What should my kids be afraid of?
Well, last weekend a rainstorm caused huge branches to fall from trees in my neighbourhood, which could have easily crushed one of them. And one person was killed in the Eaton Centre, a downtown mall not far from our house, after someone opened fire in the food court. My 12-year-old could have been in that food court.
I could insist that my kids never leave the house, that we live our lives around the kitchen table, that I home school them. But since that's unrealistic, and not my idea of living, what do I tell them about safety? About where they should and shouldn’t go? About protecting themselves?
This weekend, for the first time in the decades that I’ve lived downtown, I asked myself out loud why I live here. I contemplated moving, but only for an instant. It was a knee-jerk reaction. I don't want to live anywhere else. My neighbourhood is vibrant, quirky and diverse. After thousands of ventures into the funky Kensington Market, I still love the ragtag collection of grocers, skateboards, street art, vintage clothes and empanadas it offers.
I've always embraced the fact that the neigh bourhood is a little rough around the edges. When my son was 18-months old, I was walking him early one morning when a homeless man leaned into the stroller and growled “You want a smoke?” then went on his way. I was startled, then I laughed. My choice to live right downtown means my children understand that our neighbours include vulnerable people.
For the most part, I don’t worry. I believe there’s safety in numbers – that waiting for a bus on a dark empty street is more dangerous than a bustling one, even if it includes drug deals, prostitution or drunken outbursts. There has been the odd shooting nearby over the years, but never when my 12-year-old was wandering around out there. That he is now navigating the neighbourhood adult-free caused an irrational change of heart, albeit briefly.
It's delusional to think that shootings couldn’t happen at any corner or in any mall, urban or suburban – and yet, the moment I heard the news, I felt scared about living here. I talked to my son only briefly about what happened. I didn’t want to belabour it, and I certainly didn’t want to instill fears about things that are statistically unlikely.
I don’t want my children walking around afraid, particularly when there’s nothing they can do about the things they are frightened of. I want them to be bold and confident. It’s far more worrisome to me that my kids could be hit by a car, or get into one with a drunk or stoned driver. I can teach them road safety – look both ways, don’t jaywalk or ride your bike on the sidewalk. I can try to teach them good judgment. I can tell them to call and I’ll come to get them any time of night.
What useful preventive strategies or fears could I equip them with to protect them from what happened this weekend? None. I’m not fatalistic or unconcerned about gun violence in my city. But just being fearful won't address the problem.
Is fear useful for anything? My gut reaction was yes, but then I realized teaching fear is easily confused with teaching caution, or healthy respect – tools they can actually utilize.
Should I teach my kids to be frightened of random people on the street? People who look suspicious? How would I even define that? Would those fears be helpful in negotiating the quagmire of growing freedoms and choices? Maybe when it comes to something like using drugs, a bit of fear might make them hesitate. But I'd prefer them to be educated about the risks. Fear offers few skills for facing danger. Mostly, it leads to prejudice, hatred and more fear.
So I’ll worry when they go out, be relieved when they get back, and try as much as possible, to keep my free-range anxieties to myself.
Aviva Rubin is a Toronto-based writer with two children, ages 9 and 12. She blogs at nothinginmoderation.ca.