How safe do our children feel? By Kiran Ansari :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::drawing courtesy of KidsPeace These drawings were done by the children of KidsPeace, a 122-year-old national children's crisis charity based in New York City. The organization helps kids overcome traumas, depression and family problems.
Elmo's color is red. Cookie monster's color is blue. But what is Yusuf's color? My 2-year-old looks at me, awaiting an answer. In his world, I know the answer to everything. What he doesn't know is that his innocent question has already set me thinking. It's easy to distract him now, but it won't be for long. As a Muslim American, he will be a different "color" than his classmates, and he will have to accept that, especially since 9/11 . . .
How many times have we started sentences with, "Since 9/11 . . . ?"
On Sept. 11, we'll mark the third anniversary of the day four terrorist-hijacked planes crashed into America's psyche. None of us will ever forget where we were or the horror we felt the moment we realized the plane that crashed into the first World Trade Center tower was no accident. Our horror grew as the second New York City skyscraper was hit, followed quickly by the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a cornfield in Pennsylvania. In all, nearly 3,000 people died, along with our national sense of immunity to the violence of the world.
Children, too, feel this new vulnerability. And their fears can be exacerbated by the violent images from the war in Iraq, the bombings in the Middle East, news about the presidential election, the 9/11 commission report, the color-changing homeland security alerts or "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the box office.
The ‘new normal' "What we live in today is a ‘new normal,' " says Robert Blinkoff, principal anthropologist of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, Md. "We go to work, eat and watch TV, but scratch the surface and we clearly lead different lives. People no longer speak of 9/11 as an isolated event but as an era in which that day was merely the beginning and all events since connect back to it."
If, as adults, we grapple with the "new normal," we can only imagine the toll it has taken on our children. They recognize changes when they are asked to take their shoes off at the airport. They sense a cause for worry.
According to a 2003 national study by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the national children's crisis charity, KidsPeace, 56 percent of American parents report their children are worried about war and terrorism. Despite that, 35 percent had not talked to their children about these issues in the past year and 66 percent had no emergency plan in the event of an attack.
Contagious fears "When we admit our children are worried, our goal becomes to prevent frightening feelings from becoming overwhelming," says Dr. Robert Abramovitz, chief psychiatrist and director at New York City's Center for Trauma Program Innovation of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. "Parents need to realize that feelings can be contagious and fear may be the most contagious. Adults can let kids know that recent events have also upset them-that's part of the validation process."
Although Abramovitz agrees the effects were probably the strongest on children living in New York City or Washington, D.C., it would be wrong to conclude that only they were affected. Research after the Oklahoma City bombings showed ripples nationwide.
Karen Batia, senior director of mental health and addiction services for Chicago's Heartland Health Outreach, explains, "Seeing the images on TV repeatedly made many Chicago children fearful that their tall buildings would be targeted next, especially kids with parents who worked in high-rise towers downtown."
Kimberly Grooms' children certainly feel the fear. Her oldest, Kandace, was in college close to New York City on 9/11. Kaylan, 10, says a silent prayer whenever she happens to see 9:11 a.m. or p.m. in her watch. Her sons, Charles and Chaz, now 14 and 16, worry about how fast their mom could come pick them up if something were to happen in Chicago.
Grooms has reassured her children she would pick them up from the safe spot designated by their school. When they were a little apprehensive of some passengers traveling with them, she explained how facial characteristics of people seen on TV were no basis for assuming a link.
Drawing it out Not all children are as expressive as the Grooms. Some shy away from asking questions because they are afraid of upsetting their parents. Others are unable to verbalize their emotions. Encouraging them to draw or reading about children in a similar situation might help get them talking.
Kathleen Kostelny is co-author of No Place to Be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone and senior research associate at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for child development in Chicago. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, she asked New York grade-schoolers to draw how they felt about the world. Some children who once drew themselves as the center of their universe with a big house, a family and a dog, now drew themselves as small specks in the corner of the paper-a sign of insecurity.
"Their parents, who used to say, ‘Don't worry, nothing bad is going to happen,' now were saying ‘Mommy and Daddy are trying their best to keep you safe,' " says Kostelny.
Parents tend to assume that because grades are not slipping or sleep patterns have not changed that their children are unaffected by such events. However, it would be naive for parents to assume that children know nothing about what is happening around them. Parents need to find out how much information their children have and channel it in the right direction-toward tolerance.
"Kids as young as 3 or 4 repeat phrases and pick up attitudes," says Anne Parry, director of the Office of Violence Prevention at the Chicago Department of Public Health. "Every time we open our mouth [or stay silent], we are giving a message. You are not doing your child any service by saying, ‘We are not going to talk about it.' "
If a teacher gets flustered or a parent ignores a question such as, "Why do they hate us?" kids will turn to other sources for answers-and there is no guarantee they will get the message their parents want them to hear.
