By Rachel Pieh Jones
The line in movies, books, and television shows that drives me most crazy is when a parent says to a child, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” There are variations on this theme:
“Everything will be fine.”
“You aren’t going to die.” (or daddy or mommy isn’t going to die)
“You will be safe.”
“I promise, nothing will go wrong.”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” is what I want to say in response.
I hope real life parents are wiser and more forthright than fictional parents but I can’t be certain. Real life parents might not verbalize these kinds of promises, but many do everything they possibly can to provide the illusion that nothing harmful will ever happen to themselves or their children. I think this is dangerous.
The world is not a safe place. Whether a child is on the slide at the playground in suburban Minneapolis or a child is at the grocery store in a country like Somalia, there can be no guarantees. Pretending like there are, pretending like a child will never get splinter (and the parents will sue the city park and recreation board if he does!) or that a child will never experience illness, violence, grief, pain, or loss is dangerous and deceitful.
May 24th there was a suicide attack at a restaurant in Djibouti, where I live. This was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in Djibouti. Ever. School was cancelled the next day and police checks popped up all over the city. People were on edge, nervous, scared. When school did reopen, there were armed guards, concrete barriers, searches at the door, restrictions on parents entering, limited parking.
I did not tell my 8-year old daughter everything was going to be fine. I didn’t promise her that I would always keep her safe. I didn’t pretend like nothing happened, like nothing had changed. I didn’t simplify the horror (though I didn’t show her the gruesome photos online). I named the name of the terror group who had taken responsibility. I named the name of the restaurant, which was on a street she knows well. I told her what they did and who died.
I didn’t promise to keep her safe because I can’t guarantee that and God forbid, if something should happen, I don’t want her to think that Mommy and Daddy failed or lied or simply didn’t try hard enough. I don’t want her to believe that I am in control, that I’m a god-like mother. I don’t want her courage and her choices and her reactions to be built on the faulty foundation of an illusion of security or invincibility.
I want her courage, choices, and reactions to be built on the confidence that no matter what happens, we love her. No matter what happens we will do everything possible to keep our family safe, protected, healed. But I am not in control of drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, bullies. And, we are people of faith. I believe that no matter what happens, there is a plan in place and it is a plan that has our ultimate good in mind. If our efforts at keeping safe, protected, and healed don’t work, my children need to be able to fall back on something unshakeable, not a foolish promise I could never possibly keep.
The world is scary and anything horrible could happen at any moment but we will not live in fear. If I promised nothing bad would ever happen to my children, and if I wanted to not be a liar, I and my children would be forced into a world cut off from relationships, travel, nature, sports, aging, service, work, all the things that make life beautiful and true and connected.
Some people might look at the choices we have made as a family and conclude that we don’t care about safety, that we take foolish risks, that we not only don’t promise safety but that we lead our children directly into danger. We live in the Horn of Africa and travel to Somalia. Two of our children are at boarding school in Kenya.
I care about safety. I pray every day, sometimes through tears, for the protection of my family and I battle fear, nightmares of what-if tragedies, and anxiety. But safety is not my highest aim for my children. If it were, I would lock them behind a white picket fence and throw away the key.
I want my children to be brave, engaged, compassionate, aware of the world, open to diversity and challenge. I want them to know that a life working for justice, serving the oppressed or downtrodden, fighting to create beauty requires faith and courage and that these practical goals and these character traits trump the need for personal safety.
I want my family to be safe but I will not promise it. My promise to my kids is that their father and I will do our best to make wise decisions, that we will pray for protection, that we will work toward a safer and more peaceful world, and that no matter what happens, we will walk through the valley of darkness, when it inevitably comes, together.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.