Frightening- And Fantastic

In may, as part of a program to prepare them for college, the seniors at my daughter's high school heard from a nationally recognized expert on date rape. In August, as part of their introduction to life on campus, the students at the liberal-arts college she is now attending heard from a nationally recognized expert on date rape--the same expert, offering the same warnings about the perils of sexual assault.

Those perils are real. So are the dangers of binge drinking, drug use, unsafe sex, Internet predators, bicycling without a helmet, riding in a car without a seat belt and smoking cigarettes. And perhaps it's also a little dangerous to say of all of the above: enough!

I'm the world's biggest fan of education and information. I was happy that my kids learned early how the seed and the egg got together, at school and from their parents. I like the idea of lung-cancer patients' visiting classes to show teenagers just how glamorous smoking can be once you've had chemo. Every time I hear that little snicking sound that means my kids are belted in, I feel a faint sense of well-being, even though they're not really kids anymore. I've always wanted them, and their friends, to have all the information necessary to make smart choices and avoid dangerous situations.

But for a long time I've had the uncomfortable feeling that the result has been a generation enveloped by a black miasma of imminent disaster. It's not that they hear about the dangers of drugs: they hear about them in school presentations, public-service announcements, print ads, TV movies, "After School Specials," cable documentaries and, of course, from responsible mothers and fathers. They've heard about them in elementary school, middle school, high school and college.

The net effect could be that the drumbeat of danger becomes persistent white noise, unremarked, unheard, unheeded. But that wasn't my concern when I realized that my daughter was going to hear the same warning about date rape in summer that she'd just heard in spring. Once, someone asked me what single quality I most wanted to pass on to my children. Without hesitation I replied, "Joie de vivre." Love of life. That sense of waking up in the morning and thinking that there may be good things ready to happen.

That fantastic feeling is easily lost in a frightening tide of bad tidings. Once, people drifted into unexamined marriages with illusions about a lifetime of romance, or torrid sex, or two hearts that beat as one. Today people plan weddings dogged by divorce and adultery statistics, hearing ubiquitous warnings that marriage is hard work and they might want to try couples counseling even before the ceremony. While once everything was unspoken, now it seems that everything is out there.

Or everything but this: that lots of marriages are happy or at least contented, and pulling in harness can be more satisfying than going it alone. That amid the guys who try to pin you down at a party, it is not so unusual to find one who lights you up and makes you laugh. That sometimes people do stupid things and take stupid chances and get away with it without ruining their lives. A life of unremitting caution, without the carefree--or even, occasionally, the careless--may turn out to be half a life, like the Bible with the Ten Commandments but no Song of Solomon or Sermon on the Mount.

A little more than a decade ago, one of my sons told me very sadly that he didn't understand how he was ever going to have children. At first I thought he meant that he didn't know how he would afford them, or have the patience to raise them. It turned out that he couldn't figure out how he could someday impregnate a woman. When I told him that a day would come when it would be safe to have sex without a condom, he looked at me as though I had lost my mind. Clearly he'd gotten the message. But he'd gotten only the deprivation, not the joy.

So this is a plea for parents to remember to have That Talk with their kids. No, not the one about smoking cigarettes or driving under the influence. That's the one they will certainly get. What they need to hear occasionally is about the pleasures, not just the perils. Even when we talk about September 11, we can tell a tale of human goodness as well as evil, a tale of those who saved strangers as well as those who murdered them. For all the sleazebags who will try to lure a kid into a car, there are many Good Samaritans who are just concerned when they see a 12-year-old trudging along the road in the rain. I suppose we live at a time when we can't afford to let them accept the Samaritan's ride. But we also can't afford to have them think that Samaritans no longer exist. All these lectures, lessons and cautionary tales can't be to preserve a lifetime of looking over one shoulder. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."