We love to think of childhood as a magical kingdom where nobody dies, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. The reality, as we know, is that many of our own childhoods were fractured and imperfect. And we know, too, that there are many children today–in our community and beyond–whose childhoods have rarely, or never, been so safe or pleasant.
Like many of you, I have struggled in the last few weeks and the last year. Violence and injustice have become a presence even to my kids, who have been privileged (notice I don’t say blessed) to grow up safe, relatively whole, and healthy. I became a mother as a teenager, and considered it my responsibility to not only protect my first child from harm, but to also protect him from knowing about the harm and damage in the wider world.
In the 22 years since then, my view of my responsibility as a parent has shifted, in tandem with my growing sense of what I was meant to do and be. As I became a more spiritually mature person, I began to see that protecting my children completely from the heartbreak of the world is no longer a primary goal. Of course I am focused on making sure my children’s experience of the world is developmentally appropriate. I’m picky about what they see or play on screens, and I still do my best to reduce the risk of trauma and harm in their lives. But it’s no longer the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but the Rev. Fred Rogers, I now lift up as my guiding parenting principle.
We kid ourselves when we believe that our children, as they grow, don’t hear, see, and know about scary things happening. None of us can keep our four year old from seeing the car wreck as we drive by with no detour possible. None of us can erase the knowledge of the death of someone they love at 6 or 7. And none of us can completely insulate them at 8 or 10 from the news, these days so full of death, guns, and hate. All we can do is to attempt to build resilience, and to make sure they know that helpers are always on their way–to protect, to heal, to repair, to serve. And help them believe that they too, as they grow, are learning how to become a helper.
I had just begun my career as a professional religious educator and was in my home church working with a group of parents and children (including my own) when I received the call that my youngest brother and his partner had been murdered. I was 16 years into my mothering career, and I knew better than to think I could hide what was about to happen in our family. My children saw me grieve and rage. I had to make phone calls to the DA and the police and the news while they were in the car with me at times.There were funerals. Children left without parents. Shock and blame and anger and deep sorrow in every direction. I did the best I could to shield them from gruesome details or my worst reactions, but it wasn’t really possible, and I felt so sorry for that.
Two years later it became even harder to buffer them from painful reality. A member of my immediate family shot and killed his partner in a terrible moment catalyzed by extreme intoxication, but she was gone just the same, and he had pulled the trigger. My parents staggered under the weight of a second violent tragedy, and we all witnessed the anger and blame and shock of an entire community, this time pointed at our family, even as we too grieved her death and tried to come to grips with who we were, what had gone wrong, and so much loss. Then, too, my children saw and heard much more of this than I would have liked. And there was no way to protect them from it.
But in this second, unpreventable experience of exposure to violence and traumatic events, I began to have a different perspective on my responsibility to them, with respect to how I could best “protect and serve” them as a parent. I began to see that for my two younger kids especially, and for millions of others, having a firewall between them and the realities of the world is not an option. When your child’s family, neighborhood, larger community, or the world is beset by violence, it is that world they must find their way in, heartbreak and all.
I don’t normally speak of these very personal things in my professional life. But they came up for me in the last several weeks as I prepared to be with your children, and my own, in religious education activities and especially circle time on Sunday mornings. That special time when we gather and share is often the place where the difficult thoughts and fears they have been carrying get unshouldered and held in sacred space. This Summer our very theme, Mission: Makers!, has called us to think and talk about how we could work to make change and a positive impact in the world. Especially, they’ve been sharing about big problems they are aware of, and brainstorming the kinds of inventions and changes that could help solve those problems.
Often the problems they mention include things they have seen or heard that they are clearly still needing to process. Sometimes they want to talk about what is on the news. I hold space for that, but guide them away from recounting a litany of scary details by telling them, basically, what Mr. Rogers shared above. That no matter what happens, no matter what scary or troubling thing occurs, help–and helpers–are on the way. We talk about who in our community they know as a helper. We talk about how those people are makers, too, because they help make things better. And then I bring them back to our work at hand, reminding them that THEY are makers, and they can help the world too, even right now. And we go on to discuss our project for the day, and how our mission as UUs calls us to keep striving to do whatever we can to make small changes that add to the net good in the world.
But I wanted to make sure I share with you my complicated, evolving take on what they need most from us right now, in such complicated times. Parents know best how to guide their children during traumatic events. Even for grown-ups, a constant stream of adult-focused news certainly isn’t good for any of us, so I encourage everyone to take in the information they need to be informed, but be sensitive to the need to have balance in their exposure to the news, especially graphic images. But please don’t go so far as to assume you will harm your school-aged child by discussing racism or the realities unfolding on our streets today, disturbing as they are. Your family values can still serve as the container that holds such conversations, and I hope you will remind your kids that there is much good in the world, and it’s that truth that we seek to increase.
But remember that only some of our kids get to be blissfully ignorant of the struggles and truths we often seek to keep from our own. And I wonder: if we want them to change the world, in reflection of our principles that hold up respect for all beings and the democratic process and equality for all people…do we do them any favors by pretending everything is fine? And if we hope they aren’t harmed by the reality we can’t change, doesn’t it help build resilience in them to see us commit ourselves to making things better, more just, more peaceful?
I look forward to talking more with you about how you are managing your children’s and grandchildren’s emotional and spiritual needs right now. And I appreciate the chance to share a bit more deeply about my own experience as a parent, and how it has changed over the years. Know that we are all holding each other in this challenging time, doing the very best we can. Take care of yourselves, and your kids–and stay open to having the difficult conversations that will best help build our children’s confidence, resilience and determination to create the world we dream about, for all children.