The tragedy of the killings in Littleton, Colo., continues to shock and deeply disturb everyone. As I speak with parents professionally and in my community, I can feel their anxiety building around the fundamental issue: How do I keep my children safe?
Inherent to the role of parenting is the protection of children from harm until the child has transitioned to an adult and therefore can protect him or herself. The task of protection is often intuitive and not consciously articulated. If a parent were cognizant of all the potential dangers a child can be exposed to in a single day, such knowledge would be simply overwhelming. Illness, accidents, kidnapping, molestation, verbal and physical assault, exposure to drugs and alcohol, sexuality, violence and criminal behavior are all possibilities. Allowing a child to ride a bicycle to a neighbor's or an adolescent to drive a car to a party is inherently dangerous. Yet both are done daily and often with little thought. More abstract issues of assuring appropriate emotional, cognitive and moral development become even more complex and ambiguous, but are just as essential.
Adding to the challenge is the need to trust schools, day-care centers, after-school programs, neighbors, baby-sitters and friends to participate in parenting while maintaining safety.
No parent can be present at all times and therefore must defer this parental role to others, whether it is allowing one's child to go by school bus to a museum or letting him or her swim in a neighbor's pool.
Another level of complexity is presented in adolescence. A parent must shift from being comprehensively protective to allowing the adolescent increasing degrees of freedom and independence to promote maturity and self-reliance.
The tragic and horrifying conclusion that the Littleton incident provokes is that, despite the best intentions, there are limitations of parental control regarding the safety of our children. Now even the most thoughtful parents question the adequacy of their parenting and protection. But what should a parent pragmatically do? Blaming the media, the Internet or the availability of guns does not bring immediate safety. For some parents, discarding the computer and television and home-schooling their children now appear to be attractive options. But such interventions would leave your children isolated and less able to cope with the dangers and challenges of the society with which they will eventually have to interact and demonstrate competence in.
Unfortunately, a meaningful answer is ambiguous and complex. While a parent cannot guarantee safety, he or she can mitigate the risks. Parents must educate themselves about the risks in the home, school and community. In settings where they cede their supervision to others, they must advocate for strategies that address safety. Such plans range from insisting that a neighbor insure that all children use seatbelts when driving them to the movies to insisting that a school develop a program for managing threatening or violent students.
Of course, what raises one's anxiety with respect to the Littleton killings is that neighbors and even police were alerted to the assailants' violent fantasies and plans, particularly in the case of 18-year-old Eric Harris. Clearly this incident challenges parents, the community, teachers and law enforcement to be more thoughtful and vigilant in communicating and advocating for safety for our children.