I used to primarily blog about parenting. It was a love/ hate relationship for me. While staunchly resisting the label of “mom blogger” and bemoaning the fact that most of my subject matter was only relatable to about 53 percent of the population – a subsection that doesn’t have a ton of time for luxuries like reading a blog, because: kids – mine was, in every respect, a mom blog.
And that isn’t because I’m a particularly exceptional or knowledgable parent myself. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m just “winging it,” as they say, making it up as I go along, hoping to someday feel like less of an imposter. I feel that way every single day (and probably always will) – but hey, so does every other parent, right?
Still, I blogged about motherhood, marriage and the preposterous undertaking that is raising kids precisely because I felt completely out of my depth. Writing was – and is – the salve that soothed my wounds. And I turn to it again today, because I’m hurting and grieving for my kids, for the parents of the kids at Stoneman Douglas High, and for the parents of every single kid in this vast and wild country.
Before kids (“B.K.,” shall we say) news of mass shootings troubled me, of course. But now, they knock the wind out of me. It’s impossible to witness these stories of violence, heartache and loss without immediately thinking of the parents – what they must feel, how they must grieve, how on earth they will ever again be able to resume daily life. After all, I was ready to throw my dukes up this afternoon when another child at the park hogged the swings for too long. But someone willfully hurting or killing my child? It’s unthinkable. It’s unspeakable.
Yet, it’s something I will have to talk to my kids about, and far sooner than I’d expected. Joey starts school next year, and at that point he’ll begin safety drills in preparation for situations with which no child should be confronted. His teachers will be tasked with instructing him on the alphabet and numbers and how to write his name, but also on how to defend his own life from someone who wants to take it.
I don’t intend to shield my kids from uncomfortable truths about life, but forgive me for not feeling quite ready to sit down and explain how a person they don’t even know might want to cause them harm in order to assuage his or her own anger at an unfair world. How does one explain to a kindergartner that sometimes a person wants to inflict pain for no other reason than that they are in pain?
But you know, it isn’t actually a difficult concept for a five-year-old to grasp. I’ve seen my son engage in this cycle multiple times. No, he hasn’t committed murder (except of unsuspecting insects threatening his lunch), but he hits his sister when she takes his toys. My daughter often kicks at me when I send her to time-out. Lashing out when they feel pain isn’t a foreign concept to them. It comes quite naturally, in fact, as it does to all of us.
This is the great challenge of being a productive person and parent in an unkind, imperfect world: teaching our children (and learning, ourselves) what to do with pain.
Because it is an inevitable part of life, a constant companion on this human road we travel. And oftentimes, I don’t rise to the challenge. I’ve talked about people behind their backs, complained when my life circumstances weren’t up to my standards, made decisions based on fear, scrolled my social media to avoid true connection because I’m lonely, frustrated, or angry. I’ve said unkind words to strangers – strangers who, perhaps, needed to hear just one kind word on a disastrous day. Everybody is fighting a battle, right?
But when I am in pain, when I reach my breaking point, the actions that pour out of me sometimes echo the misery that I feel. And I, in turn, teach these actions to my children, who are watching me. They see how I respond to pain, fear and discomfort. From me, they receive their earliest example of what is acceptable behavior toward others. They may learn that it is possible to feel pain and remain kind, but their memories may replay times that I fell short.
This is the only control I have over my kids’ lives: my own example. Inevitably, as kids do, they will make friendships that worry me, and they will be confronted by choices and questions much bigger than I had to face at their ages. The Internet, smart phones and social media will influence their lives in incomprehensible ways. They’re going to make bad decisions. They’re going to fail, hurt people and suffer a lot of pain themselves, both social and emotional.
What they do with that pain matters. Their hurt can reverberate out into the world, passing from one person to the next, or it can be used to deepen their compassion and courage.
What they choose to do with their pain depends on factors such as their most influential relationships and life experience and on examples set by their parents. The only thing that I do have control over, both now and in the future, is me. How I react to life’s challenges and setbacks. How I respond to others when I am in pain. Because my kids – and your kids – are watching.
I’m not saying we have to be perfect, or that we won’t make mistakes. But maybe it’s time to, I dunno, put away the cell phones on occasion and practice listening – really listening – to each other. Maybe it’s time to stretch our empathy muscles and consider someone else’s point of view. Maybe it’s time to remember that no matter our race, income, or social status we all have some influence over the people and environment around us. We ought to take responsibility for that and act with kindness and compassion in any little way that we can, while we can.
Because if a day comes when my kids have to face what the kids at Stoneman Douglas faced, I want them to understand what’s behind the evil they see. And I want them to understand that this evil is exactly what any of us might become in the absence of empathy, grace and compassion, most importantly toward ourselves.
We need to take action toward a safer future for our kids, absolutely, through political action, community involvement and honest conversations. But more than anything, we need to examine how we deal with our own pain and use it as an excuse to cause others pain. This, at least, is one thing over which we have complete control.
And our kids’ futures depend on it.