Post Newtown, Is Coddling Okay?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the newish trend of driving children to school. I was a bit flummoxed as to why the parents in my mother’s neighborhood were taking their children one block to the school, why I so often see quarter-mile long lines of parents idling in their cars, waiting to pick up their kids. I advocated for letting children walk–for exercise, for mental acuity, for the environment.

I’d been mainly looking at this issue from one angle: I assumed that it mostly had to do with parents coddling their children and making everything as easy as possible for them. And some of that I still think is true, after reading parent feedback in the comments and emails. Parents also wrote to me about stranger danger, though statistically the world is as safe as, if not safer than, it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

Of all the reasons parents gave me for taking their child to school, spending sacred moments with the child on the way to school and smiling one last time before they walked through the door was the one that resonated with me the most.

I drive my own kindergartner to school. We live a half mile from the elementary school; definitely within walking distance, but we are separated from the school by a 4-lane road with a speed limit of 30 that drivers consistently ignore by 15 mph. And the sidewalk is right next to the road with no grassy boulevard to cushion the blow should you trip and fall the wrong way. My son could walk a bit out of the way and for the most part avoid the road, except where he would have to cross it, but there are no other children on our block who walk to school and he’s too young to walk alone.

I have the luxury of not needing to make the decision whether to let him walk or not.

So most mornings, I park and walk my son right up to the elementary school door and stand with him in line like the other parents, waiting for the doors to open. The few times I’ve had to drop him off from the car line, watching him walk up to the school alone, I’ve had a pang in my stomach seeing my little one march off by himself.

My father and I talked about my post later that day. I told him I thought we parents of young ones know too much now–every kidnapping, death, illness, injury is there for us to discover moments after it happened everywhere around the world. While the world is safer than it used to be, it sure seems a hell of a lot more dangerous.

Then my dad said, “It’s like you young parents are shell-shocked.”

He was referring to the general barrage of everyday, albeit horrible, events in the news, but I realized: in a sense, we are. We are shell-shocked. And what did it for me was Newtown.

9/11 set a new level of stress, an event so horrible it need only be referenced by the date. It was the first time in my life, at the age of 25, I could look out my living room window and visualize the possibility of a foreign nation marching down our streets, ordering us out of our homes. Just that awareness was startling to me.

So the baseline was already raised, and there have been many events that have continued to heighten our collective alertness. But what really did it for me was Newtown.

Now, every time I walk my son up to the school, I notice which doors are left open as children enter and for how long. I notice my son’s classroom has an extra door to the outside and I think simultaneously, “Thank God, an extra exit” and “Does that make it easier for a shooter to get in?” I notice that the buzzer at the front door is worthless in the morning because everyone holds the door open for the people streaming in behind them and I think, “All a deranged person has to do is come at 8:xx a.m. Then he wouldn’t have to shoot his way in, he could just walk right through.” Inevitably, even if just in a flash, I see the image of 20 six- and seven-year-olds crouching in a classroom as they’re riddled with bullets.

One of those thoughts goes through my head 90% of the mornings I take my son to school. Those thoughts sometimes come to mind when I take my children to the library or the grocery store. And if it’s in my mind, it’s no doubt in the minds of many parents.

That’s a lot to worry about, a lot of stressed heaped on top of the regular, everyday stress of loving and caring for children.

So I don’t know. If parents need to take their children to school and see them through the doors to help them cope, maybe that’s okay. If they want to coddle the hell out of their kids, I certainly can’t blame them.

Though if I’m right, then we have to figure out a way to get through this. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to raise a child whose hand needs to be held through every trial. I don’t want to raise a child who is startled by every possible danger, who sees the world as a frightening place. And if we make the world too safe for them, they will inevitably be debilitated by the awful that does happen within the wonderful. And, if debilitated, how will they lead?

Maybe we were a bit debilitated. And our response has been to shield our children–from bullets, from planes, from the heaped-on knowledge that feels so crushing. Our response has been to make laws, increase governmental power, add security, add fences, add screening, take off shoes.

I don’t know the answer. I’m overwhelmed just writing this. But it seems the more we shield ourselves and our children–the more security we pile on–the more burdened we feel. And doesn’t that make us weaker instead of stronger? Won’t that make our children weaker instead of stronger?

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013.  Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day last Friday.

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013. Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day.

What I’ve Read

With my heart and mind focused on Sandy Hook, much of what I’ve read this week will come as no surprise. A couple, though, are serendipitous. Here’s some of what I’ve laid my eyes upon this week:

  • The tributes to the children murdered at Sandy Hook. I don’t seek these out, but once I find them, I commit. I do it because I’m a mother and these parents are enduring my nightmare. Because I am overwhelmingly sorry for them and I want to somehow honor their child. And because, yes, I’m grateful it isn’t me. It isn’t my child. So I try to share, somehow, in the pain. I cry for the goofy grins, the lost two front teeth, the shining blue eyes, for the artist, the singer and maybe a bit harder for the one who loved to write in her journal and make up stories.
  • Arguments in support of more guns. Even when I know what’s in my heart, I sometimes like to test it. So I listen to the other side; I try it out, see what it feels like to advocate that side. When I feel a cringe in my gut, I know my original instinct was right.
  • The Snow Child, a novel about an Alaska couple who cannot have children and make a “snow child” one night. Soon after, a child of the woods begins appearing at their cabin and their wish seems to have come true.
  • An email from my uncle, in which he writes:

    We will carry the banner to have stricter gun control laws, we will carry the banner to make it impossible for someone with mental health issues to purchase a gun.  We can even ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons to everyone.  Although I favor all of these items I do not believe it will solve the problem.

