How much truth do we owe our kids?
August 2, 2016 10:46 am
Op-ed: What is a parent's obligation to be truthful to his 8-year-old child about life's dangers?
"Daddy, if the Russians dropped an atomic bomb on us; we could run down to the basement and be safe?"
My son asked me that question nearly 40 years ago. This question may be relevant again. If you combine the attitude of some America leaders, the technological progress made by rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons and the territorial ambitions of Russia and China, this basement dilemma may return. However, my reason for writing this essay has little to do with the horrors of nuclear war, but rather, with a parent's obligation to be truthful to your 8-year-old child.
In my mind's eye, I can see the late 1970s as if they were yesterday. The "Nuclear Freeze" movement was in full swing. A debate was raging in the country whether we should produce more accurate warheads or assume that we have sufficient destructive force. The arguments on both sides were thought provoking. At the time, I was a high school social studies teacher. Our department decided to sponsor a nuclear weapons symposium. After much hard work, we had put together a rather impressive program. We had members of Congress, representatives of the Soviet government, scientists, activists and Physicians for Social Responsibility. It was a powerful program designed to have an impact.
Despite the fact that my son was in 2nd or 3rd grade — I don't remember exactly — he expressed a real interest in viewing the program. He was especially excited about the possibility of meeting a member of Congress. My wife and I discussed the positive and negative aspects to his missing school to see a program that might unnerve him. We decided to let him attend, but I told him: "I won't be able to spend much time with you. I will ask some responsible students to act as your guides."
He sat in on the debate between the Congress person and a nuclear freeze advocate. He seemed to be bored and most of what was being said went over his head. The next presentation had him ready to go for a walk around the school. Physicians for Social Responsibility showed a film demonstrating the medical consequences of a one megaton warhead striking the city of San Francisco. I was impressed by the medical projections that there would be more burn victims in that one attack than there were burn treatment facilities in the entire United States; my son wanted to go with the students to lunch.
The students with him were responsible, so I honored his request. Little did I know that after lunch, my son's guides noticed that there was a cartoon being shown in the gym. Given my son's age, the students thought he would enjoy it, and my son endorsed their decision. The cartoon was made by the children of Hiroshima, and it dealt with the day of the attack. This was a medium and a message that my son could comprehend. Children burst into flames and a very real vision of the terror was implanted in my son's head. That led to the question.
The day was over, and we were driving home. My son, normally very talkative, was pensive and subdued. Finally, he asked it. Now I have taught an ethics and history course for many years, and I would later make use of this existential moment to conduct many discussions. "What do you say to your seven or eight-year-old?" Most people felt he was too young and a white lie would give him, my wife and me a good night's sleep. I used to joke that if he were told the truth that at 2 in the morning he would insist that there was an atomic weapon in his closet. I would have to get up and go into his closet and pretend to beat up the bomb and send it packing.
The situation was not funny, however. What did I owe my son? He had a right to the truth at a level that he could comprehend. "We will not be safe down in the basement, but that's why we are having meetings to hopefully prevent such as a tragedy from happening." What a beautiful answer. I took the easy way out and told him we would be safe.
When my son was about 20, I finally had the courage to ask him if he resented my lie. He had no recollection of the symposium, the cartoon, his question or my response. I wonder if I should have given him a different answer then and what I would say now regarding today's particular threats: domestic and foreign terrorists, school shootings and, perhaps, even nuclear war.
What are you telling your children?
Glenn Hameroff is a retired teacher; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs