Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Cocoon

At what point do we let our small children in on the secret that the sweet, safe little cocoon of their lives isn't simply a microcosm of society at large? This is close to the heart of the topic I wrote about last week, of limiting a child's exposure to media in order to, well, provide him with our idealized notion of a good childhood, whatever that means to each of us. For me, it's an innocent time of life for our children to learn and develop with a loving foundation beneath them - and free of anxiety to the extent that it's possible. We all create that foundation from our own values and life philosophy as we see fit, and within the parameters we're given.

We have sheltered our elder child from tragedies thus far. He was only 10 months old, nursing in my arms in fact, when I saw the first footage of the news on September 11th. We have yet to tell him about it, although I think of it often as I watch the boys build ever-larger towers, calling out to each other, "Knock this one down!" As it should, it will become part of the American history these boys learn and we will be right there to delve deeply into the issues with them when the time comes. But a 6-year old has no way to make sense of such an event.

So today, the day after the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, was the first time I realized that I had to say something to him. No, he can't really make sense of this event either, but he is going off to spend the day with a group of children who will know. And they'll be talking about it. Probably in grim detail. How awful it would be for him to hear of such a thing from 7-year olds and not from us.

I sat down with Baxter a bit before school, interrupting him as he self-taught Morse Code from an old Charlie Brown book. I explained in outline form what I knew of what had happened. Of course, I couldn't answer that most basic question, "Why??", other than to say that someone was deeply, deeply unhappy and made a tremendous mistake. He asked if the man was in jail and I hesitated but did tell him that the man had committed suicide; again, he was going to hear it from someone less tactful soon enough. This became the focus of the conversation after that, as Baxter had never heard of or imagined such a thing as someone taking his own life. In the moment, he was mainly concerned with the logistics of suicide rather than the emotional ramifications, i.e., how would that man have to hold the gun to do that? I startled him when I suggested that a great many people are feeling very sad today, and watched his face change as this dawned on him.

And I guess that's what I mean about our young children truly not being prepared to deal with such an event. The level at which they understand something so inhumane is probably that basic level about how it was carried out; this is, after all, what they later act out on the playground when they "shoot" at each other and die, or put each other in jail. It's no coincidence that they believe in super powers, too, is it? (And yes, they really do believe in super powers - after all, they believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, so why couldn't someone have those powers?) I suppose it's what they use to protect themselves from this information that begins to seep into their sweet little worlds: if they can suddenly turn into a hawk and fly away - if they can shoot lasers from their eyeballs against enemies - then they're still safe in a world that's scarier than they thought, right? I'm glad they have a way to feel powerful and strong as they are learning more about the world.

So I think the best we can do is to bring some real emotion into tragedy for them. Don't let it simply be about how that man held the gun to take his life; let it be about how horribly sad and lonely that man was, how scared the students were, how bereft the families and friends are. We don't need to overdo it because that can also be traumatic, but it's incredibly important to attach some emotion to this for our big kids, no matter how desperately we want to hide them away from any such information.

They surely can't live in their cocoons forever, but at least we can support them by holding the fragile, cracking shell in our hands as they begin to peek out.


Shan said...

Two things strike me:

As the parent of a toddler, it is shocking and unbelievable to me that SIX-YEAR-OLDS would know about and be talking about this. SIX?! Good Lord. Since when are six-year-olds old enough to be talking about mass murder rampages? Yikes. Makes me want to home-school my kids, ha ha.

Second, as a psychologist, after reading your comments about how we explain things like this to our kids, I also can't help but think, how in the world can we explain things like "psychotic disorder" or "schizophrenia" or "extreme mental illness" to a young child? I remember my mom using the term "sick in the head" once to explain something to me when I was a child, and not even that young, maybe 10 or 11--I don't even remember what--and I also remember being terrified and confused by that term, not understanding anything about the word "sick" other than having a cold or an ear infection. The idea of a brain sickness was beyond my comprehension.

Such awful things to contemplate. I am glad my children are too young right now to be exposed to this tragedy.

Jordan said...

I agree on both counts. Six is way too young to know about this stuff. I was shocked by what the kindergartners knew last year! But also, when you have a young child who reads above his age level, it's very tricky. We don't get a daily newspaper but if we did I'd be hiding it every day! And even still, he reads the headlines as he walks by those newspaper machines on the sidewalk. So even if the other kids didn't know, he'd know something awful was up.

And I too have no idea how you explain mental illness to a child, although I have explained developmental disorders to him. Somehow that seems easier, but maybe I just need to think more about the mental illness question. That's why I went with "horribly sad and lonely" because I figured that there had to be some truth to that.

Shan said...

Yeah, good points, all. Julia is a huge "reader" already, so I'm sure that issue will be a major one for us....