What Shall We Tell the Children?

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:43:00 AM

The most famous words spoken about the Great Depression, by Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, were these: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” They have become a mantra invoked in many situations where there’s a lot more than fear to fear, where real dangers are confronting people who must nonetheless act unafraid. 

This week we saw two gripping dramatic representations of coping with genuine fear of real danger. Both have been reviewed in these pages as theatrical events, but the questions they raise transcend the context presented on stage. 

Dark River, a new opera by Mary Watkins, focuses on the role of Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman with little education and modest resources, in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 to push for voting rights for African-Americans. It starts with a chilling ballet enacting the 1950s murder of the young Black Emmett Till for the supposed crime of whistling at a white woman. Seven Jewish Children: a Play for Gaza, by Caryl Churchill, also opens with a shocker, a tense conversation about family members disappearing during the Holocaust. Both works go on to explore how the communities involved have been able to deal with their fears. 

Both move through time in a series of blackout vignettes. The Churchill play, just 10 or 20 minutes long, uses a very effective device to do this, the actors’ repeated alternation of “Tell her about…” and “Don’t tell her about…” referring to an always off-stage child who will learn how to view the world from the stories adults tell her. The action turns on their disputes about what to say and how to say it. The final injunction, repeated frequently: “Don’t frighten her!” 

That’s the crux of the matter examined in both plays: in a world full of pain and evil, what do we tell the kids? Both shed light on the specific historic situations presented on stage, but also raise questions bigger than the dramas that audiences of these two productions see enacted before them.  

An African-American mother who saw Seven Jewish Children spoke about wondering how she should tell her kindergarten child about slavery without frightening him. Many of our children and grandchildren are simultaneously descended from slaves and slaveholders, abolitionists and do-nothing bystanders—how can we explain their heritage to them? 

And there are many more thorny problems to grapple with. How can we talk to our daughters and sons about the relationships between the sexes? Not only about the evils of Capital S Sexism, but about the myriad ways the sexual impulse can either be celebrated or abused.  

What do we tell them about the recent news of horrendous events at a high school in Richmond? We don’t want our daughters to be irrationally afraid, but we need to warn them to stay out of dark alleys and away from boys who are drinking.  

Or about drugs of all kinds? A beer, a glass of wine, even occasional marijuana, fine, sure, but how to explain what happened to the adults all Berkeley kids know who are being destroyed by too much of these? And how do we caution young people to avoid seriously dangerous substances like crack or meth?  

On health? Should we tell the kids to wash their hands, but not to skip birthday parties or feeding the goats at the children’s zoo because of fear of germs? 

Do we caution a young daughter to get frequent mammograms, or should we tell her that worrying about getting cancer should be rationally connected to the probability of doing so?  

Don’t frighten her.  

At a recent meeting of the North-East Berkeley Association, a councilmember who represents the high Berkeley hills said that her constituents were afraid to go downtown. Is that a statement about the downtown or a statement about her constituents or a little of both? Many have chosen to live a suburban lifestyle in the hills because they’re afraid of the city and everything city life implies, but many people live in the flats, and only a few of these live in fear most of the time. 

Fear is everywhere. It’s what people make of their fears that counts. 

In Dark River we see Black people in Mississippi experimenting with violence and with self-segregation as ways of dealing with their fears. The life of Fannie Lou Hamer is celebrated in the opera because she managed to rise above these temptations and look toward a future when, most of the time, even in Mississippi, the right to vote would be secured for everyone without bloodshed. 

The Churchill play is more about questions, less about answers, but it too suggests that fear can create a temptation to become like the people one fears. The un-named characters in the last scenes seem to be in Israel, and seem to be inclined to choose violence to allay their fears, but doors are left open for other solutions.  

The tenor of the lives of future generations—our own children and grandchildren and others—will be determined in large part by what we do and don’t tell them to be afraid of. How is it possible to inform and warn them without frightening them?  

In the last analysis, it’s all about choice. It’s not realistic to expect to have a life free of fear, but it’s important not to let fears dominate and control life. As the two productions illustrate, it’s always been a challenge to achieve the right balance, and it probably always will be.