USA Today, September 12, 2002
Children can conquer their fears
By Bruce Kluger
I was sitting on a lawn chair in my in-laws'
backyard in Cleveland, enjoying the sun
during a brief family getaway from New York
City. I glanced over at my daughters—
Bridgette, 7, and Audrey, 3—and watched
with growing curiosity as they began playing
a game they'd just made up. First, Audrey
stood upright, legs and arms extended like a
tiny scarecrow. Then Bridgette began tracing
the outline of her little sister's body with a toy
flute, head to toe, front to back.
As peculiar as this pantomime was, I instantly
recognized what my daughters were
recreating: airport-security procedures. We'd
fascination as they watched passengers going through the now-familiar routine of
electronic body scanning.
queasy. In fact, for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, I understood that they were
going to be OK.
With this week's one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, attention is once
again focusing on the nation's children. Columnists and commentators continue to
ponder the legacy we leave them while offering up sundry prescriptions for helping
them to cope.
As a father (and an American), I'm not convinced all of this hand-wringing is
necessary. Even as we grownups pinwheel through this turbulent time, tying
ourselves into knots over how to gently escort our kids through the emotional
rubble of 9/11, children have a remarkable way of navigating their own routes to
safety, whether they're holding our hands or not.
Just look at the numbers: Of 1,100 students ages 8-18 recently polled by the Harris
Interactive marketing group, only 8% fear they will become victims of terrorism,
while a healthy 83% are confident they will live long enough to achieve their
dreams. Pretty good news, given a pretty bad year.
How have so many children maintained balance while the adults in their lives still
stumble with worry? As any parent can tell you, kids specialize in ricocheting from
the linear to the abstract, from the rational to the hysterical. When it comes to
perceiving the world around them, they operate on two levels, dutifully absorbing
their parents' concepts of "good" and "bad" and "do" and "don't" while
simultaneously conjuring their own perspectives on the images and events
Although childhood experts have recommended an endless variety of often
thoughtful, hands-on approaches to helping our kids deal with post-9/11 anxiety—
from encouraging them to talk at length about their feelings to proposing they draw
pictures of planes colliding with towers—children also need the time to confront
their fears alone. We should give them that privacy.
This is not abandonment; it's parenting. As Selma Fraiberg pointed out in her
landmark 1959 study of children, The Magic Years, kids whose parents don't permit
them to be shaken by life's bumpier passages "are deprived of an important means
for preparing for danger: anticipatory anxiety."
In other words, Fraiberg says, by allowing our children to exercise their glorious
imaginations—even if those imaginations take them down some pretty dark roads—
we may just be helping them learn to douse those fears the next time something
Case in point: As the twin towers were crumbling, my wife and I brought Bridgette
home from school early. We immediately permitted her to join the small group of
friends and family at the TV—two of whom had only an hour before fled Lower
Manhattan as the buildings burned—preferring to walk her through the images she
would undoubtedly see countless times in the days to come.
Bridgette silently stared at the wrenching replays of the air assaults on the towers
for a few minutes before wandering off to watch I Love Lucy videos in our bedroom.
Ordinarily a child who craves her parents' company, Bridgette didn't emerge for two
hours. Her message was loud and clear: "I don't like what's going on in the living
room," she was telegraphing. "I think I'll let you grownups handle this stuff."
Sure enough, during the next few weeks the questions slowly began emerging,
particularly about the safety of her mom, who works in the Empire State Building. In
the end, Bridgette achieved "closure" by absorbing the events of 9/11 in her own
way, in her own good time.
During the past year, I've watched dozens of kids adopt the same strategy in the
simple laboratory of my daughters' peer group. Five-year-old Hannah made
commemorative bracelets from blue and green threads (to represent the Earth),
then distributed them to everyone she knew; a neighborhood boy insisted his
grandfather "fell off the roof" of the World Trade Center, a completely fabricated
story he kept repeating until he got it out of his system; another boy made endless
towers of Legos, knocking them down again and again until he was nearly
Even my 3-year-old, bless her heart, found a clever, if not comical, solution to the
household tension she sensed in the weeks following 9/11. Audrey had just begun
enjoying storybooks around the time the terrorist attacks occurred. Thanks to all
the grownup chatter buzzing about her head, she somehow came to the conclusion
that Curious George and George Bush were one and the same.
Naturally, a preschooler hasn't the foggiest notion about the geopolitical state of
the world, but I'm convinced that Audrey's merging of the two Georges was no
accident. Only a child could find the comfort zone with such divine simplicity.
As we look beyond this week's anniversary and contemplate the ways we can help
our children face an uncertain future, perhaps we can take consolation in the fact
that, not so long ago, we were pretty resilient kids ourselves.
Many of us were only in grade school when the nation convulsed over the murder
of President Kennedy, yet we managed to pull through it all OK—without the help of
grief counselors or study guides or two-hour televised town meetings. Indeed, it was
only 11 weeks after the assassination that American youth found new heroes to
turn to simply by flipping on The Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday evening to watch
four lads from Liverpool strum guitars and shake their heads.
We had found our solace—someone who wanted to hold our hand.
(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)