     We are a violent society.  We have always been a violent society.  We gained our independence through acts of aggression.  Our granddad was a young man during the WWI.  Our dad was in WWII.  Korea, Vietnam, the Middle-east.  The most popular TV sports event in this country is football. Boxing with 16-ounce padded gloves has been replaced in popularity by  basically street fighting within a confined space and a referee.  The most violent blood and guts movies continue to be the most popular.  I definitely cannot even begin to identify a solution.  I do not know how you turn an entire society around to become less violent.  I do not even know if it is something that I will witness.  I hope I do.

    After Friday I could only feel sad.  Sad for the families.  Sad for the community and sad for this country that something of that magnitude could happen within a few minutes and no one will ever know why.  Most of all I feel sad for you and all the young parents in this country who will never send your children out the door again without wondering, “What if.”

  • Even the word “statistics” is nauseating. But I hope you’ll read, as I did, the following info from the Children’s Defense Fund (I refrained from italicizing or bolding almost 100% of this paragraph; it is just stunning.): There were 173 firearm-related deaths of preschool-age children between 2008 and 2009. That number was nearly twice the 89 deaths of law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Likewise, the total number of children and teenagers killed by gun violence that year exceeded the number of military personnel who died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Of the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, the United States accounts for 80 percent of all gun-related deaths and 87 percent of all gun deaths for children under 15.
  • Statements like, “Here we go again: everyone’s ranting about gun control and then they’ll just go back to their regular lives.” And I’d like, for a moment, to speak up for those of us who are so predictable as that: Of course we’ll go back to our regular lives. That’s more than okay–it’s necessary. But while we are fired up, we should fire up. While we are sad, we should cry. While we are motivated, we should work. For however long it lasts. Because we’re not merely jumping on a bandwagon. Our hearts hurt. Twenty little angels have given politicians the courage to begin talking. Perhaps if our grief is loud enough, those in charge of our laws and funding programs will continue to listen. Maybe our own energy is strong enough, this time, to last, even as it wanes.
  • And finally, it’s been many years since I read the following poem by Tennessee Williams and I came across it again this week at My Unpublished Life, in a post unrelated to Sandy Hook:
We have not long to love
We have not long to love.
Light does not stay.
The tender things are those
we fold away.
Coarse fabrics are the ones
for common wear.
In silence I have watched you
comb your hair.
Intimate the silence,
dim and warm.
I could but did not, reach
to touch your arm.
I could, but do not, break
that which is still.
(Almost the faintest whisper
would be shrill.)
So moments pass as though
they wished to stay.
We have not long to love.
A night. A day….
Merry Christmas all, in spirit if not religion. Cherish your dimpled hands and your liver-spotted ones, your fiery warm homes and wintery cold walks. And your uniquely human sense of hope.
snow tree

No Title

I don’t expect to rise above all the chatter about the tragedy in Connecticut. I hesitate to add to it, because something about Facebook and blogs and Twitter takes away from the realness, the seriousness, the timelessness of a tragedy like this, of the loss of twenty babies I don’t know and haven’t seen but want to wrap my arms around even all these miles away. The president was right: these are our children.

And a large part of me, unlike in any other tragedy in recent memory save 9/11, feels the need to speak my piece in honor of these babies and the teachers who died trying to save them. Because otherwise, there’s silence over here. And there’s no truer story than what happened on Friday. And there’s no greater cause than children.

There’s a lot of information, misinformation, and statistics being thrown around, and who knows what the end story will be. But we know that twenty babies woke up on Friday morning, like your children did today. Twenty children got dressed for school, maybe thinking about their Christmas lists, and many parents already have those presents waiting, hidden high on a closet shelf.

You can, and should, blame the lack of mental health care in this country. You can, and should, blame the lack of gun safety among some gun owners. You can, and should, blame the absence of laws that require gun registration or laws that prohibit certain types of guns (such as those that have the word “assault” in their name). We are the most violent industrialized country in the world. The most violent. We failed those children in Connecticut.

The following excerpt from an interview Friday on CNN with former Assistant FBI Director Tom Fuentes struck me, and I’d like you to read it. Afterward, you can decide what to do:

BLITZER: You’ve been involved in law enforcement your whole life. Is there anything we can learn from this and move forward to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? 


BLITZER (pausing, seemingly taken aback by the blunt answer): It’s going to happen again?

FUENTES: It’s going to happen again. We don’t change anything of the basics. We don’t — we haven’t made the improvements to our mental health system to take care of people that are severely disturbed. We haven’t done anything to prevent the severely disturbed from obtaining the weapons that are so prevalent in our society. So as long as you have disturbed people able to obtain weapons and act out with those weapons —

BLITZER: Because a lot of folks, immediately as soon as they hear this, they’ll say, you know, that guns are too — assault weapons, guns, are too available, too easy to get.

FUENTES: Well, what they say — what we say now is we can’t talk about it. Everybody is in mourning. It’s too soon, it’s not appropriate. So at the time, later, when it is appropriate, we don’t care. And nothing changes.

I had a daughter at Virginia Tech down the hall from the first shooting, the first two people that were killed in that dorm, 10 rooms away. So that hit home for me very closely. What’s changed since then? Not one thing in the state of Virginia has changed. I don’t expect much will change here.