November 22, 1963. The day my safe place was tested.
The door of our classroom opened suddenly and the principal motioned our teacher to come out of the room. When she returned, my teacher was crying. Her tears were of sorrow, but not of fear. Her tears were of remorse, but not of anger. Something was wrong. I had never seen my teacher cry. What could be so terrible that it would make my teacher cry in front of us?!
As a third grader, I had seen few adults really cry, and when I did, I experienced no fear. Tears, yes. Deep, grieving tears at the loss of someone dear. I-will-miss-him-so-much tears. Sudden-shock from sad news tears. Yet in all of those times, all of those losses, I was not afraid.
The world was still good and the world was still right because the adults in my life exhibited their emotions with stability. I had my family and my community, and all was well. I was secure in the safe place created by the adults in my life.
We didn’t own a television, but my mother listened to the news – and the weather – regularly. We’d come downstairs on a school morning and knew we’d best be quiet while the news came across the airwaves through the small radio on the kitchen counter. When the news and the weather were over, we could make all the noise we wanted.
I never understood my mother’s fascination with the news and the weather because as long as she was there, life would be okay. During countless presidential elections, I heard talk about the candidates and I gathered that some adults were concerned about who the next president would be. Yet my safe place was secure. I never worried because the adults in my life did not bleed their worries onto me.
When it comes to “What do we tell our children?”, perhaps it would be best for all of us to take a step back and consider what we’ve told them in the past, and why we’ve told them what we have. Have we allowed them to be children – to play freely and be unafraid of what this world is coming to?! Does having them worry about tomorrow when there isn’t anything they can do about it today help them feel secure and safe?! Really?
Certainly, it helps if one is prepared. My mother listened to the news and the weather because she wanted to be informed. If she was delivering her bread that week, she wanted to know what to expect on the morrow when she’d be heading out with a station wagon full of freshly-baked bread that needed to be delivered to a dozen stores. Yet to bleed that worry onto us, her children, would have brought no gain.
During the holocaust, Jewish children were aware of the dangers they faced because of their genetic blood line, and well they should have been – if they were old enough to understand and follow directions. When a hurricane is approaching or there’s a tornado warning, kids need to know what to do. That’s why there are tornado drills in schools, and why parents tell their children where to go for shelter in that event.
You can be certain that, had the weather forecaster predicted a tornado, our mother would have been prepared. She would have explained what to do in the event that a tornado was propelling its way toward us. We would have needed to know because our lives might have depended on being given appropriate information.
So what do we tell our children?
Only what they need to know for their safety and protection.
Only what they ask and nothing more.
No matter the subject, it’s a good rule of thumb. Kids can only handle so much information, and, really, they aren’t asking about a logarithm when they ask for an explanation of division or multiplication.
What do we tell our children when President Kennedy’s death leaves two small children without their father? We tell them the truth without spilling hate, the truth without coloring their view of the world, the truth without painting a picture of gloom and doom for this country, this state, this county, this town, and this home. Giving them cause to worry does not enable them to grow up, and it only adds to their turmoil. There is no reason for them to develop hatred toward others based on our personal likes or dislikes.
What do we tell our kids when things happen of which we do not approve? Do we spill our anger onto them, bleeding our attitudes into their hearts when they are not responsible for any of the things which happened, are not able to effect a change, and should not be burdened with a worry the size for an adult when they are merely children?
On November 22 of that year, we went home from school and rushed into the house, wanting to be the first to spill the news. Of course, our family already knew.
Our country was shaken – of that we were aware. Yet things remained stable in our world because we were surrounded by adults who protected us by not making us responsible for the wrongs of the world. The adults in our world might have talked among themselves, but they didn’t convey their worries in front of us.
That’s why, when our kids go to bed at night, we should not be wondering what we should tell them. If we haven’t alarmed them in the past, then there’s no reason to be settling fears now. If our kids are afraid, we have no one to blame but ourselves – not our neighbor, our community, or our government. If they’ve heard things from others, they will still be able to trust us to put their fears to rest if we have acted as responsible adults.
We only tell them what they must know. Nothing more, nothing less.
On that fateful November day fifty-three years ago, my world changed. A little girl two years younger than me and just a few days shy of turning six lost her father, and life was not fair. I could identify with losing a father, for I had lost mine a few months after turning five. I remember wondering how this little girl named Caroline was going to face life.
I wasn’t worried about communists taking over our country or our nation not being able to handle what had happened. I wasn’t afraid because I had a safe place.
That evening and the next day, and the day following that, my mama continued to keep her conversations about the condition of the world and our country out of our hearing. That evening and the next day, and the day following that, mama listened to the news -and the weather- and we knew everything would be okay.