Children of every generation deal with harsh realities

I don’t know if the global situation now is worse, better or the same for our children. Sharing stories with them might allow for shared comfort.

SHARE Children of every generation deal with harsh realities
Children play in the Crown Fountain on Michigan Avenue, as temperatures spike in Chicago, Tuesday afternoon, June 14, 2022.

Children play in the Crown Fountain on Michigan Avenue, as temperatures spike in Chicago on June 14.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A friend of mine recently ruminated on how what’s happening in the news burdens our children. They live in a world where school shootings are normalized as lunchroom fights. Guns, ugly politics, the pandemic, racism — take your pick. Parents find themselves turning off the television and radio, or searching for age-appropriate words to explain all that’s fraught.

I listened and understood the perspective of my friend, a mother of three. But I reminded her that unfortunately, our children aren’t the first generation to worry. 

We did, too. 

Growing up in the 1980s, we stressed over nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries owned enough arms to blow up the planet many times over. Who would push the button first? Not to mention President Ronald Reagan botched the nascent AIDS crisis. I distinctly remember hand-wringing over whether people could catch AIDS from a mosquito bite. As an elementary school student, that fear occupied my mind.

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Closer to home, I remember as a little kid thinking about crime and gangs in Chicago. My father was active in our neighborhood’s civic organization on the South Side. I sometimes overheard him on the phone talking about garage break-ins and muggings when the sun was still out. That didn’t stop me from being nosy — or slightly scared.

In Los Angeles, where my friend grew up, crack hit her city earlier than in Chicago. Some of her childhood memories are tied to the epidemic. Gangs also factored in neighborhood life. We didn’t know each other back then, but she, two time zones away, wondered what devastation the arms race would inflict. A bond not dissimilar to that of other strangers around the country.

I don’t know if the global situation now is worse, better or the same for our children. Social media and cable television amplify current events. Children barrage us with questions. What is Roe v. Wade? Why did Russia invade Ukraine? Why do people have guns? As we search for the right words, we bury or forget our own childhood anxieties from decades earlier. Time provides a buffer, but we also shifted into parental roles, invested in protecting our own children so we forget the angst we once felt. We want our children’s’ innocence to last longer than a line for a Black Friday sale. Their lives should be as carefree as the beach.

As I ticked off a number of childhood horrors from the 1980s and 1990s, my friend somewhat relaxed. My purpose wasn’t to engage in a macabre contest about which generation worried more. But it presents an opportunity to share experiences, a potential guide on how to talk to our children. My parents’ generation, as children, hunkered down in bomb shelters for drills. Today’s children — whether urban, suburban or rural — practice lockdown drills in case a shooter ever storms a school toting a weapon. The intergenerational commonalities are uncertainty and cruelty. Not to mention these worries are on top of other stresses children face, such as peer pressure, bullying or gendered norms. Regular childhood drama may seem trivial now, but back then I remember that a friend not speaking to me felt as dire as the Cold War.

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Every household decides what’s too much or too little for their children to manage. But I do want to emphasize that childhood anxieties aren’t new. Nerve-racking current events aren’t either. Sharing stories with our children might allow for shared comfort. Because all of us parents were once children. 

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.

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