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Parenting in an Imperfect World

"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy." - Desiderata (author unknown)

A baby wakes during the night. It is dark and she is frightened. Her mother reaches over to give her a hug; she is reassured that she is safe and secure. She smiles and returns to sleep.

A toddler falls and hurts his knee. It starts to bleed, which alarms him. His father comforts him and gently washes the wound. He happily goes back to play.

A ten-year-old is saddened when her pet dies. Her grandmother consoles her and validates her feelings. She is still sad but better able to cope with her loss.

What do all of these interactions have in common? In each case, a child has been reassured that they are safe and secure; that they are loved. All children are new to our world and need constant reassurance of their safety and well-being, much as we would if we were suddenly to find ourselves on a strange planet that we knew little about.

The recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington have engendered fear in all the citizens of the free world. Naturally, our children are the most susceptible to these fears. If it is difficult for us to make sense of the reasons for such a disaster, it is virtually impossible for a child to comprehend them. What can we do to reassure our children that they are safe, when we ourselves feel so vulnerable?

If we think about the ways in which we reassure our children each day, we can see that what is needed in this situation is not really different in nature but in scope. We need to provide even more reassurance that our children are safe and secure, and let them know that there is still much that is good in the world.

Parents can tell their children of the many ways in which our government and other governments around the world are working to protect us. In a way, we are safer than ever before, as government officials and security personnel work hard to ensure our safety. We can reassure our children that the world is full of beauty and good. We have ample proof within the tragedies themselves, of innumerable heroic and humane actions by rescue workers and ordinary citizens. We can help our children to express their feelings in words and pictures.

We can remember that it is normal to have generalized fears after such a horrifying experience, and to give extra love and attention to our children for as long as it takes to help them heal. We can let them know by our words and actions that they are protected by those they have come to depend on for their safety. If we find this difficult because we ourselves feel insecure, we can at least know that we are not alone. We can seek reassurance for ourselves by sharing our fears with each other, and expressing our love for each other. We can focus on all that is good and beautiful in this world. We can remind ourselves of Kahlil Gibran's words: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

It will not be easy for any American, of any age, to heal from this trauma. But healing requires hope and reminders of all that is good in our lives. We can remind our children of the many courageous firemen who gave their lives while rescuing others, of the long lines of blood donors in every city of the country, of the ballpark restaurant workers who baked cookies for blood donors when the game was postponed, and of the outpouring of sympathy and offers of help from around the globe. We can tell our children that even tragedies can inspire acts of courage and remind all of us to cherish those we share our lives with. We can let them know that every one of the farewell messages from those trapped in the towers and on the planes included the "three little words" that we sometimes forget to tell each other. We can tell our children - and show them in our day-to-day actions - how deeply we care for them and how fiercely we would protect them if they are ever faced with danger.

Most of all, we can let our children know that life always finds a balance, that love ultimately prevails, and that we are not alone in facing these challenges. We can tell them that these attacks failed in their mission to weaken an open and trusting society, and instead have inspired bravery, love, and connection. We have learned that America is not alone in this world any more than our child is alone in our family.

The World Trade Centers were struck because they were a symbol of American prosperity. What the terrorists didn't know, and what we need to tell our children, is that America's true prosperity is not found in buildings, it is found in the hearts and minds of all who live here. Ironically, the events have jolted many into a keener appreciation for all that is good in our lives.

Like the Grinch who discovered that "Christmas doesn't come from a store", we have been reminded in no uncertain terms that if we have our lives and loved ones, we have great riches. We have been reminded to express our love for each other more often. We have learned first-hand how terrible it is for innocent people to fall victim to acts of rage. We have learned how important it is to be mindful of our children's sensibilities. We have learned that it is not just in extraordinary times, but on ordinary days as well, that when we comfort our children, we are teaching them to have faith in life's blessings.

We have seen that children can be raised to take joy in the suffering of others - or they can be raised to find peaceful solutions to conflict and dissension. Let us raise our children to take joy in the happiness of others, and in doing so, find the truest form of happiness for themselves.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.