After cataclysmic events like the Boston bombing, there follows a conversation that debates the status of "normal"... what normal means in terms of conducting our daily business, getting ourselves across town, maybe signing up for the next marathon; even raising our kids. Certainly, on that last item, articles and discussion abound. The topic of "how to raise children in the age of terrorism" has not only carved a prominent spot on the how-to list of most parental advisers, it unfortunately seems to be gaining an edge of hysteria, one that merits, I think, a little moderation.
Since we've mentioned Boston, let's start there. I wrote a short piece a few weeks ago on the Time Magazine cover that featured a bloodied and terrified child present at the bombing. My piece was essentially a prompt, asking readers their thoughts on how we cover history, what images we use to do so, and if children-in-peril shots are off-limits in chronicling historical events. History tells us they are not, as a couple of the iconic photos I included in my piece attest, but the posting of that article on my Facebook page incited an interesting and troubling conversation about how young children are to fit into a world in which bombs can explode at their feet as they're cheering at the finish-line.
One reader wrote:
"It (the Time photo) shows the vulnerability of children when we bring them to these big events, parents need to weigh the risks vs. benefits of bringing a small child anywhere these days...."
OK. I'll buy that. We do need to weigh the risks of anything we do for and with our children, from putting them on the pony ride at the park, bringing them to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, or walking the booths at the county fair. And clearly, most parents do find that balance, since statistics tell us most children will live to a ripe old age of 75-80.
But another commenter went even further in her admonition of caution:
"Why were 3-year-olds at the finish line of a marathon? Tedious, hot, mindless. Given the activities of the past twenty years (never mind the overall degradation of community manners), yes, I do sadly question the wisdom of having such young children at crowded events."
I was stunned by the comment on a number of levels. First of all, bringing a 3-year-old to the finish line of a marathon is hardly tedious or mindless if you time it right (my son at 3 would have LOVED being there to cheer on crossing runners!), and certainly, temperature has no bearing if a child is dressed appropriately (why we're having that discussion, for God's sake?). But negating the "wisdom of having such young children at crowded events" is a narrow and fear-based view of childhood, suggesting a parent is unwise for allowing a child to participate in such seminal experiences as parades, carnivals, county fairs, museums... or Disneyland (where my delighted son spent his third birthday). To my response about Disneyland, the same commenter wrote back:
"Don't see the point of putting kids under the age of 4 through the sensory deprivation experience that is Disneyland OR Disneyworld: all they get out of it is a sunburn. Your mileage may vary, but I just don't get dragging children that young to such crowded places."
Huh. Maybe she just doesn't get children at all. Because my experience of "dragging" a child through Disneyland was clearly a different -- and better -- event than she's imagining. Anticipating meltdowns, tantrums, exhausted sugar highs and occasional sensory overload are all part of raising a child; that can happen in the back yard, a grocery store, a school picnic or a character-driven amusement park! And most good parents figure out how to time those bigger events by keeping things relaxed and flexible, timing meals to mitigate energy drops; providing for naps and breaks from the action, and certainly, and to get back to the salient point, doing all they can to protect a child from the inherent dangers of crowded places....
Because those dangers exist everywhere. They existed before the Boston Marathon bombing and will exist, likely and unfortunately, for the rest of time. Children have had to be protected from crowds and the generalized "dangers" of life since life began (surely, cave men had to keep marauding wildebeests from their frolicking young) and to frame the role of parent as one who protects a child by avoiding places and events perceived as perilous simply for being "crowded" is a form of parenting paranoia that can only damage a child's sense of safety, joy and confidence. Restricting them from classic childhood events and the learning and connectedness of community and social camaraderie is less about protection and more about panic.
Because, let's face it: One of the most horrific events to have happened to children in a long time occurred in one of the most protected of childhood places: a school. Which makes this argument moot.
So, I'm not going to suggest a list of "ten ways to keep your children safe in the age of terrorism." I'm not going to presume that parents anywhere need a primer on protecting their children. Because the same tenets that have applied to guiding them safely yet confidently through growing up and traversing the world still apply in this ominously described "age." Nothing's changed. Most of us have been vigilant, alert and necessarily aware of where our children were, what they were doing and who they were with and how best to protect them long before terrorism came to our shores. Most of us remain so.
But, frankly, beyond the measures taken, beyond the measures that have evolved -- from buddy systems and seat belts, to vaccinations, über-carseats and FBI-cleared nannies -- there is no way to protect a child, or anyone, from events beyond our control. To not live life, to not experience festivities; to avoid learning, excitement and FUN because of an irrational fear that anywhere, anytime, a bomb could go off, a madman could start shooting or a plane could fly into a building is to stop living. That is not good parenting. That is fear. That is its own form of death.
The only way to truly protect your child is to love them, talk to them honestly and age-appropriately about the world, be wise and judicious and take all the customary steps to keep them safe, and then... live life. Let them live life. Let them experience the wonders of travel, the glory of community celebrations, the sense of communal support in cheering on marathon runners.
And yes... take them to Disneyland. I know one boy who'd tell you it was the best 3-year-old birthday he could have possibly imagined.