Watching news reports of the 132 dead in the Paris terrorist attacks, it’s natural to feel a jolt of fear. At times like this, we parents must dig deep for the courage we need to lead our families confidently. We can’t parent from a place of fear, or we ourselves risk crippling our beloved children.
My husband and I have a 22-year old daughter already loose in the world. While I knew she wasn’t in Paris on Friday night, she lives in Boston, the site of the marathon bombing just two years ago. It’s conceivable that some day I could turn on CNN to see a heavily armed special forces team waiting to rescue hostages in her hometown, and not know if she was safe.
Then there are our 9- and 11-year olds still living at home. They’re old enough to read the news independently and hear reports from classmates of the nearly simultaneous attacks on six locations in Paris, including a nightclub where at least 80 were gunned down and some survivors avoided the massacre by playing dead among the corpses for hours.
It’s simply horrific.
And yet, the world is no more dangerous this morning than it was on Friday morning. There are hate-filled, violent people who seek to cause terror. There are pedophiles looking for opportunities to catch a vulnerable child alone. There are drunk drivers, contagious diseases, house fires and other threats that kill thousands of American children every year. Even after my kids are all grown, they could become the target of predators on college campuses and in singles bars, or even an abusive partner.
I yearn to keep them within my eyesight every moment of the day, just so I know they’re safe. I want to pour all my knowledge about the world’s dangers into their tender ears, to ensure their safety even long after they’ve moved out of my home.
Either of these responses would be a mistake. Curtailing their freedom would insulate them from experiences that build their confidence and their skills. And even if it were possible to get our kids to understand every one of the risks they will face over the course of a lifetime, emphasizing the danger – even with the goal to keep them safe – conveys a message of fear rather than one of courage.
Instead, we must help our children navigate the slightly risky scenarios they face now: walking home from school alone, riding a bike in the neighborhood and beyond, going shopping by themselves. We can get them used to brainstorming how they’d approach an unexpected development, such as becoming separated from parents in a crowded shopping mall. And then we gradually increase the challenge, so by the time they’re 18, they feel prepared to deploy their problem-solving skills in any number of surprising situations.
Our nation’s children are in dire need of more confidence, independence and opportunities to experience small doses of fear that they can learn to regulate, given the millions struggling with anxiety or depression, or self-medicating through drugs and alcohol.
We can’t protect them from every danger any more than we can protect them from the news about Paris. Even a preschooler is bound to catch a glimpse of the crying survivors on newspaper covers or hear a snippet of news on the playground. Psychological experts recommend initiating the conversation, asking what they know about the Paris attacks, and then normalizing their fears and channeling them in a positive direction, such as raising money or donating items to a relief fund. And of course, limit media exposure and try our best to keep them away from grisly details.
By seizing the courage to have these tough conversations, we send our children the message that they can handle what life has in store. By refusing to let fear limit our kids’ opportunities to explore the world, we give them the gift of learning how to manage the unexpected. The best way to prepare them for a crisis in the future is by letting them navigate small risks now.