My 7-year-old daughter recently inquired, while leaving (I admit it) a McDonalds, how much money people made who work at that "restaurant" (I add the quotation marks). Well, I said, not much, and that it was usually a part-time job with no benefits and that, often, young people without much money take such part-time work. She asked what "benefits" are, and I said health insurance and other things. Insurance she understood. But she is worried about poor people already, not that I am wealthy.
Daddy, she intoned another day, when you were in the Army did you kill people? No, I said, trying to end that line of inquiry. Why do we need an Army? -- her follow-up. Damn, I couldn't get away, I thought. Well, because sometimes we need to defend ourselves against enemies. Who are our enemies? Well, hell, now we're getting into deep shxx. Fortunately we then arrived at the park, thus enabling me to switch to her acrobatic skills.
One day in the last school year, while children were outside on the playground at my daughter's school, a police officer was shot in the head by a taxi driver he had stopped on the street directly adjacent to the playground. Trained by many tragic events at schools, teachers reacted quickly to the gunshots, got kids into the building, and went into lock-down mode. In following days, I chatted with parents as we dropped off our kids, protectively, at the front door -- and I asked several what their children had said about the event. One father said evocatively that his 8-year-old boy was nonchalant, telling his dad something to the effect that "Everybody has guns, right? So people get shot."
Likewise the 6-year-old daughter of a couple, both of whom had been my students, reportedly asked about her friend who had "two mommies." This 30-ish hetero couple and both certified liberals, told me that they explained how the world is made up of different peoples and that all are equally good, and that two mommies is just another kind of family. But, their daughter said, other kids make fun of her friend every day.
My daughter has had her problems with religiosity. She says she doesn't believe in God, and didn't like it when her teacher last year referred often to god's will, and that all the other children in the class believed in god and "mocked" her for not believing. This led to some parent-teacher conversations, and principal intervention -- in a public school. Why can't they accept me for who I am? she asked me. While I gave a hopeful response -- they will learn how to be tolerant -- what I really thought was that this belief bullying was yet another example of how America still has not become truly democratic.
This last spring I was invited to give a talk to an elementary school's 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders about "other countries and the world," said the principal, and to reinforce cultural diversity on a global scale. Well, fair enough, I appeared with props in hand -- little mementos from Southeast and Eastern Asia, Central America, Western Africa, the Balkans, etc. -- and I delivered what I thought was kind of an entertaining presentation. The kids once in a while laughed, giggled, and exclaimed "wow." Then came the Q&A, for which I was unprepared.
"So, why do Muslims hate Americans?" "Is China our enemy?" "My daddy said that black people were once slaves taken from Africa -- how come?" "AIDS was god's punishment, right?" For a half hour these questions kept coming. A tough audience, let me tell you. Speaking to Pakistani groups or being interviewed by foreign media are easier assignments.
Wars, violence, intolerance, injustice, hunger, disease, infidelity... all seem known to the very youngest of American society. They are no longer shielded. Gated communities, affluence, and silver spoons make no difference. Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo. -- kids hear about and too often experience these events, and about wars in which their friends fathers, uncles, mothers or aunts have died. In America's communities, poor or wealthy, violent death, drugs, religious and racial intolerance are in inner cities, outer suburbs, and rural towns.
Our kids know far, far more than we older folks think they do. They have been exposed through media and peers a vast array of information and disinformation that makes their growing up far more complex than ever before. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, better darn well catch up lest we be unable to guide their maturation. The little ones, for now, might start an policy academy in which we adults could learn.
Daniel N. Nelson heads a consulting firm in Northern Virginia.
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