Should we shield kids from a violent world?

Frida's stepdaughter Rosena

Rosena riding Lilly the horse in Coventry, Conn. (WNV/Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)

Rosena, my six-year-old stepdaughter, is mad for horses. I think it began with Horseland, a horrible-sounding cartoon (which I have never seen). But it had ignited in her a love of all things equine, which is a lot of fun, so I should not complain too much.

As I was reading from The Black Stallion Returns last night, I found myself editing heavily. Walter Farley’s sequel to The Black Stallion was originally published in 1945 and is (in my humble opinion) horribly written. How many times can young Alec look or act “determinedly,” and is that even a word? What is worse, the book reflects the casual prejudice and ignorance of the time — the Bedouins of Arabia are portrayed as backward and swarthy. And, it is also really violent.

So, as we approached the denouement, I found myself trying to keep the action going while avoiding the fact that the swarthy Bedouin was about to drive Alec and The Black off a cliff to certain death.

Without that bit of action, the whole chapter made no sense. Rosena was half asleep and maybe not following any of this, but I did not want her last words and images of the day to be of horse and boy smashed in a rocky tomb.

If protecting her from imaginary violence is tough, shielding her from real violence is even more difficult. And is it the right thing to do?

Since she entered kindergarten last fall, our violent and unpredictable world has pressed in close. In December, a young man armed to the teeth massacred 20 kids and six adults at an elementary school less than 80 miles from our town. Just last week, two heavily armed young men detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon’s finish line killing three and injuring hundreds. Our plan was to be right there, too… cheering our friend as she finished the 26.2-mile course.

And then, of course, a little further away is the daily dose of violence wrapped in plastic and delivered to our door every morning — killing in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq; saber-rattling and threats of war on the Korean peninsula; death and destruction from West Texas to Dhaka, Bangladesh; the random and not so random brutality displayed in inner cities and suburbs throughout our country; the grind of poverty, racism and sexism; the looming threats posed by cataclysmic climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation and environmental destruction. The list goes on and on.

Can I protect her from all of this? Should I?

Growing up, my family and community watched the news every night. It was the only TV I got to watch, so I was there in the front row. When I was about Rosena’s age, I watched transfixed as the Iran hostage crisis unfolded, Mount Saint Helens volcano exploded in Washington State, the Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands starved to death in British custody, four U.S. church women — Jean Donovan and Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel — were raped and murdered in El Salvador, and President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II were both shot and injured (separately). The whole time, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock stood at 7 minutes to nuclear midnight (it is 5 minutes today, by the way).

These where what we talked about around the dinner table. And it was terrifying. I had nightmares. I worried. I was preoccupied by these events. I recently found a “poem” I wrote when I was nine. “What will happen when the bomb comes shoting (sic) down? I am not in a hurry to know. I don’t want to see it come tumbling down. The president will say: I declare war on Russia, or India or Norway or any other country. But it’s not their fault. We could have prevented it from happening. I hope we can someday.” Terrible poem. It does not even rhyme. It is written in my best penpersonship and illustrated with little bombs.

When I was Rosena’s age, I knew a lot about nuclear weapons. We watched grainy black and white documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the wall of our living room. I could fold paper cranes and tell you the story of Sadako, the little girl in Hiroshima who died of leukemia even though she was not even born when the United States dropped the two nuclear bombs on her country. She tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes so that the gods would make her better. I also knew about hunger and starvation, how the billions we spend on war preparation take food and nutrition from the people who need it most. It made sense I knew all this. It helped me understand my immediate reality — going to lots of protests, watching the people I loved getting arrested, collecting food from dumpsters at a big produce terminal and sharing it with hundreds of our neighbors on a weekly basis.

Rosena is not writing poetry yet, but she is churning out art at a prodigious rate. I marvel at her cheerful drawings and art projects — carefully colored in blocks of color, grand sweeps of magic marker and crayon, intricate illustrations of her big loving family, of me and her dad, her mom and stepdad, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Each drawing comes with a long and elaborate backstory that she relishes in telling. There are no nuclear bombs or heavily armed men lurking in the background. Nuclear aggression and mutual assured destruction are not part of the picture. There is not even a hint of deprivation or longing — except for deceased and beloved cats and the dog and horse she fully expects one of us to get for her someday soon.

Within an hour or so of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, we got an email from her school with suggestions and instructions about how to talk about the tragedy — simple and brief reassurances that she is safe and that school is safe. Over the weekend, we got another email updating parents and caregivers on new school security procedures and telling us how they planned to handle discussions with the kids on Monday. “In K/1 we will not make any reference in the classrooms to the incident. As we normally do, children will write about their weekend. If any students mention the incident, the teacher will do a check-in with them individually.”

As far as I know, Rosena does not know about the Sandy Hook massacre or the Boston bombing — she is blissfully unaware. And despite my own youthful exposure to the dark side, I think that is a good thing.

Lots of kids don’t have the luxury of being shielded from tragedy and deprivation. Almost 17 million kids in this country are hungry. Every hour, 84 kids end up in a U.S. emergency room as the result of violence perpetrated against them. And there is no “war” on our urban streets and suburban cul-de-sacs. The picture is equally grim (or worse) outside of our borders — every five seconds, a child dies of hunger somewhere in the world.

I want Rosena to know all of this and feel it too. I want her grow up compassionate and empathetic. I want her to work for justice and peace. I want her to be curious about people and empowered to help them. She already is and those impulses will grow and mature with time. But, right now, I just want her to be six years old — innocent, lucky, happy and horse mad.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.