What About the Kids? Conversations on Parenting in Dark Times

For many of us, it is insanely difficult to wrap our hearts and minds around the prospects which lie ahead for humanity. The list of potential calamities is long and varied, and the scenarios that rise to the top of the ‘most probable today’ column shift all the time. Are we looking at full-blown nuclear war, or will it ‘just’ be Fukushima cesium making its way into our food and water? Could it be rising acidified oceans, unpredictable weather fueled by hotter seas, or maybe a methane ‘burp’ that leads to an abrupt end to agriculture?  And then, even if we somehow evade all of these and manage to survive, what about the social and political chaos that is being fomented by right-wing ‘populists’ around the globe?  What will happen when climate refugees are either: a. us, or, b. camping in large numbers in our backyards?  Where will water come from? Food?  Security of any sort seems less than certain looking into the decade ahead.

It is entirely possible that things will unfold in a manner none of us can foresee and if that happens, then we will have to be nimble and respond accordingly. No guarantees, no promises. We are in uncharted waters and not only is there no easy answer for the collective, but we must all find our own way, both in this limbo time, when for many of us, things continue pretty much as before, and in the years ahead, as the status quo collapses.

This time becomes exponentially more difficult for those who have children and grandchildren, those who love individual kids and hold them close in their lives. It is one thing to contemplate the breakdown of natural and social structures known throughout our lives, to allow oneself to consider—and to grieve—the destruction of so much of the planet and those, human and not, who have made it their home. It is another thing altogether to feel into the suffering, the loss and the violation of hopes and dreams that likely await many children, those who have yet to really begin to live their lives.

I speak here of the children of privilege. Clearly, there are already too many children on this planet-of-plenty whose hopes and dreams are limited to the modest wish for a bowl of millet, the continued well-being of a single parent, the departure of the ominous droning overhead. But in various parts of the developed world, there are children whose lives appear untainted by the shadows that are beginning to loom over all of us, acknowledged or not. Many parents (as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents—including the honorary sort), are loathe to look at our global circumstances head-on simply because they cannot bear to confront what the current reality bodes for the little ones, the innocents, whom they love and cherish.

Writing about our prospects of survival as a species has invited correspondence with many deeply thoughtful and loving people; one of the most impossible and important questions I have been posed is “How do I raise my kids knowing what I know about the future of our planet?” Obviously, teaching your child to recycle and pick up litter isn’t enough anymore. Some parents wonder if there is anything concrete to do—shall we buy rural land, rain-collection barrels and a goat? There are those who have the luxury to consider such a course; others are where they are and will stay there to weather the storms or perish in them. But as awareness of our plight reaches consciousness, all adults who love ‘their’ children struggle to understand how to hold the information they have, what to share and how to share it in a way that both protects and prepares the children for an unknowable future. How much is too much to tell your joyful six-year old? What do you say to the twelve-year old, exuberant with enthusiasm for life, planning for college and career and family?  How do you prod the eighteen-year old, who reads the news and ponders apocalypse, to finish his college application or résumé?  Do you even try?

There are no pat answers. We have never been here, precisely, before. Yes, we can look back in history for ideas and we can consult students of the mind and spirit for guidance.  But ultimately, I believe that the best way to discern a path through this time, to hold your child’s hand lovingly in your own while the ride gets wilder and wilder, is to bring the conversation out of the dark and put it on the table where we may all contribute. There is deep and totally understandable fear abounding, and fear often begets denial. Our denial, however, does our kids a great disservice. No matter how painful it is for us to look at the facts, we owe our children at least that much courage. Remember, young kids ‘read’ feelings. Our words, no matter how reassuring, mean nothing if what we broadcast from our hearts is out of alignment. Talking with one another, as adults, about the challenge of how to raise our kids on the brink of planetary collapse is urgent and imperative. Sharing ideas, feelings, experiences and strategies invites creativity and innovation, both of which we sorely need if we are to do our very best by our children.

In order to invite discussion, I will offer a few thoughts that are currently guiding my parenting.  I hope they can be seen and used as a jumping off point, a catalyst to consider your own values and how you might best weave them into what is quite possibly the most potent and important relationship you are likely to have with another human being.

Before I dive into particulars, I want to note a couple of overarching principles. They may seem obvious and simplistic, but they are also foundational, so please bear with me. First of all, everything is dependent on the child in question—who they are temperamentally, how old and how mature, what their strengths are and where they find support, what and whom they love and treasure. You know your child better than anyone else and if there was ever a time when our kids needed to be deeply seen for and as themselves, it is now.

Secondly, the surrounding circumstances are paramount to how you approach your child.  If you live in California as I do, you teach your children to take short showers, and to learn to love parched golden-brown lawns. You may use public transportation or limit unnecessary driving. But for the average fourth-grader in this part of the world whose parents have legal status, the sky isn’t falling. Yet. If you lived with your family in Fukushima Prefecture, or you and your kids were recently displaced by flooding and mudslides in Colombia, you are likely facing something more complex in terms of the narrative you share. The point is that we will all be facing more difficult times, and as the adults, we must gauge our parenting to the current circumstances as well as to the individual child.

