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The first rule of parenting: Don't scare the kids. Here we are in the first world, and in the 21st century, living in an environment where we can only hope that Dickensian childhoods are a thing of the past. In this place and time, science tells us that some kids are damaged—maybe irrevocably—by trauma. Other kids are resilient. But we still don’t know which factors, genetic or otherwise, account for the difference.
Any parent with the means and opportunity to read this post probably believes, as I did, that her job is to protect her kids from any kind of damage. Yet, bad things happen.
I remember the first time I ever saw my mother cry. I had seen her impatient, frustrated and just plain pissed off. I'd seen her happy and even very sad (when I was 5 and President Kennedy was assassinated) but the first time I saw her really cry—about something that affected me—she was sobbing on the phone to her sister after my father died. I was 11, and it definitely made an impression. That was the moment I began to understand that my mother could be frail, vulnerable, even hurt. It wasn’t a bad thing to learn, though of course the cause was heartbreaking. Thirty years later, when my adored stepfather died very suddenly, I didn't even try to hide my tears from my sons, then ages 5, 8 and 11. My oldest, who was particularly close to his grandfather, held my hand at the funeral and cried too. It felt right. Awful, but right.
How do you express your own emotion and still say, "You will be safe. I promise."?
So there are personal tragedies where grieving in front of your children feels appropriate. But then there are human tragedies, where we all wonder how to present our own fears and sorrows. After Sandy Hook, how do you explain to a child that going to school is safe, if they've seen you crying over news reports? How do you express your own emotion and still say, "You will be safe. I promise."? Because telling a very young child that you can't promise their safety just feels wrong.
But what if you're facing a life-threatening illness, or your marriage is in trouble? Should you cry in front of your children? You know that they assume their family will always continue exactly as it is. And you've already made a decision about what might be age-appropriate for them to know. But when they see you cry, all kinds of doubts are raised about their own safety and happiness, because you—their all-powerful parent who can fix so many things—are weeping. Surely, our children should know that it's OK to be sad, and even scared, but how do we also assure them that they'll be OK?
I don't know that there's one answer. But I do know that when my marriage fell apart, I tried to keep my grief private. I didn't want to scare the kids. If (inevitably) they caught me crying, I explained, even though this is definitely a conversation no teenage boy wants to go near. I said that I felt sad, but that I'd be fine. I told them that I am strong. And they listened and trusted me.