This summer, my daughter learned self-defense at a music camp for girls. At the weeklong camp, kids form bands, compose music, write songs, play music, make zines and T-shirts, and revel in girl power, but they also take a workshop on how to physically protect themselves.
“If someone comes up to you and grabs your throat,” my daughter said, pretending to reach for me, “you make your arm really straight and shove your fingers right here.” She gestured to the vulnerable hollow at the base of her neck. She showed me a couple of other techniques, each detailing how to escape from various attacks. Watching her move clumsily from one pretend scenario to the next, I felt my heart break a little bit.
I'm a parent, so I'm used to heartbreak—the tiny little fissures that form with every step my children take toward adulthood. But this one felt different because my perspective was suddenly different: rather than seeing her as moving away from me toward some vague place, I clearly saw the place, the one filled with external threats of violence, accidents, and earthquakes, and internal ones, like failure, disappointment, and despair.
And when I imagined my child in this place, I felt new doubt. The list of instructions on keeping her safe has been, so far, pretty straightforward: wash your hands, wear your seat belt, wear your helmet, don't chase a ball into the street. But I know these warnings won't be enough. I'll soon have to explain to her why she is learning self-defense, why she must be alert when she walks through our neighborhood alone, why she must learn to trust her own instincts—even if she offends someone or seems unfriendly—above all else.
But how can I teach her that in protecting herself she shouldn't isolate herself from the rest of the world? As our July Think & Drink guest, writer Eula Biss, said, the idea that we can each create our own little societies in our homes is disturbing: “What do we owe each other as citizens?” This obligation—that we move together toward good, generous, compassionate lives despite the myriad ways we hurt each other daily—is what I feel pressing on me even when my strongest urge is to lock the windows and doors and draw my little family close in around me. But again, doubt: can my daughter—can any of us, really—learn to live both safely and bravely in the world?
The essays that follow explore threats of words and ideas, fear and vulnerability, ways we challenge one another, ways we protect one another. That many of these rise out of relationships between parents and children isn't surprising: Perhaps the last times we felt truly safe were in our childhood. Perhaps we instinctively conspire to preserve those times and recreate them when possible. Or perhaps we revisit them again and again to test old frailties, draw new insights, and wield new tools for living in a precarious world.
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