Yesterday, my not-yet-7-year-old daughter did one of those publicly embarrassing kid things.
I’d picked the kids up from school and was trying to pass time on silly errands until we could get their dad from the train. Given that they barely eat breakfast and hardly touch their lunches, they’re quite the hungry little monsters after school. I had already handed over graham crackers and peanuts, but the whining continued.
As we exited the hardware store, she was whining, “I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I’m hungry.” I had refused to buy her any of the “food” they sell at the hardware store. Evil mommy.
Seeing that we were about to walk past a woman asking for money, I tried to shush her with a firm, “I heard you. I told you we’ll eat when we get home. I don’t want to hear you say that again.”
“I’m hungry…” I heard again, just above the voice of the woman asking for help so that she could get a meal to eat.
More than superficial embarrassment, this is the kind of thing that makes me feel like I’m totally failing my kids, failing as a mother to raise children who might someday contribute to a better world.
It’s unfair, of course, to measure her in this way. She didn’t hear the woman, or even see her. But isn’t that the problem? Don’t we need to teach our children how to see the world outside themselves?
As we walked away, I struggled with whether or not I should say anything at all. I landed on “yes.” I couldn’t let it go.
My first instinct was to want her feel guilty for what she said. To want her to shut up about being hungry and to feel like she’s not entitled to claim that feeling ever again. But I tried to be simple about it, tried not to drown her with my grown-up guilt.
“Sweetheart,” I said to her, in the softest, I’m-not-upset voice I could manage, “Did you notice that woman back there was asking people to help her to get food? Because she’s hungry? Because she might not have a meal to eat tonight? I know that you really do feel hungry, but you know that you’re going to eat dinner when we get home. Your hunger is not the same as hers. How do you think she might have felt to hear you say you're hungry?”
“Oh,” she said, in the tiniest voice. Immediately, I begin to worry that this is how anxiety is built.
Was it too much? Maybe. I honestly don’t know. I had to try, to think about correcting course later if the words fell too hard. Or too soft.
(Warning: ugly, abrupt transition ahead…)
When we were shopping around for private schools for our soon-to-be kindergartener, there was a lot of talk about what the schools did to ready their students to be good citizens, caring about those who have less and ready to tackle the great injustices of this world.
There was also a lot of talk about anxiety. At the tawniest school we considered, the director told gathered parents that he’d noticed a definite increase in the level of anxiety kids have in the last twenty years. At a more progressive, more down-to-earth school, the director put it another way—he told me he’d also seen a remarkable increase in the level of anxiety in the last twenty years—but not in kids, in parents.
Then he shared a really helpful rule of thumb about how much is too much to share with kids—tell them about the hard things when they are old enough to do something about it. Because knowing, before you can do anything about it, that there are scary, awful things, and feeling like you are helpless against them, is a great way to instill anxiety.
I’ve found his words to be a helpful guidepost ever since the day my daughter asked me this heartbreaking question: “Everyone is good in the world, right, mommy?”
Think about the kinds of questions kids ask, those how-do-I-answer-that questions… What do you say and when do you say it? Following this wisdom, you tell them about kidnapping when they are old enough to run the other way. You tell them about sexual abuse when they are old enough to speak up for themselves. You tell them about homelessness and hunger—and then teach them what they can do to help.
That way, any worry about these newfound realities doesn’t feel like helplessness, like their only choice is to live with constant fear or guilt. So they are not resigned to believe that they have no power to influence a bad situation. To make change.
One way of measuring adulthood is when we realize that there are things that happen in the world that are absolutely terrible, about which we personally can do nothing. For me, it’s hard not to get stuck there, not to feel helpless and scared and sad all the time.
The only way I’ve found out of the sadness of that is to know that there are amazing, wonderful, really happy, even magical, transcendentally beautiful things in life that are just as true, just as real, as the evil realities we face.
It can feel disrespectful to continue on with our lucky lives, surrounded as we are by injustice. But it shows disrespect to the beauty, the love and the magical moments that come our way to shut them out or feel like we shouldn’t be able to have that while others suffer. They are no less true.
This world is both stunningly amazing and crushingly awful. Both.
And if you don’t drown in sorrow, then maybe you have the strength to make change and to live in joy. It is hard for me to figure out the right balance. To tell my daughter, “This woman is truly hungry,” without worrying that she’ll feel like she should shut up about the hunger she is feeling, as if her happiness doesn't matter. She can want dinner, even if there is also a need to feed hungry people.
But how do I give her the perspective that her hunger is a smaller problem without making her feel like she should swallow her own feelings? Not to feel guilty about going home and eating dinner, but also to know that there is a world outside her, with other people who are hungry in a way that she should notice? How do I teach her to want a world where no one is truly hungry? And do something about it?
Small ways. Every day. That's the best answer I have right now.
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