A few years ago, after the violent attacks on the MAX train, a mother asked me what to do: How to answer her daughter’s questions and fears, and how to answer her own questions and fears.
I wrote her a letter with my thoughts, and I recently offered it to another mother struggling with the same questions, in response to another violent attack. While we all hope and pray and strive toward a world free from violence, we live in a world in which violence is constantly present. Many of us are fortunate enough to have lives in which we feel safe; and we know how fragile that feeling of safety can be. I am grateful that my words brought some comfort and strength to these two people, and I offer it here, to anyone who may need it. Please share freely.
I have been reflecting on your concern about Sunny learning of the murders on the MAX train. You are right to be deeply concerned, but not about how this knowledge will affect Sunny. Your true and valid concern is about what life will be like for our children as they grow up and come of age in a political climate that many of us thought had been consigned to history.
Young children do not understand the permanence of death, and so they do not feel the gravity of the deaths in the same way that we will. What they do feel, more than anyone’s words, is how you carry yourself through this, and beyond. Children have the capacity to witness their adults feeling grief, fear, anger, pain, sorrow. What children need to see is their adults living through those feelings, and choosing actions that move them forward.
We want to shield them from the enormity of the horrors of the world, but we do so less by filtering what they hear, and more by being living shields in how we live our lives. When we respond with our genuine, empathetic selves, always reaching toward goodness, even when it seems unattainable, we give them the strength to do the same.
In response to violence, children may have specific fears: Is it safe to ride the train? Do bullies always have big knives? Is it safe to go to church? Your actions will show them the answers more powerfully than any words. Own your fears, and stay in the world. Stand up to bullying when you see it. Ask for help when you need help. Give help when others need help.
There is very little information that children cannot safely absorb from the carefully chosen words of a loving adult. Other forms of experience have different impacts: watching traumatic events on video makes a much deeper and more difficult impression, and of course, children experience terrible trauma every day, in war, and poverty, and injustice.
All over the world, every minute, parents strive to keep their children safe, even – especially – in the most impossible circumstances. Sometimes it is enough. Sometimes, those children grow up so secure in the heart of goodness that they do not hesitate to step into danger.
I hope that these thoughts are able to put your mind at ease somewhat, at least about how your children will be affected by hearing about things that they really don’t need to know. I wish I could offer much greater re-assurances. I do believe that striving toward goodness, justice, and love, while it may not fix the world, is the only way to find peace in ourselves.