Newborns gaze into their parents’ faces, seeking connection with those who care for them. Older babies look at adults’ faces to try to understand how to read an uncertain situation. Toddlers reference their parents’ faces to check in on how far they can push the limits.
And for the rest of their lives, those children will continue to use this skill of gaining important information by reading the faces of others to figure out their world. The messages we read on others’ faces convey more powerful meaning than the words we hear.
And that’s why a recent experience with my five-year-old granddaughter has me pondering. Prior to our visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Jane’s dad had prepared her for a powerful scene there: the portrayal of a family of slaves being literally torn apart. I was naturally concerned about how sensitive Jane would respond.
As we stood before this tragic-but-true exhibit, Jane gazed quietly at the family depicted. But very soon, she did something else. She took my hand and led me around one side to the back of the exhibit.
Confused at first, I finally realized what Jane was doing. You see, on each side, the family is being led apart by two slave owners dragging them in their shackles. The slave owners face backward as they lead the family away. Only by walking around to the back of the exhibit can you see the faces of the slave owners tearing this family apart.
After she studied the man pulling the mother away, Jane led me around to the other side to gaze into the face of the fellow leading the father away. She looked at his face a long time before she was ready to move on.
I wondered what she was thinking, and then I understood. She wanted to see the faces of people who were able to deliver such cruelty to a family just like hers. She needed to learn what cruelty really looked like.
When our children face hatred in its many ugly forms, their hearts and souls are vulnerable, just as ours are. But for them the remedy is a dependable one: just like Newborns, our kids of any age look into the faces of those they love for assurance.