Finally, a great deal depends on how you view this time.  Is it catastrophe or opportunity?  Can you find ways to authentically and honestly embrace the challenges and the gifts of the changes that are fast approaching?  You set the tone for your children. With that in mind, here are a few of the tenets that I lean on to help me find my way:

#1. Know yourself and your own feelings.  Seek out your own responses to the global crises. Whatever we deny or repress in ourselves will tend to create a stiltedness, which can in turn inspire worry in our kids. There is no right way to feel—ever–but knowing your own feelings means you are better prepared to both talk and listen authentically to your children.

#2. Never lie.  It is about respect. (They will likely see through you, anyway.) Our children are sovereign souls who are here for reasons we cannot fully know. They may be small, or young, or naïve, and sometimes dreadfully uncooperative, but as fellow humans, they always deserve our respect. Which means: do not lie to them. Truth is nuanced, and this is at the nub of what we are exploring here: how to be honest in the most loving and responsible way possible.

#3. Never impose your personal truths.  We are likely to have strong opinions at times, and we may be very certain about what will or will not transpire in the future. It can be tempting to pass these truths on to our kids, to stand firmly in the sea of chaos, but it is important, in my view, to make sure that everything we do share is based upon the child’s interests rather than our own. Consider silence, consider waiting for questions. We are people first, parents next, and sometimes it is very difficult to see the line that separates our own needs from our kids’.  It is worth some extra vigilance in this arena.

#4. Tell your children the ‘right truth’ to the best of your ability.  While you may know how things look to you and which pieces of the puzzle are clear and thus, potentially reassuring for you, these may not be the ‘right truths’ for your child.  (I shudder at the echo of ‘alternative facts’ here, but there is a profound difference in the relationship. As parents we are in charge of vetting information and presenting it in the way it is most likely to help our kids prosper and thrive. Even now. Especially now.) Know your kids’ developmental capacities. Listen to your child’s questions and comments to hear the subtext. Ask questions before you tell them the ‘truth.’ Try to discern what it is that they are really asking for, under the words they are using. What truth can you share that meets them where they are?  Different kids, different ages, different circumstances are all going to play into the ‘right truth’ and it will change, continue to evolve as the child does, and as life does.

#5. Allow plenty of space and support for any and all reactions, including none. Let your child know that it is good for her to feel anything and everything that she does. And follow her lead. Be there if that is what she wants—a lap, a hug, a talk, a cry together, a round of teacups smashed in the back garden—but beware of prioritizing any need you might have to make it all ok.  Some kids are going to want to dance or watch a movie or play basketball. And not talk. Honor their wisdom in dealing with impossibility.

#6. Offer something to replace that which is lost.  We are not especially good at giving things up wholesale. Most smokers need gum or hard candy to replace relinquished cigarettes. When things get really bad, wherever on this planet we are living, our kids are going to lose a lot. We must do what we can to offer them something to staunch the pain of that loss. Not false assurances, not mental methadone, but something simultaneously honest and supportive. Something that helps them to stay upright, to know how deeply they are cherished. Preliminary ideas include: making lots of time and space for joyful activities together (in spite of everything); being in nature; celebrating your child aloud and often for who he is and his amazing contributions to this life with specificity; service, possibly as a family, to others whose needs are greater.

#7.  Listen and learn.  Our children carry wisdom we often overlook and discount.  It is their lives which hang in the balance; in these times it is especially critical to understand their vision, to learn what we can from them, and to honor their right to carve a path of their own design. They may, after all, save the world.

These thoughts just barely skim the surface, and don’t begin to address the incredible emotional intensity involved for parents and children alike. They are offered simply as a catalyst to broader and richer conversations. I urge anyone who feels moved: follow the thread, connect with others, contemplate your values, and consider carefully what you are going to give your kids as the world alters.

Most of us want dearly for the children we love to have a broad range of choices and a full and vibrant life. But we are embarking on a collective journey of learning about limitation. When I set myself the exercise of clearing away all the ‘stuff’ of contemporary life, the wish I am left with, what most of us want for our kids—at minimum– is to hold them close and keep them safe. Much as we long for it, this has always has been beyond a parent’s reach at some point or another. We do what we can, and we do the best we can.  Ultimately, heartbreakingly, we cannot protect them from life. But we can love them, and we can bring an ardent consciousness to our love, as well as a profound gratitude, moment to moment, for the mysterious and beautiful path we walk together as humans connected one to another, old and young, on this incredible planet, for so long as it is given to us to do so.

Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in revolution, and in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. Write her at elizabethwest@sonic.net or visit her website.

Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy im the heart of DuPont country. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.