"When talking about terrorism, we should emphasize that while bad things do happen, there are lots of efforts to promote peace as well," says Joan Liautaud, clinical director of the International Family Adult and Child Enhancement Services, a program that serves immigrant refugees in Chicago.
Parents who insist their children have moved on since 9/11 still need to assess what they learned and how is it going to affect their future. We try to teach our children that race is no basis for choosing friends, "but these little sponges absorb what they see at home. If they have heard their parents generalize about Arabs, you can't blame 5-year-olds for doing the same," says Kostelny.
"Twenty years from now, these children are going to be the decision makers," says Arsalan Iftikhar, director of Legal Affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. "If we are unable to reach out to them, we may be inadvertently nurturing an entire generation of racism and hatred."
Fighting stereotypes These last three years have been tough on many children but, according to Nareman Taha, co-founder of Arab-American Family Services in Palos Hills, "Muslim kids are double victims. Not only are they confused and scared like other children, they have the additional burden of being victims to stereotyping."
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations 2004 Civil Rights Report, discrimination against Muslims continues to increase. The report says there were 1,019 discrimination reports filed in 2003, up from 602 in 2002 and 525 in 2001. In the days following 9/11, the FBI visited Muslim family homes and some parents were deported. Private Islamic schools were closed for at least two weeks because of threats.
"If adults become more open-minded, perhaps a southwest Chicago high school teacher wouldn't have said to her student, ‘If people like you weren't here, 9/11 would never have happened.' Such a remark did not just affect that one child, it planted a seed of hatred or suspicion in the entire class," says Taha.
Education is also the responsibility of the Muslim community. The Arab-American Family Services conducts cultural training sessions at hospitals, schools and police departments. But leaders say Muslim parents also need to break out of their community and teach their own children not to discriminate against non-Muslims.
"Had there been more Muslims in the PTA or as volunteers at the soccer game, the backlash would have been less severe," says Kamran Memon, a Chicago attorney specializing in discrimination cases.
Says Iftikhar: "Muslims can participate in a show-and-tell of different cultures in the classroom, provide input in PTA diversity trainings and be guest speakers so that children learn how to separate fact from fiction."
"If parents are broad-minded," says Batia, "it unconsciously trickles down to the children. Kids can be pretty mean, but we know that they take their cues from their parents. "
Violeta Bosworth of Justice is a parishioner at St. Fabian, which has a youth group that has teamed up with young people at the local mosque to paint shelters and help at soup kitchens. She is also part of the Catholic-Muslim Women's Dialogue group. "Once you have a one-on-one relationship with someone from a different faith, you can reduce stereotyping and correct someone if they scapegoat," she says.
I take heart when I wonder what Yusuf's experiences will be. We find there still are people who realize American Muslim is not an oxymoron. I have experienced the warm words and smiles from kind neighbors and compassionate teachers and believe they reflect the true colors of America. I trust they know millions of children should not have to bear the brunt for the actions of a few adults.
Our duty is not just to make our children feel safe, but to make all children feel safe. An entire generation is looking to us for guidance, and it is our responsibility to practice tolerance for a safer today and a more peaceful tomorrow.
Safety plan It may sound a bit scary but for those who live in New York City and Washington, D.C., safety plans have become a fact of life. It's a good idea to devise a safety plan and discuss it with your family in a matter-of-fact way, just as you would discuss and practice a fire escape plan. Here are some things to review, according to Joan Liautaud, clinical director of the International Family Adult and Child Enhancement Services in Chicago.
• Each family member should have an updated list of emergency phone numbers for police and fire departments, poison control and the doctor. Explain that dialing 911 can be a lifesaver and should never be misused.
• Make sure the kids have your work, cell phone or pager numbers somewhere in writing as well as the number and address for a non-family contact the kids can trust if they are unable to contact either parent. That non-family contact and your children should also have contact information for an out-of-town family member.
• Discuss the safest way to exit the house or your building in case of an emergency.
• Explain how to use the security system, if you have one.
• Consider buying an ID kit at www.childidprogram.com or check whether your local police department offers kits for free.
• Explain how looking for another mom is the best thing to do if your children get lost or feel scared at any time.
• Teach children to report to a trustworthy adult if they feel any person, package or situation feels suspicious and makes them uncomfortable.
• Pick a place in the neighborhood where everyone decides to meet in case of an emergency.
Kiran Ansari is a writer who lives in Roselle with her husband and son. Her last Chicago Parent story was about Ramadan.