NBC hustled a child psychologist on the air. He said to talk to the kids. USA Today followed with a story headlined, "Explaining disaster to kids." It included a survey showing that 69 percent of us had talked with our kids. The New York Times followed with its own poll. It reported that 75 percent of us had talked to our kids and that three-fifths of the kids had been talked to at their schools. No wonder the Japanese are beating the pants off of us. Our kids can't get any work done.
Almost immediately after the space shuttle Challenger blew up, national concern focused on children. What to do? They had seen it all. And if they had not seen it live, they had seen it on one of the incessant tape repeats of the explosion: it was funeral music for the eyes. In an era of media hype, this was the real thing -- a national tragedy. The event itself was breathtaking in its finality, almost biblical. There, in the heavens, seven persons -- one of them a schoolteacher -- existed one moment and were gone the next.
The experts paraded on. Psychologists and psychiatrists offered their advice. They were solemn and serious, and they hinted that if things were not done just right, your child could -- indeed would -- be picked up some years hence for burning down his school. In a Freudian age, we post sentries to keep a keen eye out for the traumatic experience. The experts shouted the alarm. Trauma was spotted advancing over the hill.
A visitor from an earlier generation would wonder why all the anxiety. Death was once commonplace, and the kids who survived, survived. You only have to go back a generation or two in any family to come across ancestors who had a dozen children, of whom only maybe three reached adulthood. Women routinely died in childbirth. Famine struck. Storms hit. Men were killed in war or at dangerous jobs, and influenza, when it came, emptied cities. Death was then very much a part of life. Still, there was poetry and music, and young men brought flowers to young women.
Why then the anxiety now? Why the sudden concern that today's children will be scarred by the death of people they don't even know? Certainly, some of the anxiety was purely personal and had nothing to do with children. Adults are the ones who are closer to death -- who live with it and who wondered what it felt like in that shuttle: Did it hurt? Did they know? Was the entire, doomed shuttle voyage just life in fast-forward -- from something to nothing in a flash? We all thought of these things.
But to be a parent is to know more than anxiety. It is to know guilt. The tragedies of yesteryear -- the deaths of children by disease and women in childbirth -- were mostly attributed to God. In any event, aside from war, they were unavoidableBut a space shuttle is a creation of man; so, too, is television. Events that once could be shielded from a child now no longer can be.
In some sense, the Challenger tragedy stood for all the ways in which television and the rest of the mass media have diminished the authority of parents, circumscribed our role, forced us to deal with unwanted issues and, in the end, made us wonder about what was being done to our children.
In a way, the anxiety over Challenger was similar to the one over child abuse. There has always been child abuse. Every neighborhood had its creep, and much of the time the kids knew him -- or her -- and so, in some vague way, did parents. But in recent years, the reality of child abuse has exploded into a national anxiety. Once again, the answer is guilt. Children get abused when their parents are not watching. They are not watching when they choose to work -- when they choose, in other words, not to be a parent. That happens to be the choice many of us have made and have to make. There are rewards -- money, fulfillment. There is also guilt. A mother with a child in child care knows the feeling.
Some will argue that the national anxiety about children that followed the Challenger explosion is proof of what most of us will not admit -- that we know the victims of contemporary American culture are our children. We worry plenty, agonize a lot, but in fact know no such thing. The kids are constantly testifying otherwise. After the tragedy, we did what the experts suggested and talked to our children. It was good advice. They calmed us down.