A few years back, when both my boys were still in elementary school, we were still holding the line on shows like Family Guy and various R rated films that my kids swore up and down that their friends were getting to watch. Reasons for certain kids we knew “getting” to watch certain media fare ranged from parents who seemed to want to “toughen” kids up, to lack of supervision, to children with much older siblings who had paved the way for leniency.
Still, at this point we were holding the line on violent and inappropriate media, having lost various battles such as prohibitions on toy guns, video games in general, junk food, etc. It seems that for many of us we begin the parenting journey with high ideals and then the realities of day-to-day childcare erode our positions.
And so it was that my younger son embarked on a mission to see Saving Private Ryan and I dug my trenches and built my fortifications against his plan. He assailed me with the fact that his best friend had seen it, and that it didn’t bother his friend or damage him. My kid insisted that it was an important film—an anti-war film. He heard it was very realistic, and this would help him appreciate how war it bad—and all this in the midst of nightly discussion about why America was at war in Iraq.
Over time, it seemed that my kid was getting more and more mature; his relentless desire was filling me with the counter-desire not to hear any more about wanting to see the movie. And then there is the fact that several highly inappropriate films that I saw as a child helped shape my aesthetic, and I feel positively influenced me—even if they shook me up a bit. In a world where we may well over-protect our kids from reality, I finally agreed that we could watch this forbidden war picture and it was added to the Netflix queue.
Soon I was sitting with the disc in my hand, gravely explaining how this is a movie, and although it would show very disturbing images of people being shot and blown up, it was important to keep in mind that these were actors and what we would be watching was all pretend (although it was recreating things that did in fact happen). I felt that I had prepared them for the battle of watching an intense film as well as I could, and so we hit the play button.
I had seen the movie at the theater and so I knew what was coming, but within two minutes my younger son was weeping in horror. I sat there feeling like I was in a Nazi machinegun nest strafing my own kids. In a slow motion flash I hit the stop button as fragments of things embedded into my own psyche: my sons’ tears, my wife’s face looking at me like “what on earth were you thinking?”
After weeks of build-up, it was two horrifying minutes of film, followed by at an hour and a half of processing.
Although I pretty much caused the wreck, I turned to my shrink’s knowledge of trauma (which seeing this film turned out to be) and we worked to minimize the damage by fully talking about what the kids had seen. Vicarious traumatization can occur when we see, or even here about, other people’s traumas. Talking about what we have experienced, whether directly or indirectly, helps the brain store it as memory where it is less likely to intrude into our thoughts unexpectedly. We talked about seeing a soldier picking up his own arm after it was blown off, that was pretty much the capper.
We did talk about the reality of wars past and ongoing, and the value of understanding how truly horrible it is for the generally young people who end up in them, often not having much realistic expectation about what it will be like. And so, by bedtime, both boys were fine, we had talked, cried, hugged, laughed, and watched something more fun and appropriate. I had apologized and taken responsibility for my mistake… which I also used as opportunity to explain how sometimes parents say no to things to protect kids, and not just to deny them a good time.
The kids slept just fine, and showed no ill effects while I, these years later, am still guilty and ashamed that I miscalculated so badly. And yet we all must make our mistakes—perhaps the take-away is that while we try our best not to mess up, kids are resilient and will generally come through difficult situations pretty well so long as we validate their hurts, give them space to feel their feelings, recognize where we have erred or failed to protect, in turn promise that we will keep them safe moving forward—and then follow through on that promise. In this way even a bad situation can be both a teachable moment and a growth experience.
As I write this post, I think of my “uncle” Al, our family dentist when I was growing up, the husband of one of my mom’s three best friends—“aunt” Lil (who died in her fifties after a long decline into Alzheimer’s). Al was both kind and secretly tough, a rare grown-up who treated you with straight ahead mutual respect, even back in the 60’s. I knew that he had both landed in Normandy on D-Day, and that June 6th was his very own birthday. Over the years we stayed intermittently in touch, but there was always some sort of bond between us. One D-Day anniversary, 1991 in fact, I called him to wish a happy birthday and he said that he’d been watching an old film about D-Day and suddenly found himself weeping—hard. It surprised him, as he had tried never to really think about how horrible it had all been. There was some image later in the film that he told me about, which I never personally saw in any war or in any war film which plays in my mind in grainy black and white, a scene of guys eating cake in a trench. We spoke most D-Days until last June, our final D-Day chat, as he died a few weeks later.
My mind drifts back to the fact that I originally saw Saving Private Ryan because Vin Diesel had a small role in it, and he was interested to star in an action movie I’d written (about a terrorist exposing the hypocrisy of the G-7 countries for doing deals in secret and then publicly attacking them as enemies). At lunch with some producers one young mom asked me if all the killing in the script troubled me. At that point I was not troubled, but the universe wasn’t having it (in the end even CAA was surprised that it didn’t go; it could have simply been a bad script, but my hunch was that even though this was pre 9/11, the story was too subversive, perhaps disturbingly accurate). Now I am troubled by all the comic book “action” I’d written there—and maybe even glad that no one made that film.
I think about clients I have worked with who grew up in war situations, and the devastating effects (not always recognized by kids as it is happening; sometimes they leave their bodies and psyches float in vague relationship to reality); I think of my family’s own history of pogroms and the holocaust; I think of clients who have fought in wars and the horrible scarring, the burdens, secrets and loneliness that is often carried out of the jungle, the airstrip, the battle… and the rippling effects onto children, perhaps now well into adulthood, from shut-down parents, shell-shocked and remote, only meaning to protect their kids, never understanding the post traumatic stress they think of as marks of weakness and conceal in mistaken shame.
I think about how fortunate I am to have a remote to turn off the pretend war just two minutes into it so that my children can be safe; I think about how many kids on this planet are not so fortunate, perhaps lacking parents altogether, or having parents who are caught up powerless in the horrors of the collective Shadow. Most of the readers of these words likely face ordinary parenting challenges; it serves us, and our children, to keep that in mind as we do our best with whatever’s on our parenting plates today.
So, let’s dedicate today to forgiving ourselves for our own parenting blunders—of tempers lost, issues minimized that should not have been, feelings hurt or fears evoked that could have been avoided. Let’s also be sure that we have acknowledged our blunders, have apologized to our kids and that we do whatever we need to do in order to avoid doing any more harm as we proceed forward with our parenting. If we’re not sure if there may be ways our kids have been hurt, by us or others, but about which we are unaware, perhaps it’s a good time to ask our kids directly (and not be defensive about whatever they choose to tell us). It’s good parenting to listen, validate, apologize and protect. In this way we can continue to build trust, heal wounds and make life better for all our collective children.