The Kids Are All Right


While the Parkland School shooting continues to haunt our families, yet another tragedy struck a high school in Maryland this week. As parents, we agonize about keeping our children safe. We also worry about our children’s new view of the world. How can we help guide our children through these difficult times? How can we be there for them in ways which will make them stronger and not more afraid? Tikvah Wiener, the Head of School of The Idea School and a Mayberg JEIC Hakaveret Fellows, shares her powerful insights:

One funny comment I saw about the strong activism and fighting spirit of the Parkland students went something like this:

These kids have been raised on a steady diet of Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and you’re wondering why they think they can fight the adult world? They’ve been trained for this from birth.

There’s some truth in that, but the fact is that teenagers have always been awesomely astute and capable of unmasking adult hypocrisy and corruption faster than you can say The Catcher in the Rye. You can go back much farther than J.D. Salinger for proof: think of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, 14-year-olds with much more sagacity, impulse control, and desire for peace than their parental counterparts. While Verona erupts in feudal violence, Romeo and Juliet plan marriage, a symbol in literature of societal strength and continuity. It’s not they who burn down the city; it’s the unthinking adults around them.

As an educator, one who’s worked with teens my entire career, I know that though they sometimes seem fragile, they have the capacity, as we’ve seen with the Parkland students and in Shakespeare’s tragedy, to act with great strength. I think we do teens — and even younger kids — a disservice when we underestimate them.

Psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Dr. Wendy Mogul, believes strongly in letting kids fail, so they can learn from hardship. A school shooting is obviously intensely more severe than a skinned knee, but you get the picture: when kids experience tragedy, difficult events, and even simple everyday frustration, they build the fortitude they need to survive in the world. When I heard Dr. Mogul speak last year at a Covenant Foundation event, she was not only entertaining but wise. She teased us, “Come on, admit it. Your father didn’t know what grade you were in when you were growing up. Turns out, that was a good thing.” She lamented the progression from helicopter parenting — hovering over children and swooping in to save them — to Zamboni parenting — moving out in front of a child and smoothing any bumps in the road.

Children need to fall down; it’s the only way they learn to get back up again. We shouldn’t prevent negative events from happening to our children, and we shouldn’t ignore the severe tragedies — and the range of experiences in between — that children will endure. Rather, we should be there for our children — with honesty, openness, and compassion — when tough times hit. Seems obvious, but it’s not always so.

Some adults may have trouble really listening to kids when they’re grieving, angry, or distressed. Sometimes we feel as the older and supposedly wiser set that we should have answers when things go wrong and that we want to offer a world that makes sense and has meaning, even when we know that that’s often not the case and that we too are often as helpless as the babes in our care. The desire to protect our children from harm is natural, but we have to look at the long-term effects of our actions, to determine what’s best for our children now.

This point was made clearly and sharply after 9/11. I remember reading the biographies the New York Times printed, of all those who had perished. So many had had young children or had been mentors or beloved aunts, uncles, sisters, and brothers. Some mothers had still been pregnant when they’d lost their husbands. What to tell the innocent young souls who had survived?

Daniel Handler, who goes by the pseudonym Lemony Snicket and wrote the 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events, had something to say around that time. If you haven’t read his books, you can guess from the title that they’re not cheerful; the books trace the unhappy fortunes of three orphaned siblings by the name of Baudelaire. Handler wrote an op-ed in the Times for the Halloween after the Twin Towers fell. He had been asked whether we should keep telling our children scary stories, in the face of real evil.

He wrote, “My young readers are not only finding a diversion in the melodrama of the Baudelaires’ lives, but they are also finding ways of contemplating our current troubles through stories. The secret passageways, sinister reptiles and nefarious disguises in my books may seem a far cry from the real world, but when children write to me asking if Count Olaf is a terrorist, if the Baudelaires were anywhere near the World Trade Center, if the unnamed country where the books are set is in danger of being bombed, it is clear they are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us.”

He adds, “Stories like these aren’t cheerful, but they offer a truth — that real trouble cannot be erased, only endured — that is more soothing to me than any determinedly cheerful grin.”

We should remember that before Disney got ahold of them, fairy tales were dark and terrifying, helping children cope with the often scary circumstances of their lives, which at the time that the Brothers Grimm set down the tales in writing, included a Europe where one out of every third person would wind up dead from the Plague.

Perhaps we’d like to think that since the Middle Ages, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, or heck, even the 1950’s of J.D. Salinger’s famous coming-of-age novel that the world has gotten safer, better, less warlike. And it has. I don’t mean to be completely depressing and to send you scurrying under the covers for the rest of 2018. But we also know that there is still plenty of darkness to fight, evil to stop, and injustice to correct.

Our children see this. Let’s not pretend they don’t. Let’s fight with them. There’s something of Katniss, Hermione, Ron, and Harry in all of us yet.

*Correction: When sending out the newsletter containing this article, we misidentified Tikvah Wiener as a child psychologist. We regret the error.

Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a Jewish, co-ed high school opening in Tenafly, NJ in September 2018. The Idea School uses interdisciplinary, project-based learning, so students use academic knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems and create products and events that have value to them and in the real world. To learn more, visit, or watch Tikvah’s ELI Talk, Why We Need Passion-Based Learning in Jewish Education

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