“I really regret doing it,” you confess. “I feel really, really bad about it.”
We are in the car driving home from school and you are in the backseat, unburdening yourself of your great misdeed. Looking at you in the rearview mirror, I notice the tension in your body and the nervous expression on your face. You are a seven-year-old on the way to the gallows.
Earlier today I received a lengthy group email from your teacher. Apparently, one of your classmates was found with a Squid Game notecard. The teacher spoke with the class about how the Netflix show is not appropriate for kids your age, and she implored us parents to have a “firm and serious conversation” with each of you to drive the point home. Rightly, she wants to nip the behavior in the bud.
Your teacher said that as the class discussed the notecard, several other kids admitted that they had talked about Squid Game or played some version of it at recess. And it’s to this latter offense you are now confessing.
“How were you playing Squid Game?” I ask you. “What was the game like?”
You describe playing a modified version of Red Light, Green Light, where the losers were shot with pretend bullets instead of simply being out of the game.
“Oh, I see,” I say. I’ve only watched one episode of the program, but that was enough to understand what scene you were recreating with your friends. In the show, the ‘players’ begin a game of Red Light, Green Light without understanding the dire consequences of moving during the red light. The scene turns violent and gory as live rounds are fired on offending players, and bloodied bodies begin to line the playing field. It is a horrific, suspenseful scene, unveiling a layer of malevolence not initially apparent at the start of the episode.
I look back in the rearview mirror and see you have cast your eyes down, ashamed, not knowing your fate but certain it must be worse than anything a Squid Game character ever suffered.
I am certain your guilt is compounded by some degree of fear. Not just of punishment, but also of whatever your mind believes Squid Games to be about.
You haven’t watched the show. Not because I have forbidden you from watching it, although I’m sure I would, but because you are far too afraid of it even want to watch it. The mere mention of the words “Squid Game” conjures up anxiety in you.
You have shown me some of the derivatives of the recent cultural phenomenon that have trickled down to your world: a mini-game in an app you play; people referencing it on (more or less) family-friendly Youtube channels; and conversations classmates have had with you.
I remember what that fear feels like. When I was your age, I was terrified of Freddy Krueger. I had seen the shelves of Nightmare Before Elm Street VHS tapes at the video rental store, and knew to give wide berth to anyone wearing a striped sweater and a brown fedora. I hadn’t seen any of the movies: the mere idea of watching even a minute or two of one of them would keep me awake for weeks. (How cruel for a fearful child in bed at night to know that he attacked his victims in their sleep!)
And yet, out on the playground, kids would talk about Freddy Krueger and we would let our minds go wild with all kinds of games centered around him. The chaser in tag might hold out her right hand and wiggle her fingers slowly, for instance, and we would flee in gleeful terror at the clawed glove we collectively imagined shink–shinking in preparation for us. Like me, none of my friends had seen the movies, but we all seemed to know every terrifying detail from them.
So it’s no surprise to me that you and your friends might make games out of this thing you don’t really understand. Nor is it a mystery to me why you have found ways to turn your collective anxiety and fear into sources of amusement. It’s not unlike the way adults build roller coasters and drop rides, despite our fear of traffic collisions and plane crashes. Or how we watch Saturday Night Live skits lampooning horror shows like Squid Game, as we laugh together at that which frightens us.
Meanwhile, there are situations in our lives that bring real fear. Ones that aren’t pure fiction, that can’t be turned off with the press of a button. Things like cancer and heart attacks and pandemics and school shootings and all the rest.
The first week of school this year, your school went into ‘lockdown mode’ when a person experiencing a mental health crisis wandered onto campus. You and your classmates hid in closets and under desks as your teacher turned off the lights and locked the door. You huddled with a couple of your classmates under the teacher’s desk and were told to be quiet.
You told me later that it was a “drill,” but you said it lasted about fifteen minutes and you were a little scared and uncomfortable. I learned later that some of your classmates in the closet were terrified for the friends they couldn’t see hiding under desks. And many kids heard the banging of closed doors and wondered if they were gunshots.
Thankfully, though, the person left campus without incident, and nobody was hurt.
I have seldom missed your mom as much as I did while I processed my feelings of frustration and fear and concern for you. I wish we could console one another on the necessity of school lockdowns. To shake our heads over the fact that schools today must deal with this reality, and that our society seems to accept school shootings as an acceptable cost for nearly unbridled Second Amendment protections. To be able to talk to someone about how precious you and your innocence are to me, and to listen while she would have done the same. Not that I would want her to have all that worry and sadness, but I would have given anything to be able to share in it with her.
Carrying the burden of our fears, our worries, our guilt, our shame, our hurt, our grief, and our pain is hard. Being able to unload them is so important.
But the letting go can be pretty damned hard, too.
“Hey buddy,” I say to you. “You don’t need to worry about playing Squid Game during recess. That’s OK. Kids like to play games, and you don’t always know what is allowed and what’s not. I mean, it’s always better to play games that don’t involve people getting shot, but I know a lot of kids like to play those kinds of games. So don’t worry about it.
“What’s important is that you told the truth, that you were honest. And I’m so proud of you for that. OK? Do you hear me?
“I don’t want you to feel ashamed for playing Squid Game. Let go of that. I want you to feel proud for telling the truth to your teacher and to me. OK?
“Are you proud of yourself for doing that?”
You say that you are, and I can see the relief start to wash over you. You aren’t in trouble. The shame that was beginning to grow now has no purchase on which to take hold.
I really am proud of you. Proud of your courage and your honesty. Proud of your compassion for others, which makes you feel bad for striking them even with fake bullets.
If I can be honest (because honesty is so important) I am proud of myself, too.
I have used the opportunity of this “firm and serious conversation” to praise the strength of your character and encourage it, rather than to chastise you for a minor offense and lead you down a path of further shame and fear.
Like any good dad would, I chased away your Freddy Krueger. He wasn’t so terrifying after all.
You are a good dad, Caleb.
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Brilliant! Understanding that the game he was playing was just a modern day made up game and comparing it to your play of Krueger was just brilliant. It so makes sense.
Also, the truth always rules before getting in trouble. Sometimes the truth is super hard, because sometimes the truth makes ones heart hurt.
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