Age of innocence ends too soon for today's child


The little boy in our house built an Olympic Village out of Lego blocks, then looked up for assurance that the real Olympic Village, the one in Atlanta, was far away. He only asked, of course, after news of the bomb in Centennial Olympic Park.

We couldn't protect him from that. He has been watching the Olympics -- his favorite event seems to be the Whoopi Goldberg commercial for MCI -- since the opening ceremonies. He likes the fast swimmers, the incredible gymnasts, the astonishing sprint cyclists. He thinks Gail Devers' fingernails are cool. His Lego Olympics includes a soccer field, a volleyball court, a pole vault arena, an equestrian course.

But Saturday, in the midst of all this charming play, came the request for assurance that the Olympics are too far away to hurt him.

Other questions: What is shrapnel? Why was that man on television holding up a nail? Was that blood under that lady's chin? What's a terrorist?

This is the part of parenthood about which we had not been warned: Your 6-year-old will want to know what a terrorist is.

I know what you're thinking: This kind of thing happens in the global village that is television. Baby Boomers should know that. We were kids when John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, and when Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. If you were born in 1962, you were about 6 years old, my son's age, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And through all those years, the war in Vietnam burned a hole in the soul of our country. We've all been there.

So, Baby Boomers should be hip to the trauma of nationally televised tragedies, and fully prepared to walk our kids through them, right? We should be willing to answer their questions and smother their fears.

The problem is, it never seems to end -- and, in the Information Age, the questions pile up earlier and more often in an American child's life.

Last year, when Nicholas had not yet turned 5, he asked me why that big building had been ripped apart, how far away Oklahoma City was, and why that fireman was holding a baby.

Less than two weeks ago, he wanted to know what the man on the radio meant when he said a passenger jet had exploded.

We had been driving early in the day on the interstate, and were approaching New York City just after rush hour. We hadn't listened to the news. Nicholas and his little sister had just heard their "Toy Story" travel tape for the umpteenth time. Enough. We rTC turned the radio on, and immediately caught an angry Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, complaining that TWA had incompetently handled the process of notifying next of kin. Next of kin? Of whom? And, within a minute or so, we knew. And then the questions came from the back seat:

Why did someone bomb a plane? We're not going to fly, are we? How far away is Long Island?

So, we answer, choosing words carefully, keeping explanations simple and assurances firm -- though we know Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Long Island are not really "far away" -- until the questions stop coming.

Until they come again.

The other day, a young colleague complained that I didn't pay more attention to the early evening news shows on local TV. What I wanted to tell her was this: I try not to have the 5 or 6 o'clock news on in my house, not with children present. Better they watch, if they watch anything, "Bill Nye the Science Guy," "Wishbone," "The Magic School Bus," or "Kratts' Creatures." For now -- just for now -- I don't want them to know about drive-by killings and the horrors that visit children less fortunate and more vulnerable than them (such as 2-year-old Aja Nicolas, shot in the head in Northeast Baltimore Friday night.) One of the toughest parts of parenthood today is providing your children a childhood, free of the angry noise of the modern world.

They get plenty.

There are days when the news comes blasting in on them -- as when they are stuck in their parents' car and the man on the radio says "bodies" and "explosion" and "terrorist." Or maybe they're primed to watch the semifinals of beach volleyball and instead they see videotape of ambulances and bleeding people. That's when the barriers we build to protect our children -- to extend their age of innocence -- come crashing down. Before you can grab the remote and change the channel, something sinister and frightening rings in a child's ear.

And it's not always the news that barges in.

Saturday night, for example, in another of those overwrought videos NBC has been using to set up its coverage of Olympic events, someone aimed a starter pistol at us. One of the American sprinters had likened himself to a bullet out of a gun -- a metaphor that has lost its charm in an age of off-the-charts homicide rates (196 so far this year in Baltimore) and gunfire on American streets. Still, on the way to showing us the men's 100 meter final, NBC gave us a look down the barrel of a handgun and then fired it into our faces. Which made me regret not sending the little boy in my house to bed a lot sooner.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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