From the Editor
Sunday, June 01, 2003
Hula Hooping to a sense of safety
By Susy Schultz
We had the first talent show at my son's elementary school this year and it was everything I ever dreamed or dreaded it would be.
And I really have to talk about it.
Like any talent show, not everybody in it had talent. So the evening became a parade of parental emotions: wonder, laughter, tears, and of course, chair-gripping terror as you sat by helplessly hoping each child would leave happy.
There is pride: Did you all see that kid finish?
There is fear: Please, God, just let her finish.
There is anger: BE QUIET AND LET HIM FINISH.
There is love: Let her never finish. Let her always be this happy.
There is quiet jealousy: How could he finish that sonata? If I were a good mother, I would have made my kid take piano lessons.
There is loathing: She will never finish. Never. We will all be sitting here for the next 50 years.
There is relief: It's really finished? All of it?
And yet, there is also deep gratitude: Thank you for letting me watch them all finish. Thank you for letting me be part of their lives. Thank you for children. God, I do get it; they are sacred. Thank you.
My favorite moment came from one young girl who took the stage, instrument in hand and looking poised, began to play; that's when she made her first mistake. She went on to make many, many, many more mistakes, really stumbling through the song. When she finished I held my breath, fearful she would dissolve into tears and run off.
Yet she stood tall, she bowed and she glowed-not just from relief but from accomplishment and appreciation. She grew an inch with the applause.
Leaving the auditorium, wiping my eyes, I thought, this is what I want for every child: to be confident enough to glow no matter how many mistakes, to stand up and do blindfolded Hula-Hooping poetry recitations.
Because, let's face it, no matter how wrong things are, there is hope when you watch a beautiful 9-year-old Sarah, confident enough to put on no more than a smile and a blue feathered mask, step into a hoop and recite Dr. Seuss poems before 300 people.
I just want all children to feel that safe.
But the truth is our children are far from feeling safe. Just a few days before the talent show, I sat through a telephone news conference put together by the Society for Research in Child Development.
Four researchers, with incredible titles from prestigious universities and organizations, discussed the results of studies, polls and interviews conducted since Sept. 11, 2001, in an effort to measure how our children are feeling after the terrorism attacks that killed thousands in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
You already know some of what they found: Children don't feel safe.
I'm not minimizing the studies. Quantifying even the obvious is important, we always learn. And yes, I am synthesizing large amounts of research in a most unorthodox way, but it is, in essence, the finding.
Children don't feel safe, because we, the parents, the ones who teach them how to cope, don't feel safe and we are talking about it.
Of course, we are all still unglued because our world was rocked. And we continue to be rattled since we have also seen war with Iraq, looming threats of biological weapons, a pending SARS epidemic, sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., and possible nuclear annihilation from North Korea.
Is there anything safe or reassuring to rest on? So no wonder about the next finding: Children become more unsure about their safety the more television news they watch. It doesn't even help if kids watch the news with parents, because if we are bothered, they will be too.
Also, don't count on teachers, one of the studies concluded. Teachers have had no choice but to deal with the impact on kids, but most are ill-equipped.
And to top it all off, another study concluded there is "a large level of unmet mental health needs" among children. Other studies have told us adult mental health needs are not being met either.
As a nation, we are too busy, too embarrassed or think it too low a priority to deal with our well-being.
Add in a difficult economy, international upheavals, West Nile virus and an epidemic of violence.
All this and Mr. Rogers is dead, too.
Are we finished?
Not really, because I have to tell you about one more study finding. You can file this one under "and a little child shall lead them." OK, make it a big kid.
Apparently, while adults find comfort in discussing fears, adolescents in the same study felt talk made it worse. They found comfort in action: raising money, donating items, flying a flag or maybe blindfolded Hula-Hooping poetry recitations?
So, although the talent show brought up all my fears for the future, it also laid out everything that is right about the world: children.
If we help children feel safe, feel loved, they can accomplish anything. If we work on worrying less and trying to move forward with action, we can help them and ourselves feel safe.
Really, we are probably no more or less safe right now than we have ever been. But how do we handle the feeling of insecurity?
For me, the next time I'm overwhelmed, I plan to keep quiet, hug my boys and grab a Hula-Hoop.