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Bad News from the Start

From her initial gestation in the womb to her emergence into a widening orbit—a world of air, sound, light, concrete and abstract objects and the presence of other living creatures—a human child is (despite our myths and idealizations to the contrary) unsafe. No infant grows unscathed. Even when lovingly parented, a child is imperfectly responded to. She experiences states of ill health and deficiencies of gratification. We do not need to inform children of the existence of pain, loss, fear, unpredictability, disappointment, failure, and death. The world’s bad news is there from the start.

I would say we should acknowledge this, but at the same time boldly defy it, and take as our primary task that of endowing our children with a deep and abiding reverence for life. This represents a profoundly Jewish interpretation and one that comes from the core of my own life experience. In the wake of each fresh loss, we praise and affirm life, when we look for ways to honor our departed, what do we do? We give their names to our newly born babies. When we raise our glasses in joy to celebrate together, we exclaim: “L’chaim!” Because for us, after all, bad news is an old, old story. Yet, despite this, we know and passionately believe that life is good. This is the message we must give our children. That trust and hope are real, even when they seem, time and again, to elude us.

What matters then is not how we tell children that (and why) groups of people hate one another, make war, behave violently, and so on. Children already know this. They feel it. They observe it in countless forms: at home and in the family, on the street, in their cultural lives, in their peer groups, in the world of animals. I would give them books and plays and songs and stories that celebrate the variegated nature of life and I would laugh with them and hold them and listen carefully to them. And then, when the bad news comes—which it will—I would take them into my arms, if I were able to, and cry.

Ellen Handler Spitz is Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; and author most recently of Inside Picture Books (Yale Univ. Press).