Opinion: One thing parents can control

As parents, we cannot shield our children from the world’s cruelty or our failures, but we can try to counter those things.

Gabriel Zimmer | For The New York Times

My father was a long-haul truck driver. He piloted one of those eighteen-wheelers that had a horn that could raise the dead. As a kid I longed to join him on his journeys and discover something of the world beyond Huntsville, Ala., where we lived.

Despite his numerous promises, he never took me along. That failure, and the addictions of his that defined much of my childhood, gave me an education of a different sort. I learned that the world could be cruel and disappointing.

Now that I am a father, I struggle with how much of that hard world to reveal to my sons and daughters. I recognize the privilege in even considering this. Parents of children in Gaza and Ukraine do not have the luxury of deciding whether to tell their young ones of evils done and all the good left undone. Bombs descending from above indifferent to the innocence of youth have become their instructors.

I believe that we all have a moral duty not to turn away from such suffering. During dinner my family and I have talked and prayed about war, poverty, racism and injustice. My hope is that if we instill a sense of empathy in our children, they might create a better world than the one we have made.

It is not just the global upheaval that gives me pause. It is my own mistakes. Not one of us escapes those high-pressure early years of parenthood unscathed. There are always words that we wish that we could unsay, decisions made that we would reconsider if time ran backward. What unfulfilled promise will haunt my children? What will they have to forgive?

Childhood memories rush upon us awakened by a smell or a song or certain times of year. The scent of fried chicken takes me back to my grandmother’s house. I can almost hear the crunch it made when I took a bite. Every time I pass an eighteen-wheeler on the Interstate, I remember my father. Fall reminds me of the anxiety I felt when I knew that I had to go back to school without any new outfits or shoes, hoping I wouldn’t be mocked. I am 44 years old, and I still remember the hard thumps in my chest.

Parents cannot shield their children from the world’s cruelty or our failures, but we can try to counter those things. We can provide moments that may become positive recollections to sit alongside harsher ones.

I have never understood people who complain about poor families buying a nice TV or shoes or taking their children out to eat. Is it all to be drudgery? Are struggling families not allowed to have dessert? I remember my mother buying us candy at the gas station, having decided that since we were already broke, we might as well take the happiness when we could get it.

Since December, my family and I have been abroad while I am on a research sabbatical in England. My 9-year-old son, Peter, a huge soccer fan, dreamed of seeing a Premier League match. He was persistent in the way only elementary school children can be. He arrived in Britain a Manchester City fan, but I couldn’t get tickets. When I managed to secure two Tottenham Hotspur seats, he immediately switched allegiances.

Watching Peter’s eyes widen as he approached the stadium, joy emanating from his tiny frame, was like that first ray of light after a downpour.

Son Heung-min, who is also a standout on the South Korea national team, is the Spurs’ star and captain. Our seats seemed to be in the part of the stadium filled with Koreans. The red, blue, white and black South Korean flag and the national pride it represented rippled in the wind beside Hotspur flags. The team itself was gloriously international with players from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America all working together on the beautiful game. For a moment, sport had united us and my son got to see the world as friendly and good.

Between the chants and songs, the crowd was kind to the cute, curly-haired American kid, making us feel as welcome as if we had been fans all our lives. After falling behind 1-0, the Spurs came rushing back to score three goals in the final 15 minutes to seal the victory. One fan said to Peter, “Now you have to come back every week to make sure we keep winning.” If he could, he would. If I had the power to make every day like that one, no price would be too high.

It is hard to predict the impact of these experiences. Parents can only make deposits of joy. We cannot control when our children will make the withdrawals. Did my mother know that I would always remember that one time she took us all to the (now defunct) Opryland U.S.A. theme park in Nashville? I am not sure what the Hotspur game will mean to my youngest son two decades from now. But that day he was happy, and knowing that will have to be enough.

Parenting is always an exercise in hope, a gift given to a future we cannot see to the end. At some point, if God is merciful, our children will continue forward without us, left with the memory of love shared and received.

We are entrusted with the awesome responsibility of introducing our children to the world and the world to our children. We cannot and should not shield them from all difficulty. But it’s also necessary, periodically, to be a bit irresponsible, to spend a little too much on a soccer game so they remember that alongside the darkness, sometimes there is light. Come on you Spurs.

Esau McCaulley is a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times and the author of “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South” and the children’s book “Andy Johnson and the March for Justice.” He is an associate professor of New Testament and public theology at Wheaton College. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.