Healing the hurts that matter

October 12, 1997|By Elise Armacost

WHEN I BECAME a parent, I murmured a promise in my baby's ear, the same one all good parents make. A pledge to keep her safe, not just in body but in mind, too. To make her world lovely and kind. To protect her from the unpleasantnesses of an imperfect universe.

In September I watched her toddle off to pre-school, out of my reach, and realized that my promise had been improperly crafted. I should not have vowed to shield her from every unpleasantness, but to learn to distinguish the ones that merit my interference -- to develop a sense of proportion about what could hurt her, and what she must learn to live with.

It is a difficult skill, and one I fear good parents are losing. Consider:

Glen Burnie's Corkran Middle School recently landed prominently in this newspaper because the principal, to discourage shenanigans, took the doors off the bathrooms. I thought at first it must be the doors on lavatory stalls that had been removed. But it was only the outer door.

Even the outrage-laced story noted that a six-foot hallway separates that door from the bathroom, and a turn from the hallway serves as a visual shield.

The bathrooms at my old high school have a similar configuration, except that they were designed without doors -- just like the restrooms at many stadiums, convention halls, rest stops and restaurants.

Nonetheless, Corkran parents and a few child advocates said doorless bathrooms could cause psychological harm and make kids feel "violated," especially girls. I didn't quite get this, since I've never seen any female tend to personal needs anywhere but inside a locked stall. Still, the story told us, kids are refusing to go until they get home.

A parent could deal with this by finding out what is so terrible about the bathrooms, then reassuring that it's not so terrible after all. Don't worry, you could say, no one can see you. Remember when we went to the Civic Center? There weren't doors there, either.

Or, you could wage war with the principal, validate in print the misgivings of what I suspect are a few children, and volunteer with other parents to patrol the bathrooms. The Corkran parents call themselves "Monitoring Our Students Together."

Really, aren't there better ways for busy parents to expend time and energy on their children?

Such overreaction -- an almost hysterical effort to create a perfect world for their children -- is characteristic of this generation of parents. Perhaps it's a function of the boomers' quest for the best of everything.

Perhaps the communications revolution has made us so acutely aware of crimes, accidents, studies that portend disaster and the drive for a competitive edge that we can't help but be ultra-sensitive to our kids' well-being. There are worse faults.

But we are raising a ruckus about some awfully silly things. Remember last year, when a Baltimore County parent succeeded in having a slightly dark but still whimsical interpretation of "Froggy Went A'Courtin' "pulled from the school library?

Even matters of real concern elicit a disproportionate response.

School redistricting is unpopular for valid reasons. But parents today behave as though no child could survive the process in one piece.

Quality education is important. However, if the trade-off between a good neighborhood public school and a private one 40 miles away involves hour-long commutes and debt-stressed parents working themselves to death, is it worth it?

An Anne Arundel County parent was right to make an issue recently of a bus driver who played a sleazy radio program with children on board. But is it necessary to spend hours hashing out an official policy on radio shows?

It's doubtful that the children of parents who care enough to complain would be irreparably damaged even if a rotten song crossed their paths.

What really bothers kids today, I am certain, are the same things that have always bothered kids -- age-old miseries that never make the agenda of a PTA meeting or the pages of a newspaper. Bullies, locker-room humiliations, lonely cafeteria lunches, thwarted crushes and parents who don't understand. Most children will grow into productive citizens, just as we did. But they will recall such troubles long after doorless bathrooms have been forgotten.

Life is not perfect. It's pointless, even cruel, to tell a child otherwise. The best we can do is channel our protective instincts toward the hurts that matter, and help our children learn to navigate the meannesses and discomforts that will be part of their world, no matter how fervent our promises to the contrary.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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