Yesterday I picked up my son from a play date to discover that he had spent much of it “playing ISIS” with his classmate. Last night, he had trouble falling asleep because his mind kept wandering to these anxieties. Almost a full week has passed since the Paris attacks and, as much as we, as parents, are trying to move forward and proceed as if nothing has changed, something has.
It pains me most to see it in the fearful eyes of my nine-year-old son. Every day after school this week, he asked if the “last bad guy” had finally been caught. He sighed with relief yesterday when we were finally able to tell him yes.
Even before the Paris attacks, my son worried about ISIS despite our having spared our kids of all televised images of the news. Inevitably, stories creep out at school from children whose parents aren’t being as vigilant, leaving my son worried, and often shuffling home from school with his head held low.
An avid reader, my son absorbs news nuggets when his eyes glance upon Italian newspapers’ headlines whenever he is using his allowance to buy soccer cards or “Paperino” at the local newspaper stand.
I’ve spent the week trying to placate his nerves and assure him that opinions expressed by classmates about a potential terrorist attack on Rome are not facts. But I still feel challenged by how we, as parents, can explain such atrocities when we don’t even understand them ourselves.
I admire the way France is handling this very issue with its children. My nieces, who live in Paris, subscribe to a newspaper for children called “Le Petit Quotidien” which explains major news items in simplistic language. It’s a kiddie version of “The Week,” and rarely longer than four pages. This week, an 8-page spread was published that attempts to answer the numerous questions children are asking about the Paris attacks. In a New York Times interview, Francoise Dufour, editor-in-chief of “Le Petit Quotidien,” expresses his belief that children should be told the truth rather than protected from it, reminding parents that their children “don’t live on Mars…They live in the same world as we do.” A short video on the NYT website shows the creative process used to create the supplement:
In a week overflowing with images of hate, I have tried to focus on compassion and forgiveness – but I have struggled. Every morning this week, as I have walked my dog around the Villa Borghese, I’ve been listening to a National Public Radio program called “Just a Little Nicer” which highlights a handful of Ted Talks addressing the concept of compassion. It has cheered me up, and helped me focus on trying to show my children how being just the slightest bit nicer to each other and to others can make them feel better about themselves and the world we live in today.
In every way that my son is aware of the headlines, my six-year-old daughter is, fortunately, not. She is blissful in her bubble. Yet one of my challenges with my timid yet determined daughter is her inability to greet people – from family members to strangers – with a hello or goodbye. It’s not that she’s not polite enough for my standards when she says hello or goodbye. It’s that she just doesn’t greet people at all. More often than not, her behavior comes across as rude. Many are forgiving and mumble politely, “Oh, she must be tired” or “Isn’t she a shy one.” All this enrages her even more so she bottles up and peels away from introductory or farewell moments like a disgruntled diva.
But this morning, something happened that reflected a shift in her behavior. Every morning, my son, my daughter and I walk past the neighborhood gas pump on our way to the garage, and we always find its one employee, Ennio, in his late sixties, either tending to his flower bed or sweeping the morning’s collection of fallen leaves if he’s not pumping gas for customers. He takes great pride in his flowers, his cactus, and his verdant bushes that line the borders of his small gas station, and I always tell him how much I admire his green thumb in front of the children. I often ask him his advice on plants that I should plant in my shaded garden. The children often remark that they are impressed how he shows up for work every day, stands outside all day in sometimes challenging weather conditions, always smiles at them, and greets them with a warm “Buongiorno.”
For months, my daughter has never responded to him, despite his grandfatherly efforts to pull her out of her shell. Yet he keeps at her, and teases her with his morning greeting, daring her to reply. He hasn’t given up, he’s never judged her, and he has remained patient, loving, and generous in his affection for us every morning. I tell the children that he embodies kindness.
Yesterday, my daughter trailed behind my son and me, as we sprinted past Ennio, deep in a morning conversation about homework. We were looking down, and hadn’t paused to say hello to our friend.
But, from behind, in her stentorian six-year-old voice, I heard my daughter belt a confident, “BUONGIORNO!” to our neighborhood friend, as she had decided to compensate for our having been distracted. Stunned, I turned around, and saw her smiling at him, and he at her. It occurred to me then that she gets it, but she chooses to be compassionate on her own clock. And she’s not alone in behaving like this. I know forty-year-olds just like her.
It reminded me of a moment in New York City that I experienced when I used to live and work there after college. On my way home from work one day, the homeless man I used to see every morning and afternoon begged me once again for some spare change. Instead of money, I offered him a peanut butter sandwich I had in my bag. When he gathered the fixings of the sandwich, he refused it, and exclaimed, “Whatcha trying to do, kill me?”
Sometimes compassion can backfire, but, for the most part, it has gotten me through hard patches, with the hope that being kind to others breeds less hate and resentment in the world.
One video circulating the Internet this week captures a child being interviewed on television in the arms of his father as he grasps to understand the aftermath of the tragedy. The young toddler tells his father that the “bad guys” had guns; his father tells him we will fight them with flowers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nonhVIxNA_I
The photograph I have posted here is of Sofia giving a flower to a stranger whom we encountered at a monastery outside of Jerusalem three years ago. I’ll never forget the joy on the face of the elderly man when he received this compassionate token from a child – and the joy it brought my daughter to deliver it to him.
It has been a week in which I’ve tried to focus on the simpler things in life that cost us little but empower us emotionally. Whether it was watching my daughter’s beaming smile when she realized she had the playground all to herself or hearing my son’s infectious giggle when I tickled him after bath time – I’ll take what I get to help me sleep better at night, hopeful that soon enough, both of my children will too.