I don’t know if the world is really more dangerous now than it was 30 years ago. But I’m sure that it seems that way. Our children are surrounded by threats: hurricanes, terrorists, internet pedophiles, nuclear-armed dictators, global warming.
Last week a mother told me that she was transferring her children to a new school because there were known child-abusers hanging around the neighborhood. The children weren’t allowed outside for recess, for fear of being victimized. That’s in Cleveland. A few weeks before that, my brother-in-law’s PTA group was looking for a speaker to give a talk on “protecting our children from strangers.” That’s in the picturesque community of Concord, New Hampshire. No place seems to be safe.
The world is a dangerous place. We want our children to be aware, so that they will stay safe. But we don’t want them to be afraid all of the time. Fear is a useful emotion when it leads to action that restores a sense of safety. We need fear to keep us from doing stupid things. But continual fear that doesn’t get resolved interferes with normal psychological development and even physical health. Children who are anxious are more likely to come down with minor infections, for example. Chronic fear also increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes years later.
A tendency to become anxious can be inherited (researchers have been able to pick out anxious babies as early as 4 months.) But fearfulness in children is also largely the result of fearfulness in parents. We communicate our beliefs about the world to our children. When we see the world as threatening, we make it more likely that our children will too.
So, what can you do to keep you child safe, without breeding fear?
- First off, make your home a safe haven. Make it a rule that nobody hurts anybody else in your home, neither by deed nor by word. When you have to face a scary world, it helps to have a fear-free home base.
- Block out intense images of violence and danger. Wait until your children are asleep before turning on the TV news. Turn off shows and movies with violent content, even cartoons. Children less than 7 or 8 probably shouldn’t see any of this stuff. No child was ever harmed by being denied access to over-stimulating, action-packed images.
- Take reasonable safety precautions. Buckle up every time you drive anywhere and be sure your young children are in properly-installed car seats. Insist on helmets every time your child gets on a bicycle.
- Let your kids know that most strangers are decent people. It’s possible to be friendly without putting yourself at risk. I think that the “never talk to strangers” rule often does more harm than good. (I’ll have more to say on this in a future blog.)
- Take steps to help those in need, such as hurricane victims, and let your children help along side of you. By helping others, they’ll come to expect that others will help them if they ever need it.
As parents, we can’t guarantee that our children will never come to harm. But we can promise that we will always do everything we can to keep them safe, and to make the world safer for all children and people. The experience of being connected to others in a community of caring and the security of a peaceful home are what children need to be able to live without fear in a dangerous world.