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Iran/The Cuban Missile Crisis, Kids and Fairness

September 27, 2009

This week I did a presentation on the topic of fairness in love and marriage.  In the Q/A period, a woman asked, “Can you apply this to your kids?”  I answered, “Sure, kids learn fairness from their parents.”  In the interim dream space of a night’s sleep, her question became illuminated by my childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, muddled with the front-page news: Iran’s secret nuclear facility. I guess there’s always something new to fear, but how to help children know when it’s time to panic?  Is now a good time?  Was the Cuban Missile Crisis a good time? What’s a parent to do?

I remember the early 60’s as a time when bomb shelters were a given, yet fearfully, my parents didn’t have one. Luckily, the school instructed us that we’d be safe hiding under our desks in the event of an A-bomb attack.  Now, we were young, but we weren’t stupid. Then there were the A-bomb drills.  Upon school dismissal, we’d run home as quickly as we could, rehearsing for the bomb. Kind of like a fire drill, but with the threat of world destruction. Though I was only about 9 at the time, I recall wondering how fast you had to run not to be burned by the ashes, and not feeling particularly reassured. Then there was the 2-week period when I was glued to the nightly news on our black and white TV, giving moment-by-moment updates on the Cuban Missile Crisis and our possible annihilation. I didn’t yet know what existentialism was, but certainly grasped the concept. Later (40 years), my Mom told me that she and my Dad were scared, but didn’t know what to tell us. They had lived through World War II, with no reassurances, and no child experts to tell them how to handle that one.

So what might be helpful and even fair to tell kids today?  For starters, as we learned from the 9/11 coverage—if the news is really bad (blood leads, terror reigns)–turn it off when your younger kids are watching because images can traumatize.  Sure your kids may play Zombie video games, but kids above the age of 4 know the difference between fantasy and reality. With older kids, watch together if you watch the news, or if you’re an online news consumer, assume they are too, and discuss their questions. Balance the truth with reassurance. Don’t avoid questions about national safety issues, but tailor your answers to a child’s age.  When my young kids were scared after 9/11, I let stand my 10-year old’s belief: “Well, we’re far from New York, and even if they tried to hit Philadelphia, we live pretty far from (the target of) the Liberty Bell.” Kids understand the final reality of death from about age 5 on, but why burden them with the possibility of mutually assured destruction? So parents of boomers and boomers–what do you recall? And Gen-X’ers, Gen Y’ers how will it affect what you tell your kids today?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:08 am

    This is such a difficult question. I’ve pondered it for a lifetime, and I still don’t know the answers. I was terrified by the dangers I heard about when I was a child, by the air-raid drills and bomb shelters, by what I heard about the Holocaust, the persecution of Russian Jewry in the 70’s …

    So I was probably over-protective of my children, and by avoiding these topics, perhaps I missed the chance to help them with these tough issues. When my children were young, I was shocked when the parents of one of the children in their elementary school brought in a film about Viet Nam because they thought the children should know about these things, shouldn’t be shielded from reality, should learn about the horrors of war (they had a political agenda).

    I think we can try to shield our children from the reality of cruelty and danger in the world and we can discuss these matters in a benign way, but there are so many ways they get information, no matter if they’re very young or older. However, I do think we can mitigate the anxiety. Young children believe their parents can keep them safe; as they get older they, and we, understand that’s not necessarily true.

    • November 18, 2009 3:12 am

      Many thanks for your reflections and thoughtful response. There are a million choices parents face, and it seems we often err on one side or another–of protecting or parentifying our children. Thanks for your courage in sharing your experiences, as well as a path that’s age appropriate.

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