"In my house growing up," gushed New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, "the Times substituted for religion." Many readers of America's bastion of liberal journalism surely agreed. And they no doubt appreciated reading on Sunday, in the paper's venerable Week in Review section, some thoughtful advice on child rearing; specifically, what to tell the kids (without scaring them) that, yes, the world will one day come to an end.
It's an issue with religious overtimes, of course, but in The Times it was strictly a secular subject, mixed in with dollops of parental angst. Or as Times' contributor Bill Franzen explained:
Recently I was lying on a blanket in the backyard between my 7-year-old twins, Mark and Missy. We were up way past bedtime, savoring a spectacularly starry night sky. I really got going about supernova explosions of massive stars and about how this results in tremendous gamma-ray bursts that can shoot deadly beams of intense radiation many light years through space, and how, if one ever reached the Earth, it would spell extinction for everyone. I avoided the temptation to sugarcoat things. The twins needed me to tell it like it is.
Well, Mark sobbed away hysterically while Missy asked one simple question: "Are we still gonna get a Christmas tree?"
"Sure we are," I said, and told the kids they'd probably have Christmas trees for the rest of their lives. I emphasized that it could even take thousands of years for any gamma ray burst to zero in on Earth and so, no worries -- we'd be long dead by then anyway. Eventually, maybe, they will take some comfort in that.
It's hard trying to control your children's feelings. Yesterday, when I told them about the chances of a huge comet someday crossing Earth's path, they became very frightened indeed. But, to my credit, I let them know that it was perfectly normal to feel scared -- I'm scared, too, I confessed -- and gave them probably too many reassuring hugs. Then I microwaved popcorn and we watched "C.S.I." together, and the twins' questions turned refreshingly earthbound: What's rigid mortis? Do kids ever have to get that life insurance? How do vultures know you're dead and that you're not just knocked out? And, What does sexy mean? ("Ask your mother next week" -- I wimped out on that one.)
Honesty and directness are the best tools for ever so gently shattering your children's assumption that our planet is a safe and secure place. And if this sometimes makes them feel that their lives on Earth are somehow less meaningful -- hey, welcome to the club.
And, it might be added, welcome to New York.