When I was 11, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. My sixth-class teacher felt strongly that we should all have a grasp of current affairs, and every morning she’d pin her newspaper up on the blackboard and have us all gather round and look through the headlines. She was a formidable woman with a strong social conscience, and CND and Greenpeace and Amnesty International were all hot topics at the time, though in spite of her efforts I personally wasn’t always exactly clear on why exactly they were in the news.
What I remember most vividly, though, was our fear of Ronald Reagan’s finger hovering over the nuclear missile button, pointed at the USSR, with Ireland right in between the two.* Nuclear fallout wouldn’t respect Ireland’s official neutrality, and we would have no say in the matter. I don’t think I was alone in that fear – there was that Genesis video a year later, for instance – but I suspect that as children my class’s understanding of the facts and the likelihood of certain things happening might have been skewed a bit. The idea of a massive nuclear blast that would wipe out half the world, followed by a long slow nuclear winter that would horrifyingly put an end to the other half seemed like an inevitability more than a possibility to me for several years. It felt like a future we were all just politely ignoring, pretending wouldn’t happen. For quite some time it felt like a when, not a remote if.
Children have no control over the greater world around them. They hear and see more than adults expect them to, and they take in information in ways that adults can’t ever quite predict. They get scared irrationally, by things that don’t exist and things that pose no threat – and they get even more scared when the adults around them are anxious, worried, angry, and letting fly about things that nobody explains to them.
I am all for explaining things to our children, and showing them that we have strong emotions too – but I also think we should let them be children as long as possible. Their lives are full of small problems, childish worries, surmountable anxieties that look really hard from their point of view. Let’s not give them our big worries as well. Their shoulders aren’t ready.
In other words, limit the agonizing, grownups. Stop making Trump sound like the end of the world. Dial down the hyperbole at the dinner table – your kids don’t understand when you’re exaggerating for effect. They take what they hear you say as the bald truth, not melodrama because you’re that kind of person. Lie to them a little if you have to. Soften it up. Tell them everything’s going to be fine – that the government has checks and balances so that no one person can have all the power. That politicians never keep their campaign promises. It might even be true.
Help them sleep at night. There’ll be plenty of time for stark reality when they’re older.
*In hindsight, I suppose his nukes might have pointed west rather than east, to reach the USSR quicker. But then they’d be travelling over US soil. Unless they started from Alaska. Okay, I don’t know which way they’d go.