Margaret’s Musings: Protecting Our Young

Perhaps nothing could bring home to us our primary duty as parents as did Wednesday’s carnage in Florida.

Americans went on social media or sat glued to their television sets, as they watched endless re-runs of terrified high school students fleeing from the scene as heavily armed deputies guided them to safety.

Outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, anxious parents and onlookers stood on the sidewalks, as television cameras zeroed in on scenes etched in time—a father holding his daughter’s hand as he led her to safety; a mother holding her son in a wordless embrace; and another, where it was the boy who was consoling his tearful mother.

The scenes will roll out over the next weeks in a play we have seen too often before—a long parade of sadness for friends and teachers lost, praise for heroic actions, recriminations, facts, revolving opinions, and new theories.

But the one central theme, the glue in all this tragedy, is the bond between parent and child.

I am reminded of the motto adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department for its academy after conducting a contest. The winning entry, submitted by Officer Joseph S. Dorobek, “To Protect and Serve,” became the official motto of the academy.

Isn’t protecting our children our foremost obligation—one we try to fulfil to the best of our abilities?

It’s an inherent instinct at every stage of human and animal life. Just as the lioness licks her cubs with her rough tongue, resignedly rolls over onto her side allowing them to feed, and then, in times of danger, picks them up by the nape of their neck to move them to safety—so we respond to that huge impulse to protect our young.

Children have inquisitive natures instinctively. We try to keep them out of harm’s way—but every parent can look back on at least one really hairy story when little Johnny or Susie got into something dangerous when their parents’ backs were turned.

We navigate the treacherous shoals of the teenage years as best we can—a feat that can bring out the best and the worst in both parent and child—to reach the surer ground of growing maturity.

And when danger threatens, those difficult years fade away—as evidenced by the candid camera shots of emotional reunions between parents and their children in Florida on Wednesday.

But our fast-changing world is very different from that of parents of yesteryear, particularly for those of us with grown children and grandchildren—and the parental need to protect has to observe that change.

When my husband and I first came to Loudoun, in 1967, we moved to Waterford, where we raised a family of three. In 1975, the two older children would walk up a side street to High Street to a friend’s house to pick him up and then walk the last half mile to the Waterford Elementary School.

Sometimes, they were accompanied by their friend’s Irish setter, Joyce, who ambled along with them. After they passed through the school’s wide double doors, she would plop down on the cement stoop—and stay there until the dismissal bell rang, and happily escort them home again.

Those innocent days are long gone. Over the intervening years, commuter traffic through Waterford ensured that all the children came to school by bus, and visitors to the school today have to gain permission before being buzzed in by a side door.

Human beings are social animals, and they’ve always found ways to communicate. In the late 1970s, we did so mostly by phone, letters or face to face.  We lived in the dark ages by today’s standards—transformed by numerous ways in which people can communicate.

The first network email was sent by computer engineer Ray Tomlinson in 1971, as a simple test message. Now, we can hardly live without it. It would be 1991 before the World Wide Web, or Internet, would transform our world. It would be another six before the first recognized social media site, Six Degrees, was created in 1997. Two years later, strange words like “blogging” appeared in our language as social media sites began to explode in popularity. YouTube appeared in 2005, followed by Facebook and Twitter—two of today’s most popular social networks. The communications future seems endless.

But, as parents are only too aware, with every new exciting discovery, there are always perils, and the need to protect their children remains.

As the lioness knows by instinct, she must protect her cubs fiercely until they can stand on their own feet and defend themselves.

For humans, the parental role is more nuanced and richer because our children eventually grow up to nurture and defend their parents.

We must never lose that instinct.

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