Parents debate how to protect their children

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It's been a rough year for parents. Not only have they struggled to understand and cope with the horrific events of Sept. 11, they have had the task of explaining them to children of various ages.

In the middle of September, parents were asking themselves and others: How do I talk to my kids about terrorism? How do I make sure my children don't hate? How do I combat fear and not pass it along to my offspring?

Then came anthrax and terrorism threats - both general and specific. And many parents began worrying about how to protect their children from such unseen dangers.

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This is new territory for most moms and dads, who sometimes feel that they're walking what Craig Kinsley, chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, calls "a fine line between acting from fear and advancing in the face of that fear."

As Robin Fox notes in today's Parenting column (at right), "No parenting book ... has a chapter titled 'What to do when a terror alert conflicts with a school field trip.' "

Obviously, every responsible parent wants to keep his or her child safe. But how do mothers and fathers know when their protective actions are the result of fear or reasonable caution?

The first step in making an informed decision about whether to let your child take part in some activity that might lead to danger is to evaluate "how credible is either the threat or the source reporting the threat," says Dr. Kinsley. "Second, what is the cost-benefit ratio accruing to the threat? That is, is that trip to Starbucks worth potential death or injury?"

Another issue to consider, suggests Robin Gurwitch, associate professor of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is: What message are you sending to your children if you prevent them from taking some action because of a possible terrorist threat?

"Whether it's wearing seat belts, smoking cigarettes, whether we hate or are tolerant of others, children learn from their parents," she says. "So if parents are having a difficult time handling their reactions to 9/11, children will pick up on that."

The degree of a parent's reaction also can make a difference. Is the decision to keep a child home from a field trip a one-time ruling? Or does the focus on safety eventually suffocate the child's freedom?

"That's where parents need to be cautious," says Dr. Gurwitch. "Are these decisions building on each other? Will it soon be ... that I take my child to school and pick him or her up and that's all [we do]?

"This far from 9/11 we need to look at how we're doing at putting some routine into our lives. That doesn't mean that we aren't grieving or on alert, but does it interfere with our day-to-day functioning?"

"You can find danger in places where it doesn't exist," adds Kinsley. "On the other hand, there are dangers out there, and parents must make decisions accordingly. But you can't hunker down and not go out so that nothing gets done."

While some parents have become more protective after Sept. 11, others may rethink whether it's possible to keep their children "safe" from all harm at all times. Several Monitor staff members who read Ms. Fox's column were struck by her insistence that her No. 1 job as a parent was to keep her children safe. If asked to name a parent's main job, another mother might have answered, "to love them." That would include keeping them safe, of course, but it wouldn't be her entire focus.

"People are going to make different decisions," says Gurwitch.

It's a good idea to discuss these decisions openly with children, she says. "Kids have ears like parents have eyes. They hear everything. You can't talk in another room [and expect them not to know about it]."

What's important for parents of small children, she says, is to reassure them that you love them and to make sure that they know that mom and dad or another responsible adult are going to take care of them. "For a 7-year-old, [they might let him know that] he can talk to his parents about his fears and concerns."

While not minimizing the tragedy of war and terrorism, Gurwitch recommends that parents use these events as opportunities to have family discussions about values and ideas, about the world and other peoples, and for parents to find out what their kids are thinking - and vice versa.

Then, neither parents nor children are likely to become Chicken Littles, always fearing the worst, but to find a middle ground, which, Kinsley says, "is a good place to be."

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