Parenting in an Age of Fear

I used to experience the occasional horrible events of terrorism and gun violence without a strong personal reaction of fear.  After September 11, 2001, I was greatly saddened, I was worried about the potential for war, and I had some immediate concern about whether or not Houston, where I was living, would be a target if there were still attacks to come.  I felt concern for the Muslim community in Houston where I was living and in my hometown area of Detroit.  But I didn't hesitate to fly on a plane when the opportunity next arose.  I responded by hosting events on Islam at our church.  I didn't experience fear at a visceral level, just sadness, as I recall.  I didn't experience fear after the Oklahoma City bombing, either.  With school shootings, I didn't experience fear after Columbine or Virginia Tech or any of the school shootings in between.

After Sandy Hook, I heard a lot of people talking about fear, and a lot of people talking about how this doesn't increase their fear, and wouldn't change how they would do anything.  But the experience is different for me as a parent when we have events that include children at or close to my own child's age. 

  • I felt fear when nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green was killed while meeting with her member of congress, Gabrielle Giffords, on a street corner in 2011.  Christina-Taylor Green seemed so much like my own daughter, precocious and big-eyed.  I've paused and thought of her and experienced fear every single time I've taken my own daughter to a political protest or meeting with her congress member or any elected official since.  
  • I felt fear during and after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  My child is a little older than the first-grade students who were killed, but it was a very short time ago that she was in first grade, and she's still in elementary school.  Sandy Hook could have been her school, and was like her school and every elementary school in so many ways.  
  • And I felt fear after the Boston Marathon this week.  I've never attended the Boston Marathon, but I know many people who have, and one who was there.  And like 8-year-old Martin Richard killed this week by one of the explosions, my child has been in crowded community settings that could just as easily be a target for someone with a home-made bomb.  Martin Richard looks like my daughter's classmates, as we see the pictures of him holding a sign wishing for peace. 

Many parents, like myself, experience these deaths of young children in a different way than we've experienced the violent episodes of our country's history in the past.  We can see in these children our own children. Some affect us more, some less.  My child is much younger than Trayvon Martin when he walked back from the store, or Hadiya Pendleton standing in a park in Chicago, but with each child shot, my parent-brain sorts out: how much was this situation like one my child could be in?  I've felt no fear about movie theaters, even after the Aurora, Colorado shooting, even though a six-year-old girl was killed there.  Why didn't it affect me the same way?  I can't say.  But after Sandy Hook, it was a real struggle to let my child go back to school on the next school day.  I waited anxiously for her to get home for the entire day.  If there had been any threats of violence in my own community, I don't know that I would've been able to send her off at all. 

We know that statistically the odds of being in a school shooting, or other mass shooting, are very small, as are the odds of being in a bombing.  But we also know that these events struck unlikely and every-day sorts of places, and it could happen anywhere just as easily.  The statistics protect our hearts, but the randomness lets the fear back in.  All these children were doing ordinary things, things that should have been risk-free: going to school, attending a marathon, talking on a street corner.

We respond in different ways to this fear.  After Sandy Hook I heard parents talking about how they talked to their own children about the shootings, and heard other parents saying they were trying to shield their children from the news entirely.  And I heard parents speaking with great emotion on both sides.  With our hearts in our throats, it's hard to remain calm and non-judgmental, particularly if it feels like somebody is questioning our decisions about our children.  We're in "mama bear" mode, protecting our children the best we know how.  And we can be, and some were, somewhat cruel to each other: "This is why I would never send my child to public school," "Anyone who keeps their child home is a coward," "You must talk to your child about this to help them cope," "If anyone talks to my child about this, I'll be furious at them."  After Sandy Hook, and in the wakes of school threats since, we make the tough decisions: Do we send our child to school, even though there are threats?  Do we keep our child home, and being labeled a coward?  Do we talk to our child, possibly increasing his or her fear?  Do we shield our child, risking that our child will find out in a scary way?  Do we take our child to high-profile events where things are more likely to happen?  Do we keep our child home? 

Not all parents feel fear in the same way.  And not all parents will have reactions to the same kind of events.  It's not rational or logical, this fear.  But just because it's not rational or logical, doesn't mean that it can be or even should be completely ignored. We're quick to say, "You can't let the fear affect you."  We're quick to tell parents and all people that if we give in to fear, we're letting the terrorists win

It is not the parents' reactions that is the problem here.  Attacking each others' responses to this situation is misplacing our anger, our fear, our blame for this culture of violence. 

For the parents out there, if you're feeling fear, that's okay and understandable.  If you're not, that's okay and understandable, too.  And whatever your reaction here to these insane circumstances, if you're doing what you think is best for your child, then I support your decision.  Send your child to school.  Keep your child home a day or two.  Home school your child.  It's not your decision that's broken or wrong or crazy, whatever it is: it's this culture where children are killed in ways like these. 

My heart still breaks for Christina-Taylor Green, and it breaks anew for Martin Richard.  No child's life should be taken in such a way as these.  No child should be the victim of violence.  We shouldn't have to worry about our children at the marathon, or at school, or on a street corner, or walking down the street, or standing in a park.

When I was a child, we never had drills of what to do if a shooter entered the school.  Our biggest fear was nuclear holocaust, and there were no drills, because we were told that we'd all just die pretty quickly, since we were so near the large city of Detroit.  It was a different sort of fear we grew up with then.  It was scary, but not something we dealt with on a regular basis, and wasn't talked about at all until junior high.  In elementary school the scariest thing was fire drills.  Today, my child has regular lock-down drills, and it's a normal part of elementary school life. 

Childhood is different now, and parenting is different now.  And there are a whole lot of different and acceptable responses to these circumstances.  So parents, be gentle with one another.  And non-parents, be gentle with us.  This is new, and we're just trying to do what's best for our children.  Trust us to be the ones who know what that is, even if you would do things differently.


barbara l. hale said…
Funny thing about being a parent. I have a 27 year old son who is currently working at a local community college. I feel much the same way you do when I hear about violence on college campuses. Seems that "mama bear" tendency never really goes away. But I still take comfort in the fact that if anything were to happen around him, there would be good people there who would help and I hope that we raised him to be one of the helpers.
Anonymous said…
My first child was 9 weeks old on 9/11/01. I slipped into a deep depression and would cry constantly - I would not put her down for a minute. These days, I know to stay away from "who were the victim" news stories because my heart breaks too much and that despair is never far away.

I can't get over how different things are for my kids. My 9 year old asked me last night what my favorite thing to do when I was her age was. My answer was "explore my neighborhood." She doesn't do that, and it makes me sad that I am too scared to let her.
Sara said…
Having children has always felt to me like taking your heart out of your own chest and sending it out into the world in a terribly vulnerable little person. Everything took on so much more meaning, anxiety, and potential heartbreak for me, from car accidents to carcinogenic chemicals. To love so much is to be vulnerable to heart break.

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