Holding Back the News: protection from the media, if not the world…

lego man

I had not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened… I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.  
– James Foley, on his captivity in Libya

How do we protect our young kids from the news without shutting out the world?

Is it possible an NPR head like me can hold back the news? There are plenty of things that would rock my sensitive, highly perceptive 5 year old’s world, but I know the perils.

I limit not only screen time, but exposure of all kinds. I shush Randy when he mentions crime at dinner. I turn off the news when I pick Robin up from school. I even audit our language for violent expressions. We finish the ketchup now; we no longer kill it. But can I really hold it all back?

The other day we were swinging in our neighbor’s hammock, which doubles nicely as a pirate ship. Robin was in eye patch and black hat, hanging a net over the side to catch fish.

This middle-aged mom is all for imagination games that involve sitting or lying down to participate. Pirate ship is perhaps the best, as I am comfortably prone and cloud gazing as he hauls fish, spies land, and steers. I need only blurt out rude arrrrrrs and rock us periodically to simulate stormy seas.

It was a placid, temperate summer afternoon when he blurted it out.

“I am going to cut your head off, Mom!”

A week after captured freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria.

Robin wielded a plastic sword we did not buy him. No one, in fact, bought it for him. I think it was left at our house by an adult, part of a Halloween or Renaissance Fair costume, long before Robin. At some point it migrated into his make believe kit.

I’d never buy him a toy gun. Swords, on the other hand, feel like folklore and fantasy, not front-page reality. At least, they did. I guess it is the end of innocence for us all.

Maybe I should have seen this coming. I am so shocked and horrified by these recent events, it is hard to keep perspective. If Robin had been around when Somali pirates hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama, would I have censored his pirate play altogether? After all, pirates are real.

I took the toy sword from him immediately. “Don’t ever say that again, honey. Okay?”

The sword is back in the basement now. I wonder if news coverage informed any of this. If the news of decapitation breached the protect-his-childhood force field, or if it was just an ill-timed blurt out.

(But then when is a good time to hear your only child threaten to decapitate you?)

“Did you know him?” Randy’s dad asked us. I’ve been so busy turning down the volume on the story, I didn’t even realize. James Foley did his undergrad at our university and graduated two years after I did.

I’ve wracked my brain and looked at photos online. Did he write for the off-campus news magazine I edited? The one that refused to be censored by the Jesuits? He’d seem the type. I don’t remember him.

In a piece in our alumni magazine, he wrote “With Marquette, I went on some volunteer trips to South Dakota and Mississippi and learned I was a sheltered kid and the world had real problems.”

I’ve been on the same eye-opening volunteer trips. How our paths diverged in the intervening years! I majored in journalism, while he studied English and history and went on to become a journalist later.

Now he’s part of history, and jihad. At least I hope he is part of history, not a name lost in a growing tide of extremist violence.

The waves of history rock this boat, though mine is only canvas and string, planted in a small patch of grass, a world away. Safe. Simulating stormy seas, my intentions are good, but my world is shrinking.

It is only appropriate to protect Robin from knowledge of the cruel realities of our perilous world. But I hope that as he gets older, I will know how and when to let in the world.

I love my boy. I want him to be safe.

I also want my son to grow up to do important things.

James Foley worked on development projects in Iraq. He reported from the front lines of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq while embedded with US troops. He covered the uprising in Libya, and was detained and released by Gaddafi loyalists. He was in Syria tracking the civil war, the brutality of the Assad regime, and the rising menace of the Islamic State when he was captured. Before all of this, he spent years working in American inner cities with Teach for America.

While I swing in a hammock on a sunny day, fretting about how my sweet boy came to threaten me with his toy. The world is so much bigger than all of this.

Now, stop indulging me and go read the news instead.