So I live in North Texas…you know, near Dallas and Patient Zero. That hospital you’ve been hearing about? Yeah. Both my kids were born there. I personally have spent over a month there as a patient. My ob-gyn is there. My fertility specialist. I get my mammograms there. I’ve walked the halls, eaten meals, made friends. Needless to say, this is all hitting way close to home.
Last week I’m walking my daughter, a 5th grader, home from school, and she and one of her besties are excitedly telling me they talked about it at recess and figured it out: if the Ebola starts spreading, we all need to get to some remote island. We’ll be safe there…well, as long as we can figure out how to purify water and get food. Bodily fluids with Ebola can’t survive across water…can they? The salt water would kill them…right?
I smile. I engage with the girls. I discuss the merits of their plan, while at the same time working to assure them that we don’t need to worry about that (even as, in the back of my mind, the little fear bug gnaws away.) And then I find myself opening the front door and walking into the cool confines of our house, much like the afternoon last year when I learned about the active-shooter drill at the elementary school, so, so SAD that these little kids, these CHILDREN, have to worry about stuff like gunmen in their schools and Ebola.
Flash-forward to today, and I’m messaging with a writer friend and reflecting about all the Huge Stuff kids today have to deal with—Ebola! ISIS! Beheadings on YouTube! Mass Shootings at school and movie theaters and just about everywhere else! Cyber Bullying! Sexual Predators! Online Sexual Predators, and More, More, Always More!—and she wisely says, “They will learn to deal with it. It’s our job to raise responsible adults not dependent children, as hard as it is on us parents (and grandparents.) Our job is not to keep them away from scary things, but to teach them to deal with and overcome fears.”
And I just kinda sat there going…wow. You’re right. You are absolutely right. That is our job as parents. To teach our kids. To prepare our kids. To ready them for the day that they walk through the world as adults. Sometimes this involves protecting them. Sometimes this involves taking a deep breath while bumps and bruises happen, understanding that they are an inevitable part of growing up.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought about swimming—and drowning. When we have kids, we naturally worry about them falling into water. Given this, one of two courses are available to us: we can keep them away from water, which is really, really great, because if you’re not around water, you can’t drown…until the day something unexpected happens and are you are around water and you aren’t prepared. Or…we can teach them to swim.
So I started thinking…and talking to some friends. How do we do it? How do we teach our kids to function in this scary world? How do we prepare them for the world they are going to live in?
How do we teach them to swim?
And while it may seem like a big, overwhelming responsibility, I realized there really are some salient approaches that make a big difference.
- Be honest. Tell them the truth. Answer their questions. Don’t create fairy tales that some day will crash around them. If they ask what Ebola is, tell them. Is they ask about ISIS, tell them. BUT…and this is huge…operate on a need to know basis. For my 6yo, telling him that Ebola is a bad sickness and ISIS is a group of bad guys in another part of the world is enough. That satisfies his 6yo curiosity. He doesn’t need to know more than that. My 10yo, however…she needs deeper answers. And I can pace myself by feeding bits of information, and letting her questions guide me. She’s functioning in this world. She’s around televisions and newspapers, radios, and the biggest information source of all: the Internet. So she has access to information as it is. I need to make sure she feels comfortable that when she asks me questions, I’m real with her, because if I’m not, she’ll quit asking. Which brings me to,
- The media. All of it. TV, radio, print, Internet… Dial it back. Minimize their exposure. Maybe we want to hear what’s being said, but that doesn’t mean we need to expose young impressionable minds to all the spin. And hysteria. And hype. Sadly, the 24-hour (entertainment) news cycle is about ratings (i.e., making money) and not much else. If kids aren’t hearing this stuff, then a whole lot of their fears can be mitigated before they ever even begin.
- Just like with water and swimming, teaching plays a huge role in preparing kids to live in the world that is awaiting them. Teach them about responsible Internet behavior. Teach them about the dangers of posting racy selfies. Teach them about sociopaths who pose as children on social networks. Teach them about the dangers of giving out personal information. Teach them about Ebola and how it’s spread, what bodily fluids are, and what kinds of safety protocols we can all take. Sure, what you teach a 5yo will be very different than a 10 or 15yo, but we can’t pretend bad things don’t happen, because that’s like letting your child who doesn’t know how to swim go play at the lake without a life-jacket, and simply telling him to stay on shore.
- Acknowledge fear, but teach them skills to deal with their fears–fear is an important feeling that tells us to beware, be vigilant, but not be paralyzed. If kids are taught never to fear anything, they are too naive to function in the real world. And finally…
- Create a consistent, peaceful, loving environment for your kids at home. Give them a safety net, a place where they know they are safe and loved, where they can exhale and trust and retreat, despite whatever ugliness they may encounter in the outside world. Listen to them. Hug them. LOVE them.
Interestingly, when I asked family and friends what their ONE piece of advice would be for parents raising kids in a scary world…a consistent, loving, peaceful environment at home was the number one response given, and the response given by every single young adult and teen. I found that pretty fascinating, and pretty telling. Love. It’s so darn important, the very foundation of our children’s lives. Maybe we can’t eradicate Ebola or stop ISIS, but we can teach, and prepare, and wrap our kids in love…and maybe just maybe, the scary world won’t feel quite so scary.