When I was growing up, my parents let me watch the Ed Sullivan Show before bed. I couldn’t just turn on the television whenever I wanted to. I only saw what they wanted me to see, when they wanted me to see it. And they didn’t have to worry about what I might find on the computer.
Everything is different now. Children aren’t protected from the media. They see it all: The grandmother who throws her two-year-old granddaughter from a walkway at a shopping mall. The little boy who finds a gun in his parents’ car and accidentally shoots himself. The teenage gunman who opens fire in a school cafeteria.
Our children are exposed to violence all the time. Real-life violence, not just the violence in movies and video games. But nobody is talking about that. There is a certain silence about what our children are seeing and hearing, and the impact that may have on their development. A nine-year-old might walk away from a news story about Trayvon Martin and wonder if he, too, is going to get shot to death one day if he wears a hoodie. We don’t know what really happened that night, but we know that’s how a young child may interpret it. We know that it is a tragedy. And that’s something we have to talk about: You can’t be happy living in a world where you think you can be shot down while you’re walking home with a bag of Skittles.
Why the silence? Why aren’t we—as a society, as a community—talking about the level of violence our children are exposed to and what we can do to help them process it? I hear us talking about trauma, and children who are victims of abuse and violence themselves, but what about the children sitting next to them in school? Or the children who simply hear about that violence on television or Facebook? How many children heard about the former Fairfax County police officer and his 13-year-old daughter who died this week in an apparent murder-suicide? Too many.
Why the silence? Some people are saying that Trayvon’s death is forcing a conversation about race relations. I say it should force a different conversation, a conversation around the fact that this was a child, and other children are watching. We need to look at how violent our society is and remember that our children are in the middle of it all. And that is counter to childhood happiness. Childhood happiness is about being carefree, not being in the middle of the violence. We have 20 boys living on our Bethesda campus in our Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP), and I’m going to sit down with them and ask them what they think about Trayvon. I’m not going to tell them what I think—I’m going to ask them what his death means to them. It’s time to have a conversation.