Unhappy Reality Thinking

The mother of a nine-year-old girl talked about the impact of gun violence on their lives. The school’s focus on security has resulted in frequent drills in which children have been instructed where and how to hide. They practice regularly and have learned the routine about alerts and when it is safe to move. Her daughter talks about this at home.

I asked if any attention is given to the feelings this arouses in the children. In response the mom began to talk about her own feelings. She said that she has had talks with her daughter in which she emphatically instructed her to stay focused on her own safety. In particular, she is not to worry about anyone else and in no way try to help anyone else, no matter what the situation.

The mother than expressed with emotion how unbelievable it was to hear herself counseling her child to think only of herself and not to act thinking that she can save someone else. She believes the most natural impulse would be to try to help someone and that in this situation not only would that be dangerous but would also jeopardize her own child’s safely. The mom finds herself preoccupied with her own child’s safety above all.

She then related an anecdote about a recent occurrence on this subject. Over the weekend she was trying to complete a school assignment of her own. A friend, wanting to be helpful offered to take her child and the friend’s child to the movies. At first feeling delighted by the offer, she then began to think of the potential danger in the situation.

The movies now presented a hazard, leading the mother to feel she did not want her child in that situation without her. She thanked her friend but declined the invitation with some embarrassment, explaining the reason for her decision. Her friend then told her that she had also offered to include another child in her invitation and the mother of that child declined, giving the same reason.

The mother asked how it was possible to be worrying about the danger of going to the movies, thinking about the safest place to sit, looking for the nearest exit. Most of all, she feels upset to be counseling her child to be concerned only about herself. Sadly, this seems to her to be the reality of life these days. Her own child is her primary concern.

As a parent, this mother – and others – are focused on their own children. Yet many young people seem to be finding strength and taking comfort in joining with others. The stress they are experiencing is being expressed as anger in organized protests, taking responsibility for demanding the protection that has not been afforded by the adults.

In the most recent organized protest, thousands of high school students walked out of school to rally against guns, saying they live in a world of potential Columbines. Students spoke of active shooter drills, backpack and locker searches, and mock lockdowns sitting in silence in classrooms with the lights turned out.

At the same time, the New York City Department of Education said that it would consider leaving school to attend the protest an unexcused absence. For some students there would be consequences. There is something questionable going on. Schools offer drills, searches and lockdowns, increasing stress. Yet young people expressing feelings of protest are met with a punitive response from authority.

Parents think primarily of their own children, schools seek to maintain their authority, and children are left as the ones trying to solve the problem.