How much do I tell my chil­dren about my wor­ries?

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - JO­CE­LYN WIENER

The night­mare al­ways ended the same way: I knelt in the back­yard at night, try­ing to hide my three younger broth­ers in the sand­box while Nazis searched our house.

What saved us, ev­ery time, was me wak­ing up.

As a Jewish girl grow­ing up in Sil­i­con Val­ley in the 1980s, my life mainly re­volved around Care Bear stick­ers and swim lessons and chap­ter books fea­tur­ing Ra­mona Quimby. But at Sun­day school, I watched grainy black-and-white videos show­ing piles of ema­ci­ated corpses in the Nazi death camps. By night, the hor­ror felt real.

That night­mare plagued me as a child. As an adult, I’d for­got­ten it.

The other night, I was snug­gling with my 4-year-old daugh­ter in my child­hood bed­room, stroking her hair as she fell asleep. Sud­denly, a ter­ri­fy­ing image popped into my mind: the sand­box.

I lay frozen in the dark, lis­ten­ing to my daugh­ter breathe. Decades had passed since the dream last sur­faced. In ret­ro­spect, its re­cur­rence right now is per­haps not sur­pris­ing, what with refugee bans and burn­ing mosques, threats on Jewish com­mu­nity cen­tres, and In­ter­net trolls mark­ing pictures of Jewish jour­nal­ists with Stars of David and bul­let holes.

Ever since my chil­dren be­gan to un­der­stand lan­guage, and es­pe­cially in re­cent months, I have wres­tled with how hon­est I should be with them. Should I tell them about the is­sues that worry me — about xeno­pho­bia and hate crimes and global warm­ing? Should I con­fide my fears for our coun­try? Would such can­dour build char­ac­ter, or anx­i­ety?

I grew up lis­ten­ing to my grand­fa­ther re­count sto­ries of es­cap­ing the Nazis. As a Jewish jour­nal­ist in Aus­tria in the 1930s, he’d crit­i­cized Hitler’s regime. Then Hitler an­nexed Aus­tria in 1938, and my grand­fa­ther was im­pris­oned for sev­eral months. The guards some­times blind­folded him and the other pris­on­ers, he told me, then fired shots over their heads.

Af­ter some­how flee­ing the coun­try, he wrote to any­one in Amer­ica who shared his last name. A taxi driver he didn’t know signed pa­pers that al­lowed him to im­mi­grate to New York City in late 1938. Of more than 60 mem­bers of his fam­ily, six sur­vived the Holo­caust.

Hear­ing these sto­ries as a young child shaped my nascent so­cial con­science. They grounded me in his­tory. And fed my night­mares.

My daugh­ter went through a phase a few months ago where she was afraid of ev­ery­thing. She came home from preschool each day with a new fear. Mommy, she would an­nounce, to­day I’m wor­ried about sharks. To­day I’m wor­ried about croc­o­diles. To­day I’m wor­ried about bears.

My job, each day, was to re­as­sure her. The sharks are in the ocean. The croc­o­diles are in the swamps. The bears are in the woods. And Mommy is here. And ev­ery­thing will be OK.

I did not qual­ify my as­sur­ances, ex­cept silently. What good would it do for me to add that she would one day swim in the sea, or walk in the woods, or stand at the edge of a swamp? That ev­ery­thing would prob­a­bly be OK then, too. Prob­a­bly. Hope­fully. But not def­i­nitely.

A cou­ple years be­fore, on the day the chil­dren of New­town were mur­dered, I sat in the rock­ing chair, kiss­ing my baby’s bald head, sick­ened and fear­ful at the im­pos­si­bil­ity of keep­ing her safe. And yet ev­ery day since, I have made prom­ises to my chil­dren that I know I can’t guar­an­tee. That good­ness will pre­vail. That I will al­ways come home to them. That they needn’t be afraid of the dark.

These are the lies we tell our chil­dren, not be­cause they are the only things we can tell them, but be­cause they are the only things we can tell our­selves. If our chil­dren are lucky — and mine have been priv­i­leged enough to be very lucky — the adults in their lives can keep them co­cooned for a lit­tle while against the scari­est truths. For a lit­tle while, we can keep the night­mares at bay. But not for­ever.

I have not told my chil­dren that I am afraid. They are 4 and 2. I know my fear would frighten them. But, some­day soon, I plan to ex­plain to them that it is OK to be fright­ened, so long as you can re­spond to fear with courage and rea­son and com­pas­sion. I will tell them about our own his­tory, about the shots fired in an Aus­trian prison and about the stranger who signed a pa­per that res­cued my grand­fa­ther, and thereby res­cued all of us.

And then, if I can find the right words, I will try to ex­plain to them the les­son I learned as a lit­tle girl: to save your life when the night­mare comes, you must wake up.

Ever since my chil­dren be­gan to un­der­stand lan­guage, and es­pe­cially in re­cent months, I have wres­tled with how hon­est I should be with them.

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