September 16, 2013
Remember Who's Watching
There we were, chatting about whatever it is eight-year-olds like to chat about. School? Ponies? Fashion design? Suddenly, she changed the subject. "Do planes crash very often?" she asked me.
I said, "No, it's very rare. It's so unusual, we really don't have to worry about it at all."
And she said, "But some bad guys could attack the pilot and force the plane to crash."
Suddenly, I knew what this was about. Why this girl needed someone to talk to on an airplane. What she had seen, probably many times, when she was just six years old, that loomed over her and was about to overwhelm her with terror as she sat there, powerless, strapped into an airplane seat.
Help! No help was in sight. So I said, "I know what you're thinking about, you saw that on the news. But things are different now. Now people know about these things, and they are prepared. If somebody tried that here, all the passengers would see what was happening, and everyone would jump up and stop them. So it can't possibly happen ever again. We don't have to worry about it at all." That's what I wanted her to believe. That's what I wanted to believe.
I wondered if that girl's parents knew what was really on her mind when they brought her onto that airplane and handed her a book. I wondered why in the world her parents had allowed her to see those horrible images, played over and over again. She was too young to see something like that. Even I was too young to see something like that.
I suppose many people felt so helpless that day that they didn't even think that there were still ways they could protect their children.
This is what my sister-in-law did on September 11, 2001. She left work and went to the school, where she picked up her five-year-old daughter and a friend. She took them to McDonald's and bought them Happy Meals, and then spent the day with them at the park. There were at least two little girls in America who were not terrified and traumatized that day, who didn't have nightmares, who were able to get on an airplane two years later without needing a stranger's reassurances to keep them from panicking.
Was my niece completely insulated from September 11? Of course not. It was there, out in the open in conversations, rumors, headlines, news reports, for months. She heard about it. But she wasn't forced to witness it.
I think we forget sometimes that children are not just small adults. One of the most important tasks of parenthood is to help children become healthy adults who can function well in the world. We know that sooner or later they will have to learn about things we all wish we could avoid. How soon and how much to expose them to the dark side of life can be hard to decide. Just as they go through stages of physical growth, children go through stages of emotional and intellectual growth. We know that babies can't do the work of full-grown men, and we need to remember that that applies to their minds as well as their bodies. Questions need to be answered and information needs to be made available, but in age-appropriate ways.
When we turn on the television, whether for the news or for fun, we need to think about the messages we are impressing on our children about what the world is like, what is entertaining, what is the right way to behave. When we become mesmerized by the next real-life horror, brought into our living rooms as it happens, it would be wise to wake up and remember the little ones sitting quietly nearby with wide-open eyes, and ask ourselves what nightmares we are introducing into their lives. Fascinated though we may be, sometimes the best choice is to turn it off and go to the park.
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net