I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

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.

A Baby at an American Military Camp

A Baby at an American Military Camp

scouts at camp lemonier1

When my youngest was born one of the highlights of our weeks was going to Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti. Officially, we went for chapel—English sermon, semi-familiar songs. But honestly? We went for the two hours of free, frigid air conditioning and the possibility of a quick stop at the store for American snack foods and maybe a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine.

In those days there weren’t many non-Djiboutian American kids in Djibouti, three of them were my own. Children and women in civilian attire were rarely seen at Camp Lemonier and we drew quite a bit of attention on those Sunday evenings.

For our kids, this was fantastic as it meant they left the base with pockets stuffed full with candy bars or jellybeans or Halloween candy or cans of root beer. Once as an American family was leaving, a couple of armed soldiers shouted, “wait, wait!” and shone searchlights on them. The family wondered what they had done wrong, security is tight, and waited. The soldiers ran to them and handed the kids fistfuls of candy. “We just wanted to say have a nice night,” they said.

I’ve never felt quite at ease at Camp Lemonier. Military life isn’t something I thought much about until we lived here. I don’t like guns or violence and I’m ambivalent about war. Yet the longer I live abroad, the more grateful I am for the freedoms I have in America, even while I recognize that so many other nations enjoy similar freedoms. There are a lot of bad guys out there and I don’t think they should be allowed to roam free kidnapping schoolgirls or taking Saturday afternoon mall shoppers hostage. Al-Shabaab in our region, Boko Haram further west in Nigeria, al-Qaeda to the north in Yemen.

I know military and force is sometimes necessary. But watching my children receive Butterfingers from men holding automatic rifles and dressed in full fatigues is something I don’t think I will get used to.

Sometimes I feel like we are suffering as civilians in Djibouti and that the military personnel have it easy. What a life! Air conditioning, American food, movies in an actual movie theater, Subway sandwiches, strawberries and ice cream. But what a fool I am to think that. These are trivial perks that bring momentary relief. These men and women are working far from their families and loved ones and they don’t have the time, off-base freedoms, or opportunities to engage in the local culture very often.

The things I struggle with as an expat—loneliness, culture shock, language frustration … are balanced by the deeply satisfying relationships I form, by the moments of cultural success, by the broadening of my worldview as it is stretched in relating to people so different from my background. Plus, and significantly, I have my family with me. No amount of air conditioning or ice cream could improve on these perks of the civilian expatriate life.

When Lucy was seven months old we attended an Easter service at Camp Lemonier. The chapel was filled, almost to overflowing. Lucy cried. She cried and cried. It was past bedtime, she wanted to nurse, she didn’t like that free, frigid air conditioning. I bounced and cajoled her and eventually took her outside to the chapel porch, frustrated because I wanted to be in the service and I didn’t want to have sweat pooling in my lower back while I held the only crying baby at the camp.

After the service, people poured out through the narrow doorway. One man, a particularly large soldier in full gear, approached. He had tears in his eyes and rested a broad palm against Lucy’s back.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting her cry during the service.” He got choked up and swallowed hard. “My wife just gave birth and I haven’t met our daughter yet. A baby crying is music.”

That Easter was eight years ago and I have never forgotten that man or his words. I think of him every time we go to the base, which has been less often in recent years. In a way, his few but heartfelt words have influenced my parenting.

First, he reminded me that children are a gift, that the ability to squeeze my daughter close, to be with her whether she was cooing or crying, was a treasure. His words remind me of the beauty and I hold in my memory the picture of this tough, brave soldier crying for love of his baby, thankful for the crying of my baby.

Second, he exemplified a love that crosses miles, a love that is sustained despite painful choices and the career options, or anything else, that separate families. Sometimes when people hear my children are at boarding school they say, “I love my children too much to do that.” I have an assortment of snarky responses to this but in the deep waters of my soul I know that some people understand. There is a love that knows no distance. It is heartbreaking and reduces the strongest among us to tears, but it is true and unshakeable.

Lucy and I went back to Camp Lemonier in May this year. She participated in a Girl Scouts bridging ceremony at one of the only bridges in the city—a short wooden porch outside the coffee shop, we pretended it was a bridge. Then she handed out miniature American flags, this girl who was born in Djibouti and calls herself American African.  This girl who cried at an Easter service and brought a serviceman to tears. This girl who is a gift and who has crossed miles, who is learning about love over distances—siblings at boarding school in Kenya, grandparents in Minnesota, a dad currently doing PhD research in Somalia.

I still don’t feel quite comfortable at Camp Lemonier. All that barbed wire and the ‘Deadly Force Authorized’ signs and the weaponry. But at the same time, I feel an affinity for the soldiers, especially the parents. And somehow, though we don’t know each other, it is comforts me to know that just a few miles from my home in Djibouti there are other parents who feel what I feel when reduced to Skype calls with children and the occasional visit home. Parents who live with that stabbing love that knows no distance.

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.

Photo by: Lyn Englin

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