Williams: Job Requirement Exhausting Today’s Parents? Pretending Life is Normal

After a gun threat at his children’s school, Conor Williams reflects on how much self-deception is asked of parents trying to rear secure kids.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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At first blush, it was just another Friday evening iPhone ding — probably another notification from our school about new construction requiring changes to the pickup protocols or something about school photos. Nothing urgent to see here. But as I shuffled our preschooler upstairs, there was another, and then another, until it formed a steady pizzicato of WhatsApp messages from panicked families. 

So I checked. 

Apparently some teenagers had wandered onto the Washington, D.C. campus that day and sparked an altercation with a few elementary schoolers. When it escalated and staff got involved, the older kids ran off, vowing to return the next week with a gun. My phone trilled through the weekend as families ground their gears, comparing notes on what their kindergartners were reporting at home and speculating in search of possible details. Most of all, folks seemed to be trying to figure out how they were supposed to feel about a situation this abnormal and whether it was safe to send their kids to school on Monday.

And yet, though we all marinated in collective anxiety that weekend, folks settled down fast. After all, this was just the way things are now in the United States, right? In fact, come to think of it, the school had a number of lockdowns last year because of active shooters in the area, right? And since the school was promising to ask for extra police patrols, campus might even be safer than usual, no? By Sunday night, nothing had materially changed about the situation, but folks had talked themselves out of worrying. 

In other words, they’d convinced themselves that there really wasn’t anything to see here. Just another iPhone ding, just another piece of childrearing freight for families to take aboard as the week started — like a banal, gothic footnote tacked on to the weather forecast. Ding! Families should plan extra time for dropoff on Monday morning, as there’s a chance of severe thunderstorms and a heightened likelihood of gun violence.

Yes, this situation has grown absurdly common. But that doesn’t mean that we should pretend that it’s normal. No school, no community, no family — no child — should normalize active shooter situations at schools. 

Of course, that sort of pretending is pretty much the standard national ask for today’s parents of young children: please accept that our crumbling social present is simply as good as things will ever get. To make it through the day without hyperventilating, we have to pretend that gun violence, including in and around schools, is both inevitable and acceptable. We have to pretend that widespread opting out of vaccines is a reasonable, respectable position despite the risks it causes for our children. We have to accept imaginary information about how our kids are actually doing academically despite ample evidence to the contrary. We have to accept that elected officials want to yank books with LGBTQ characters from school libraries under the guise of something they’re calling “Freedom Week.” 

And those are just the near-term fantasies forced upon us. Look down the road at the world we’re preparing for our children’s futures, and there’s so much more daily make-believe required. We have to pretend that it’s fair that most of our kids will generally need at least a B.A. to get reliable access to middle-class incomes — and that the cost of purchasing a B.A. will constantly, dramatically rise. We have to act like autocratic — and increasingly violent — threats and behavior by a former, and perhaps future, president is just part of the normal push and pull of politics. We have to accept that that would-be tyrant’s fellow partisans will almost never act to check his erratic behavior. And most of all, we have to pretend like the — increasingly unbreathable — air is normal, that our collective disregard of the climate crisis will somehow just work itself out. 

This is an exhaustive amount of cognitive dissonance to carry around, and, critically, it’s supplemental to the already substantial work of raising children. Activists, researchers, policymakers and educators who care about improving children’s opportunities and outcomes are eventually going to have to wrestle with this dismal situation. 

Parenting is, at its base, a project of hope. It requires adults to temporarily take control of a life project, their children’s, that is not, fundamentally, their own. It requires guiding kids only as much as necessary, until they’re ready to chart their own path. And above all, it involves preparing them to be honest and constructive participants in the world they share with others. But it’s hard to get there when so much of daily parenting requires self-deception. 

As I’ve written before, this dynamic goes a long way towards explaining why young Americans are cynical about their country, its politics, and its future. But maybe it also helps explain why American parents and caregivers feel so stressed out

The teenagers never followed through, as it happens. Maybe the additional police patrols deterred them that Monday. Maybe for good. Maybe just for now. But the next Thursday, there was another shooting at 3 p.m. about a half-mile from campus. It was just off the route we use to bike with our kids to school. I’d go a different way, but that would send us through a corridor that suffered a rash of shootings in the past few years. For families, there’s no escape from the country’s abnormally high levels of violence near campuses. Just this month, there was a bomb threat at both of my kids’ schools. 

Sigh. Well, I’m sure we’ll muddle through — or at least we’ll pretend like we are.

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