Parenting During War-Time

“You’re right to be concerned” about having your 9-month old in the room with you when you watch the news, reports Barbara Meltz in a Boston Globe “Child Caring” column. “If watching the news makes you tense and anxious, your baby will pick up on it and that, in turn, could make her irritable.”

The advice is so sincere, so child-centered and affirming of our precious children’s right not to be irritable that you could almost miss the deep cynicism of this forced introspection. The advice implies that the world unfolds in your living room, that your arms are the key purveyors of anxiety, and that preventing infant irritability is your private job — perhaps even a measure of your effectiveness as a parent.

The advice implies that as a parent, the most you can do to decrease anxiety is to turn off the TV and protect your child from “overstimulation.”

We need to pause a moment and try to take in how deeply dis-empowering this advice is, how thoroughly it channels all our adult abilities into stunted expressions directed at our own tiny little offspring.

Does this mean I think it is not valuable for parents to consider ways to have less irritable 9-month-olds? No. I support whatever sanity can be derived from being the parent of a peaceful baby. Do I have something against being a soothing, loving parent who takes the time to figure out what works best for the little ones? Of course not. Showing care, creating connection, making a safe and comfortable home — this is the stuff of life. Or at least part of it anyway. We should all do it if we can, in the best way we can, but we should keep some perspective about what it amounts to.

Unfortunately, with a consumer culture that virtually defines childhood these days, no wonder parents get absorbed in strategies to protect their own. The alternative to insulation, it appears, is submersion in a plastic world of miniaturized “Operation Obliterate the Enemy” (batteries not included).

With the nation at war this holiday season, toy marketers are pushing Easter baskets loaded with toy knives and grenades, artfully arranged on top of plastic Easter grass and interspersed with chocolate bunnies. On the shelves at Kmart and other major retailers (according to an article in the Village Voice), these holiday baskets show just how far we are willing to go to use our children to help us rationalize our adult exploits. If the kids look cute tossing pretend grenades on Easter morning, does that somehow put the soldiers in Iraq tossing the real ones somewhere along the same continuum?

Do the pretend grenades help divorce us from the brutal consequences of the real ones?

The Easter baskets stocked with war toys are not just an egregious blip on the otherwise non-violent screen that makes up the panorama of childhood.

The $20.3 billion toy industry and the $10.3 billion video game industry are “closely watching the Iraq war with an eye toward new product introductions for Christmas.” One company has already rushed to manufacture a series of “Special Forces: Showdown with Iraq” figures that duplicated as accurately as possible the uniforms and gear being used by soldiers during the buildup in Kuwait, according to the NYT (March 30, 2003). Doing its part to acclimate kids to the new era of escalated state terrorism abroad and reduced civil liberties at home, another toy manufacturer has introduced “Josh Simon” — a Desert NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical) Trooper — alongside “Homeland Security Amy.”

Although sales of many of these products are brisk, not everyone is pleased.

Consumer protests have lead to some of the toys being pulled from the shelves. But too often the logic of the protest is: “I don’t want my child playing with this stuff.”

Well, nor do I. But, more importantly, I don’t want Tommy Franks and his men playing with the real versions of these things. These things kill and maim.

They mean real anxiety for children — not from the sound of bombs exploding on TV, but from the sound of bombs exploding immediately overhead. They translate into a parent never being able to soothe a child again. Because the child is dead, or the parent is, or they both are. They equal an absence of anxiety because there are no arms there to transmit it anymore.

I am haunted by a picture that has been circulating by email recently. It is of a child with the top of his head blown off. His face is calm, and his features are so perfect. He looks like he could be sleeping. He makes me think of my children who regularly get soothed to sleep, who will not have grenades in their Easter baskets, and who are not at risk of having their heads blown off. This is my children’s extreme privilege, but it is also their right, as it is the right of every child.

A brutal empire is on the loose, and if you read the mass media, you’d think that parents can choose to relate to it in one of two possible ways — buy toys that imitate it or insulate yourself from it. There’s almost no mention of an obvious third choice — turning outward — facing the world and relating to it.

True, this could very well mean introducing a certain type of anxiety into your home — not via the television, but through heated conversations, meetings taking place at your kitchen table, all-night banner-making sessions on your living room floor. The anxiety might come because you are tired from all the anti-war work, from the fact that you have not been around much lately to make the kids dinner or tuck them in, from the fact that you are genuinely sick at heart about what your government is doing in your name.

But isn’t this an appropriate anxiety? Isn’t this less confusing than turning off the TV and replacing it with a white noise machine or some soothing parental equivalent? If our children are so sensitive, then surely they are picking up on the fact that a public emergency is at hand. What contributes more to their long-term feeling of well-being? Watching their parents block it out or watching them take it on?

Is it even the right question — to be always wondering what is right for my kid?

I do not think it is the most important question for parents, but even if it were, kids need to see parents do not only what is best for their own offspring, but what is best for all children everywhere. When kids sense that the whole world is on edge, they are taking careful notes about what their parents are doing about it.

When greedy corporations work with defense contractors to normalize brutality through play, and when liberal child-caring columns advise us to fortify our nests against the evil outside world, parents might end up thinking that those are the only two choices: Raise your kid in a war culture, or shun all that by barring certain toys from the house and sanitizing our hugs by making them anxiety-free.

But there is a third way: Don’t imagine that being a good enough parent means that you are a good enough public citizen. Attending to private relationships is not enough when your government has gone ballistic. Those of us with children need to find ways to be loving and attentive parents at the same time that we take on the tasks at hand. Take your children to meetings. Help them feel welcome there. Set up childcare at political events. Help kids create their own parallel structures. Talk to your kids about talking to other kids. Let them design banners and anti-war posters.

Let them see you give steady attention to the serious problems we face.

Value your work (and your children!) enough to include them. They will inherit the results of our efforts, after all.

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