I can still see the burning sky, the devastation, the perfectly formed mushroom cloud. My long-ago terror feels palpably current. No, I wasn’t in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I am remembering a dream, one of many atom bomb nightmares, from a 1950’s childhood rife with fears of nuclear war.
I’m not alone in my memories. While baby boomers may laugh derisively at the memory of crouching under wooden desks during “Duck and Cover” drills, the fears these futile exercises engendered were no joke. We worried about how far we lived from likely targets. We knew about bomb shelters and wondered why our families didn’t build one – and we hoped that some generous neighbor with more foresight than our parents would make room for us.
Inevitably, even very young children encounter society’s dominant attitudes, fears, and preoccupations. Kids overhear grownups talking, are exposed to soundbites, or see video clips. They watch the news, or hear it as background while they play. If children aren’t exposed at home, they pick up the scarier headlines from friends. Research tells us that preschoolers absorb prevailing attitudes about many things, including about race. When my daughter was six, she came home from school and whispered, “I heard something bad about Bill Clinton. I heard he sexually harassed someone, and she wasn’t his wife!” I’ve never forgiven Clinton for inadvertently forcing me to explain sexual harassment—and later, oral sex—to my very young daughter in the context of the presidency.
By the 1980s, all over the world, researchers documented children’s fears of nuclear devastation. The fall of the Soviet Union may not have ended the threat of nuclear war, but for better or worse, mushroom clouds no longer dominated the zeitgeist. These days, the children in my life worry about climate change, terrorism, racism, and random mass murders. They practice lock down drills in school. They’re grappling with many frightening things, and I’ve been thankful that nuclear nightmares were not among them. Until now. Since he dialed back some of the apocalyptic bombast, and the headlines shifted to violence in Charlottesville, flooding in Houston, and on to the next crisis, perhaps the kids escaped the fallout from Donald Trump’s threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” But neither he, nor we, are likely to be done with it. After all, the Pentagon is “upgrading” our nuclear arsenal. It’s painful to think that once again, and through no fault of their own, kids will be forced to confront the possibility that we really could blow ourselves up.
I’ve worked with children all my life, helping them cope with difficult challenges such as abuse, racism, or living with HIV. I’ve talked with kids about all sorts of problems and I know something about how to comfort them. But reassuring kids about nuclear war seems daunting—especially now that we’ve elected a Commander in Chief known for his lack of impulse control. And North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un—whose actions prompted Trump’s threat—is not the calmest, most rational person either. North Korea now claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb. Can we really say with confidence that cooler heads will prevail?
Although we can’t—and shouldn’t–-dismiss children’s fears as nonsense, here’s what we can do. We can channel the late Fred Rogers who, after the World Trade Center attacks, encouraged children to, “Look for the helpers.” We can tell them, truthfully, that most people all over the world want to prevent nuclear war. We can tell them that despite the president’s rhetoric, people in our own government and in the governments of other countries are working to prevent it. We can tell them we love them, and that they can always come to us with their fears. And we can protest. We can march, sing, create art, vote, sign petitions, donate, post and share, send emails, and make phone calls. Let’s make sure that that our children can take comfort in knowing that, in the face of power run amok, we’re standing up--not just for them, but for children everywhere.