ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

MAINTAINING BALANCE ON A WORLD SPINNING FASTER

I recently bumped into a friend who is a teacher. We chatted about her summer and about the beguiling mix of anticipation and dread that begins to grip both teachers and students this time of year, and we got to talking about some of the challenges contemporary teachers face.

"The biggest thing I've noticed," she said, "is that the world is spinning faster these days than it did when we were in school."

The confused look on my face must have told her that I was trying to figure out how that little piece of news had escaped my notice not to mention the attention of CNN, "60 Minutes" and "Jerry Springer."

"I'm not speaking literally here," she said. "I just mean that there seems to be so much more going on in the world these days wars, political upheaval, disasters, diseases. Kids hear about it and they worry about it. They're frightened. That's why they're growing up so darn fast. The world just won't let kids be kids like it used to."

I think she's right about that. When I was little, America came within an eyelash of nuclear war during the Bay of Pigs crisis. At least, that's what I read in the history books. I have absolutely no recollection of the event. At the time I was more concerned about getting Mom and Dad to buy me a genuine, authentic plastic rifle just like the one Lucas McCain used on "The Rifleman." If there was tension in the world, I was oblivious to it.

And so were most of the kids my age. I don't remember any of my friends ever pretending to be Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev. We had heard about "the Russians," but in my mind they were like "the Martians," and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to believe in them or not. We didn't worry about the bombs that were aimed at us even as we played because we didn't know they existed. And we didn't care.

Today, young people don't have that luxury. They turn on the TV and they see real-life car chases and drug busts and disasters. They hear about brutal real-life serial killers -- including, recently, a mother -- in gruesome detail. They see battles and ongoing unrest in the Middle East, with youngsters every bit as involved as adults. They see students running for their lives because one of their classmates brought a gun to school, and they wonder what it all means.

The answers aren't easy because there aren't many. Which is OK for adults, because we've learned to live with a degree of uncertainty. But for young people who are still trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this complicated world, non-answers can be traumatic (and it you doubt that, try saying "Because I said so" to your teenager the next time you have to say "no" and they want to know why).

But even if we can't provide definitive answers to all of their questions, we can share with them the answers we DO have even if that answer is "I don't know." We can make sure we are aware of what's going on in the world ourselves, and be sensitive to each child's individual need for interpretation. We can discuss events and situations with them calmly and openly, providing context that will enhance their understanding of the issues involved. And we can take advantage of the opportunity to teach important lessons things like consequences, cooperation and the importance of establishing and adhering to personal values and standards.

Such open communication won't guarantee our children safe harbor from the informational storms out there. But maybe it can help give them maintain their balance on a world that just keeps spinning faster and faster.

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--- © Joseph Walker

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Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.