A friend of mine today shared an article, “The Heartbreak Kid”, on Facebook. It talks about shielding kids from sadness, like the clichéd story about a mom going out to find an identical goldfish so her kid doesn’t get sad about the old one dying. But for me, it goes so far beyond that.
One of the few things I pride myself on as a parent is my ability to talk to my child about the tough things, things some other parents are afraid to talk about, refuse to broach with their kids. I think an important precedent was set for my daughter by the way we handled my grandmother’s death shortly after her 4th birthday. We let her guide the way, answered her questions honestly (if not with a little softening), and, yes, she saw my grandmother in the casket…after she asked if she could. Touched her hand, even, then ran off and drew pictures to put in the casket with her. When she asked why we had to bury her, we simply explained that putting her “special box” in the ground was our way of telling God we were done saying goodbye, that He could come and take her to heaven to be with Him. “But how does He get her body out?” she asked. “He doesn’t,” I remember saying, “but He takes her spirit, all of her love and what makes her Nana, and gives her a healthy body in heaven.” “Does she look the same in heaven?” I laughed, “Probably younger. She’d want to look younger.” “Can we come out here tonight and wait and watch?” “No, baby, it happens faster than you or I could ever see.” And that was that.
The day of Newtown, I sat her down in her room and explained to her what had happened. A very sick man took a gun into a school and started shooting. I told her the teachers stood between him and the kids, that everybody did everything they could to protect the kids, but some kids still died. It was very sad and very tragic, and I knew it had to be scary. She admitted it was, but then she asked questions, and I answered as best I could. I did not promise her it would not happen at her school, but I reassured, with full conviction, that all of the adults at her school would do everything in their power to protect her.
We spent hours talking about September 11, about Kennedy’s assassination, about the Boston Marathon bombings. She asks, I answer, then I ask her questions to make sure she understands. I check in and ask her what I can do to help her feel safe if she says she doesn’t. I reassure when I can, but I don’t intentionally shield her from it.
So why am I so open with my (now 8 year-old) daughter? After Newtown, I remember a mother making a comment about how she wanted to protect her children’s innocence a little bit longer, so if we chose to talk to our kids about what had happened, please tell them not to talk to her kids about it. I look at it differently. It’s not about shielding my child as a means to protect her innocence to me. For me, it’s about being honest with her and reassuring her and showing her that she can ask me anything, anything, as a way to keep someone else from stealing her innocence. When I talk to my daughter about something scary, I’m controlling the story she hears. It’s the Rule of Firsts. If I tell her what’s going on, answer her questions about it, reassure her through it, make sure she understands what she needs to understand, she’s far less likely to be worried about it when some kid on the playground brings it up as a way to be mean and scare other kids. And if she hears that kid on the playground, she’s more likely to come back to me for clarification.
Life sucks. Unfair, sad, tragic things happen. Almost every day of our adult lives we are accosted with something that makes us question, if just for a moment, our faith in humanity or goodness. We’re faced with situations that scare the hell out of us, but we learn to put it in perspective and, hopefully, not let fear rule our lives. Maybe it’s because I was blessed with parents who were as honest with me as was appropriate, but I can’t imagine anything more frightening than hitting a certain age and realizing, oh my God, how naive am I?
I want my daughter to grow up knowing that bad things happen, that bad people exist, and that when she encounters either and is upset, she has a soft, honest place to fall. For me, my mother is my reality check a large part of the time. I want Earl to go through this life knowing with every fiber of her being that my sole purpose is to support her in every way. For me, support is built on trust, and trust is built first on honesty. And it seems to me that there is very little honesty in changing the channel when she’s already heard the headline, pretending something didn’t happen, or putting her in a position of feeling like, “Well, I know Mom won’t talk to me about it, so I’ll go ask Franny.”
Because Franny, inevitably, will be full of it.