There is a fiery debate raging on my neighborhood listserv. There are two, actually. The first, now with more than 117 comments, concerns a county-sponsored deer culling program that has pitted conservationists and hunters against ardent animal lovers, with loads of name-calling and a sprinkle of venison recipes thrown in for good measure.
The thread that has captured my attention, however, concerns Halloween decorations. I spotted the original post just minutes after it went up: A dad in a nearby neighborhood complained about some of the gorier decorations that had cropped up in nearby yards, saying they frightened his young children and respectfully requesting folks consider moving their more macabre displays inside or to the backyard.
“Oh boy, this one’s going to be a doozy!” I told my husband, and I was right. The concerned father’s opening salvo quickly amassed a barrage of impassioned replies. Several parents (and strangely, one pet owner) agreed with the original poster about the trauma the decorations caused their little ones, and they, too, called on the purveyors of gore to rethink their Halloween tableaus.
I am not unsympathetic to these parents’ distress. My family, in fact, comes at this issue from an especially fraught place. When my daughter was 3, her younger brother died at 16 months old. Each time we visit his grave, she asks me what is underneath the stone that bears his name. Each time, I have answered honestly, “His body.”
The Halloween after my son died and every year since, as skeletons and tombstones start to dot the lawns of my neighbors’ houses, I have gritted my teeth and wondered how these props might affect her. I am relieved to say the discomfort is mine alone; my daughter — and now her younger sister — love the decorations, the more gruesome the better, in their book.
Nonetheless, even if the skeletons and spooky tombstones were distressing reminders of the fate of my daughters’ brother, it would not have occurred to me to ask my neighbors to remove them (and I have wonderful, sensitive, generous neighbors who surely would have). As cosmically unfair as it seems that one of my daughters lost her kid brother and the other will never know him, it is nonetheless a reality from which I cannot shield them.
Likewise, as distasteful as some of today’s decorations may be, they are part of a beloved cultural tradition — one that I don’t believe a concerned father can roll back, no matter how politely he asks. Our job — his and mine — as parents is to help our kids navigate these kinds of uncomfortable realities and the discomfort they may cause.
Resiliency, Large and Small
Exactly one week before September 11, 2001, I started a new job at a foreign policy think tank in New York. Once the dust, literally, settled, my colleagues and I would occasionally lament that we were “All terrorism, all the time.” One of my colleagues was Stephen Flynn, a renowned homeland security expert who preaches the doctrine of resilience. The purpose of terrorism, he reminded me one day, is to terrorize. In so doing, it disrupts society’s ability to function effectively. A country, Flynn has argued, is a less attractive target of terrorism if it is better prepared to recover from an attack.
The same could be said for our children. Exposing them to unpleasant situations helps our children develop coping mechanisms, especially when we parents can provide accompanying guidance. Coping mechanisms make kids more resilient. Resiliency protects against trauma. In his excellent Vanity Fair essay about post-traumatic stress disorder, war correspondent Sebastian Junger writes, “A sense of helplessness is deeply traumatic to people, but high levels of training seem to counteract that so effectively that elite soldiers are psychologically insulated from even extreme risk.”
I’m not nearly as eloquent or insightful as Junger, nor has my family ever spent time in a war zone, but I follow this line of thinking. When we visited an amusement park over the summer, I talked my kids through the plan of what to do if we got separated. As I wrote my phone number on my especially nervous 4-year-old’s forearm, I reminded her. “I really don’t think we will get separated. But it’s good to know what to do, just in case. Then we don’t have to worry, and we can spend our energy having fun instead.”
Of course, we must be mindful of a child’s developmental ability to process certain situations, and each parent knows his or child best. But when we expose kids to small, manageable doses of discomfort now, they are better prepared to handle future shocks — the ones that are most likely going to come at a time in their lives when we are not right by their sides. My husband, for instance, never went to a funeral as a child. His first real exposure to death was that of his son. None of the funerals in the world could have prepared either of us for that, but I still ache when I think of the shock, on top of the grief, that this must have been to his heretofore insulated psyche.
Immunizing Against the Inevitable
But back to the listserv. Since I started writing this article, the discussion of Halloween decorations has been closed by the group moderator and subsequently reopened again under a different thread. Clearly, people feel very strongly about this issue. We are all parents, after all, moms and dads who love our kids and want to keep them safe and happy. It is counterintuitive, then, to think that keeping them safe and happy means sometimes exposing them to risk or discomfort. I like to think of doing so as a sort of emotional vaccination — I’m seeding their little psyches with a tiny dose of the live virus of hardship so that they are better equipped to combat it in the future.
It is not an easy thing to do; in fact, it’s a little bit scary. Maybe even scarier than some of the Halloween decorations out there.