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posted: 7/7/2014 8:30 AM

Exploring the world may mean accepting its dangers

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Our trip had been a year in the planning -- the great westward pilgrimage that all Midwestern kids should experience at least once before they go out on their own.

Eight days and enough national parks, national forests and associated tourist traps to give our two youngest memories for a lifetime (and, not incidentally, demonstrate to them that the rest of the world is not flat and not covered with either cities or corn fields).

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Both my wife and I had taken such journeys in our own Midwestern childhoods. I suspect I was as excited (actually, more excited) about the trip than our children were.

I quickly realized, however, that things had changed. Not the sites we'd see, not the awe and wonder we'd feel, not the family bonds that we'd create. The difference had to do with our sense of safety and security.

This difference was apparent almost from the very beginning. As the first leg of our journey was by plane, we immediately encountered the new security that is part of traveling by air.

Now, none of us are strangers to flying, and none of us are particularly averse to it. What I observed, though, was that both our children seemed more cautious and more anxious than I would have expected. Finally, the youngest, age 10, took my hand and inquired, "Dad, what if there are terrorists?"

I had flown enough since Sept. 11 that I no longer thought all that much about the potential for terrorism. But my daughter did. I whispered a few words of reassurance, realizing in the process that what I said sounded rather hollow. I couldn't make her feel safe; we both knew that things had changed and that we really weren't as safe as we once had been.

With this scene playing uncomfortably in the back of my mind, we continued with our trip. A number of hours later, we found ourselves winding up into the mountains of Yosemite. It was late and my daughter was falling asleep. Before she nodded off, she spoke up from the back seat of our rented minivan: "Dad, will we be safe? I mean, would terrorists attack a park?"

Again I was a bit taken aback by her question. I really hadn't given it much thought. But she had, and she wasn't really that far off the mark. In fact, I had read something recently about the potential for such terrorism.

I reassured her once more, but again my reassurance did not sound all that convincing, even to me.

The next day, the park shuttle in which we were riding stopped to pick up another family. By their dress they were clearly from a Middle Eastern background. Grandparents, parents and children crowded on to the bus, there to see the sites just as we were. And my daughter, who prides herself on her friendships with children of every race, ethnicity and creed (she attends a wonderfully diverse school), once again leaned close to whisper, "They couldn't be terrorists, Dad, they're a family!?!" I agreed with her, but was saddened that the question even had to be raised.

Our family had not spent a lot of time or energy talking about or preparing for future acts of terrorism -- domestic or foreign. Actually, we had not really changed our lifestyle in any way in response to the evil of Sept. 11 or the subsequent threats -- kidnappings, gun violence, etc. -- that are commonly reported in the media.

My daughter's school had not promoted any particularly strict precautions that might alarm the students. Nor was my daughter simply paranoid. She was, perhaps, a bit more interested in what's going on in the world than many fifth-graders, but not exceedingly so.

The fact was, the world had changed -- their world had changed -- and those changes were affecting our once-in-a-childhood trip in ways I had not anticipated.

We completed our grand tour without incident, visiting any number of sites -- Tahoe, Yosemite, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon -- that would make worthwhile targets for terrorists of one ilk or another. We flew in and out of three major airports, again without problems of any sort.

It was a wonderful trip. From my children's reaction, it was all I had hoped for them. But in retrospect, it was also a sobering experience for me.

I grew up with the Cold War. Occasionally we were reminded of the potential "mutually assured destruction" that threatened our world, even in small-town northwestern Illinois. I can still see in my mind's eye scenes from some of the movies made to depict such a nuclear cataclysm.

Most of the time, however, we were oblivious to such a threat. It was more unreal than real. It was not a part of our current world even if it might destroy our world. It didn't seem directed at us.

Our children's world is different. And I guess we parents need to recognize that the threat to their world is real, immediate and personal. We may be able to offer to our children words of reassurance about the small number of actual terrorists, or about increased security, or even about the odds against them being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't know, though, that any such reassurances will seem all that convincing.

What we parents are left with, after we've given what reassurances we can, may be simply to hold our kids tight, tell them we love them, and pledge to them that we will do all we can to keep them safe in an unsafe world. A world, we perhaps need to confess, that has always been unsafe for many of its children and is now at least less safe for ours.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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