Is it possible to mourn a tragedy, fight for gun control and mental health access, and manage our own fears and terror without concluding the world is a dangerous place and passing that fear on to our kids? Yes. And as parents, we have no choice. We have to find that balance. Otherwise, we are the ones creating that terrible, dangerous world. Our kids are looking to us to understand what is dangerous and what isn’t, and to teach them to determine when to take risks and when to be cautious. If we teach them that the world is full of evil people seeking to harm them, we are not only giving them false information, we are robbing them of a full life.
A horrific, unfathomable tragedy occurred in Newtown, Connecticut this month. For me, when those children go through my mind, they all have the faces of my precious twins. My maternal instinct tells me to lock the doors, close the shades, batten down the hatches, and teach my children to be afraid. That is the world we live in, right? Don’t talk to strangers, stay inside, don’t touch that, you can’t go in there, you never know, use hand sanitizer, abstinence only, better safe than sorry.
I can’t say how frequently I hear parents musing longingly about how they used to play outside all day from morning until night, left to their own devices to manage relationships with other kids, explore, solve problems, and make their own fun without parental supervision. When I hear these things I’m always puzzled. If these parents know how good this was for them, why don’t they let their children do the same? But before I can even respond, I hear the inevitable, “But this is a different world… you just can’t do that anymore.” Where did we get this idea, and who is benefitting from it? Certainly not our kids.
The fact is, we need to be basing our choices for our kids on facts. The fact is, an unimaginable tragedy happened this month. The fact is, these kinds of tragedies have happened before and will likely continue. But it is also a fact that our kids are no less safe than they were when we were growing up. In this interview with renegade mom Lenore Skenazy, she talks about the fact that crime statistics are back where they were in the 70s and 80s, but we all believe we’re living in some kind of war zone. The fact is kids are safer at school than they are in their homes. The idea that we live in a dangerous world where kids can be snatched up anytime, anywhere is not a fact. It’s a cultural myth that too many of us are buying into – and one that, not surprisingly, just happens to be highly profitable for a whole heck-load of industries. The children at Sandy Hook Elementary were robbed of their childhoods, even those who survived. But many of us are robbing our kids of their childhoods little by little, day by day, and needlessly.
So where does this idea that the world is a cruel and dangerous place “nowadays” come from? The first culprit is ultra-awareness and media saturation. We are all more aware nowadays, and this has it upsides and downsides. If children are being abused or bullied we speak up. These acts are not seen as private business or “just the way kids are.” When I would come home everyday crying due to awful bullying I experienced for years in elementary school and junior high, my mother would say ” I don’t know what to tell you, Ly.” If that was happening now, my mom and I would both potentially be more empowered.
But media saturation also leaves us vicariously traumatized by every event. Everywhere we turn, literally, there is a device in our face shouting at us, “Danger, danger!” Our devices are in our phones, they connect to our cars, they live in our ears, we go to mall, to a restaurant or any public place and there are tv’s blaring. You want to remember how safe the world really is or isn’t? Plug out and take a walk in the woods. Watch, listen. Take a deep breath. Death is not lurking around every corner. Armageddon is not looming. Humanity is the same messy, mixed bag it’s always been.
So who benefits from our fear? The people who make all those devices that we are so dependent on. The news media who presents anything and everything as if it were a horrific tragedy, whether it is or not. Gun manufacturers who would love nothing more than for us all to conclude more guns equals more safety. Even the folks who sell us all the activities and classes our kids attend while they’re not outside in danger of being “snatched up.” What about the video game makers? Even the folks who make junk food! How are big pharma – they are thrilled to cash in on the anxiety and depression that results from us all concluding doom is just around the corner. And how about the politicians who use our fear to manipulate us into going along with this or that? Even the diet industry would rather us stay home and veg out so we need them to help us shed the unwanted calories.
There are massive corporate interests counting on us believing the world is more dangerous than ever. They are spending a lot of money to keep us and our kids out of the woods and in our homes, armed to the teeth, glued to our devices, soothing our fears with junk food and SSRI’s. The painful truth is, physical and emotional health, perspective, rationality, and fact, are not profitable.
Parents in every age have had to struggle with unknowable questions of how to explain evil, hate, and cruelty to their children. Human beings are deeply, deeply flawed but also incredibly inspiring. How can we hold both these truths and present them to our children in a way that makes them smart, but not paralyzed by fear. Here is Lenore’s piece in Salon written in response to Newtown. She speaks about the worst school shooting in American history which took place in… 1927! She speaks about how close tragedies feel when we experience them in real-time and see them on video. How do we keep perspective in such a world? THAT is the world we live in, not a world that is more dangerous, but simply one that feels more dangerous. Our brains and sent straight into a panicked “fight-or-flight” response when we see these images, and it’s hard to convince our bodies and our minds that we are not, in fact, in danger.
We need to find a new balance, and I would argue it needs to be based in fact. We need to train our brains to respond differently. We need to be able to think clearly to determine where to put resources. The fact is your child is astronomically more likely to die in your own car with you at the wheel than a school shooting. So where do we want to put our money, then? Bullying and the resulting suicides are way more deadly in schools than random acts of violence. And what about kids being shot in non-school shootings? What about the poor, largely minority kids who are victims of gun violence every day? Why are we not experiencing vicarious traumatization about them? We don’t even know about them because it’s not as lucrative to saturate us with their stories! Seeing poor, black children die doesn’t send us into a tizzy because too many of us won’t believe it can happen to us, and the media, the corporations, the politicians, they want us scared.
So next time you feel that wave of trauma pass over you, take a moment to reflect and grieve, call your congressperson, write a letter to the editor, fight for gun control, but then go outside. Open the door, and send your kids out to play. Tell them to explore the neighborhood. Trust them, and trust other people until they are proven untrustworthy. Go hiking. Make snow angels. Breathe. Because we are still alive, and the truth is most of us are going to stay that way for a while. Plug out. It is an act of resistance. Demand moments for you and your kids that no one is profiting from and you will remember peace. It still exists, I promise.
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