Columnist Shaheen Pasha: The lies we tell our children

  • Columnist Shaheen Pasha

Published: 5/14/2019 10:06:38 AM

I made promises to each of my three children when they were babies. I would bounce them in my arms in the darkest hours of the night and promise them that I would always keep them safe. I promised I’d do my best to protect them.

In my sleep-deprived naiveté, I thought those promises could be kept. 

Back then, the dangers seemed manageable to me. I could vaccinate my kids and keep them safe from some of the terrible diseases I had seen ravage children in my family’s home country of Pakistan. I could pay for a home in a safe neighborhood and arrange my schedule so I could be there for them after school.  I could keep them clothed and fed, shielded from the poverty that had haunted my own dreams as a child. I could give them a better, more idyllic life than the one I had as a child.

These were the promises I made to my children.

Little did I know then that they were all lies. As a parent in today’s world, their reality is far from idyllic. There are real dangers I can’t protect them from. None of us can. If anything, the burden has fallen to our children to keep each other safe from the chaos we have let loose on them. And that is a point of deep shame for me as a mother.

Just last week, Kendrick Castillo, a high school senior just days from graduation, sacrificed his life to lunge at a gunman to protect his fellow classmates. At the same time, as shots rang out in that Colorado school, a 12-year-old sixth grader grabbed a metal bat, determined to “go down fighting” during the latest school shooting to ravage this country. 

Both of these children have been called heroes. But they shouldn’t have to be burdened with that label. We, as parents, should have been the ones to protect them from the easy access to guns that have made our school system a war zone. Yet we didn’t do enough to keep them safe, wrapped up in political arguments over what the right to bear arms really means. 

School shootings aren’t the only way we’ve failed to protect our children. Across the United States, the growing anti-vaxxer movement is increasingly putting our children at risk. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. thanks to vaccines. Fast forward nearly two decades, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 704 cases of measles in 22 states since the beginning of the year, according to a report last month. Of that number, around 500 cases were in unvaccinated people. 

And parents are the ones making those decisions for their kids. It may be a choice borne of love, but it is also one borne out of willful ignorance and fear. And our children are the ones having to rise up against the misinformation to demand vaccinations for themselves when their own parents won’t protect them. Take the Ohio teen, Ethan Lindenberger, who stood before Congress and spoke out against his mother’s decision. He called on Congress to do more to push for vaccine safety research and PSAs to counter the anti-vaxxer messages putting young people like him at risk. 

A teenager should not bear the responsibility of asking the grown-ups in Congress to keep him and his friends safe from dangerous, preventable diseases. Yet too many of us are choosing to ignore science in favor of conspiracy theories on social media.

But perhaps the biggest shame I carry as a mother stems from the irreparable damage my generation, and the ones before me, have done to the planet I will leave behind for my children. According to a recent UN report, 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction as a result of human activity. The decline in this biodiversity will erode “the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” according to the chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which spearheaded the cross-border report.

And, once again, it’s the children who are taking up arms in the fight against climate change. Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her climate strike movement, which resulted in student walk-outs across 112 countries demanding government action against climate change.

It’s a huge honor and well-deserved. But it shouldn’t take the collective anger and fear of students across the world for adults to take notice of the dangers we are leaving for them when we are long gone. That should not be their burden to bear. But the adults continue to wring their hands and debate whether climate change really even exists. 

Every day, I look at my children and, mixed with the deep love I have for them, is the realization that I couldn’t keep my promises to them. Those promises were lies I told them to give them the illusion of safety. But now as they mature, it’s becoming abundantly clear that I’m not the one protecting them from the real dangers of the world. They are the ones trying to protect all of us.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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