His little body visibly melts as he releases the burden of his nighttime thoughts. Through tears, Ben shares the images keeping him awake at night: being trapped in a web, a sword hitting Daddy, losing Teddy, falling from high places, weapons, and more and more and more.
"When I go to bed, I keep thinking mean thoughts, and that's why I can't fall asleep," he says. By "mean," he means unpleasant, frightening--not malicious.
I listen and listen and listen, thinking what a relief it must be for him to finally release all this fear. I hold him on my lap, affirming how scary those thoughts must be, how frustrating to lay awake thinking about these things. He nods his head and says, "Uh-huh," every time I put words to his emotions. He continues to share images as they come to him, as though the very act of verbalizing these mental terrorists disarms them, and he can't bear to let any go unspoken. Several times, I say, "Thank you for telling me. I'm so glad you've told me."
For a couple weeks, we've noticed how long it has taken him to fall asleep. Often, he's still rolling around in his bed an hour after we turn off the lights. He doesn't fuss or make trouble, but sleep hasn't come as readily as it usually does, and his shortened night is evident the next day in his eyes, his touchiness, his likelihood to put his head on his arms at the dinner table. I hadn't known until tonight that he was wrestling hypothetical tragedy in his bed.
I ask him if we can pray, and he nods. Together, we do spiritual battle against the thoughts holding his sleepy mind captive. We pray against fear and anxiety, we ask for peace for his room and his bed, we claim the blood of Christ over our home, our family, his life. And when we're finished, we talk some more.
I tell him that many of those pictures in his mind probably come from movies he's watched or books he's read. The web clearly comes from the Veggie Tale with the bad apple who spins webs of temptation around her targets (those Veggie Tales are often scarier than they seem). After I mention that, he says the sword is the one he saw in Peter Pan, the gun is from Fox and the Hound. There is power in recognizing why our mind dwells on certain thoughts, and he seems to draw some confidence in identifying the images' source. I tell him that these images are the reason why Daddy and I want to make sure books and movies and stories are appropriate for him before he sees them. He seems to receive this familiar phrase, "to make sure it's appropriate," with new appreciation.
He finally settles. His breathing steadies and his tears stop so that he can get ready for bed. Abby, who has been wandering in and out of his room while we talk to give him hugs or bring him Teddy, continues to tend to her brother with concern. We finish our routine of books, prayer, and songs, and I tuck the kids in bed.
Tonight, Ben is asleep within minutes. I exhale.
I love that little boy, who at times possesses such maturity and at others reminds me he's so young. I'm grateful he trusted me with his fears tonight. Still, I wonder if we've allowed too much too soon. I walk this line of wanting to protect him from themes and images that seem too mature and wanting to allow him the freedom to explore and ask questions about the conflict of good versus evil in this world, a conflict he bumps up against in his own life. I worry sometimes that I'm overly protective of what he's exposed to, and in the same breath, I wish I could go back and retract the dozen movies we've allowed him to view. And yet, he so thoughtfully processes them, asks insightful questions that strike at the heart of the films, draws beautiful comparisons and parallels between the stories and experiences he's had.
I don't know whether we've sanctioned too much, but as a mom, my greatest hope and desire is that whatever happens in my kids' lives, they feel they can talk to me about it--openly, honestly, without reservation or sugar-coating. I want to always open the door for more conversation, to lay the groundwork for future disclosures, and I think tonight was a step in that direction. So whether we've been mistaken in our decisions or not, we are prepared and willing to process the fallout with Ben, because few things diffuse the thoughts and fears that plague our minds like the ability to confess them to someone who really loves us.
Ben and I agreed we'll try to find less intense movies for him to watch (which, for the record, he generally only watches when he's sick). I'll continue to scrutinize the content of his interests and will probably be more conservative in what we introduce. In the meantime, we'll continue our dialogue, and I'll continue to pray.
May these two kinds of conversation be constants in our relationship.