“All this time we're hoping and praying we all might learn, while a billion other teachers are teaching them how to burn…” —Rush, Peaceable Kingdom
Until I was nine and my sister seven, we lived with an alcoholic who year after year escalated violence against our mother. Drunken rage drove our birth father to blame her for his self-hatred, and he'd berate her, and he'd beat her, and then self-loathing would spiral him into dysfunctional regret.
That regret led him to always say how sorry he was, and how much he loved us, and how much he loved her. The holidays were the times when the most bittersweet poignancy welled up in his eyes, and ours, with his signature Dorothy phrase, "There's no place like home."
I always want to believe that. To believe that he really meant it, that he'd truly rehabilitate and he'd stop hurting her and we'd all go back to being a loving family. But he didn't. And then we left.
Right after that we experienced a whole other level of dangerous family dysfunction, and yet I always wanted to believe that it would be okay. Hope coursed through me as if hit by lightening (and it still does). We had some family and friend intervention and help through these experiences, and our mother did her best to care for us, but until I was nearly 13, life was far from being a safe family haven. For at least two decades after that I felt helpless and I channeled my impotent rage into depression and unhealthy relationships as an adult.
Thankfully, our girls haven't and won't experience this, since we have everything to do with it. And many other people don't experience this either (although what's reported versus what's not is telling -- God bless those who have experienced it). And although today most of us don't experience other kinds violence -- especially terrorism and war -- it's all around us and being transmitted to us via traditional media and social media, all with the competing slants and filtered perceptions.
Because of what's happened of late in Beruit and Paris, I've thought about how we'll respond to our girls if (and when -- if not now, in the future) they ask about what happened.
Prior to taking Beatrice and Bryce to New York City earlier this year, the Mama read the girls the story about the Man on the Wire, Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center. She told them we weren't going to see the buildings because they weren't there anymore. The "whys" ensued and then the Mama proceeded to tell them there were bad men who didn't like the buildings and who brought them down.
The same story was repeated when we visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The Mama and I went on solo tours, but we didn't bring the girls through the whole thing together. They did see some of the damage on display, however. But then, we were both overwhelmed and we had to quell our own emotions from our 9/11 memories.
Why did we do that? Why didn't we share them and the why of emotion with the girls? How do you explain that to a four and six-year-old? And unless they experienced it directly, why would you explain it to them in any greater detail?
That answer has been clear to us now more than ever because my wife is a Kidpower instructor. Kidpower is a global nonprofit leader in personal safety and violence prevention education. Instead of using fear to teach about violence prevention, the Kidpower Method makes it fun to learn to be safe, building habits that can increase the safety of young people and adults alike and that can last a lifetime.
Talking about worries and fears creates unnecessary anxiety without making kids safer. According to the Kidpower program, protecting kids from adult feelings helps to reduce anxiety and increase competence. You do what you can to protect children from hearing details, speculation, and any and all media coverage as much as possible.
But when you do have to explain some tragedy to your children, instead of trying to keep them completely insulted and inside, for fear of what may or may not happen, talk about your family safety plan, and take the time to make safety plans and to discuss, review, and practice safety skills with your children and teens if you don't already have one.
You should always project calm and confidence as the adults in charge, and this will help your kids, too. For example, Kidpower references studies that show even during wartime when people went into shelters from the bombing, the children were far better off (less traumatized) in the shelters where adults were singing and being positive that they would all get through this, than in those where the adults were acting and projecting fear. In fact, read this column about singing in an Israeli bomb shelter.
Then go out into the world with your children and help teach them so that they can practice making safe choices together without radical judgement. There are just too many teaching otherwise.
Again, there are no absolutes. There is no black and white. And yet, it's unfortunately always easier for us to take sides and cry out in the wilderness our subjective takes on justice and injustice. The nuanced complexity of family violence, global violence and extremist terrorism is barely accessible to learned adults much less children and teenagers.
So instead let's stand together through awareness and vigilance while making our own safety plans, knowing that we're all susceptible to violent tragedy. Many of us will go through our lives unscathed, just as hopefully many of our children and children's children will as well, but together the aggregate power of our safety plans may just change the world.