I have to communicate that I do want to know it all.