Red Light, Green Light: Helping Kids Find a Deeper Sort of Safety

by: Susan Schaefer Bernardo

A few weeks ago, my older son Brendan got his first car. It’s a huge transition for us both, one he’s been eagerly awaiting and I’ve been dreading.

He can drive himself to school now, or down to the barbershop when he needs a haircut. Each time he gets behind the wheel, I take a breath and offer two words that function as advice, hope and prayer:“Be Safe.”

Be Safe. In my heart, though, I know that even when we are “good” and follow all the rules, bad things can happen.

This morning, after waving him off, I headed with my younger son to the elementary school, to serve my volunteer shift in the morning drop-off line. It’s a thing of beauty. Poetry in motion. A dedicated safety committee coordinates a small army of parent volunteers. We don bright orange vests, set out safety cones, direct traffic and pedestrians, and help children out of their cars and onto campus in a beautifully choreographed flow.

New families to the school take it for granted, but I know the truth. This morning drop-off system was born in response to a horrible tragedy: eleven years ago, a little girl in Brendan’s first-grade class died during the chaos of after-school traffic. A mom with MS lost control of her van in the school parking lot and careened over the sidewalk, where Jordan and her father were “safely” walking hand in hand. Jordan was killed instantly – and we were all devastated by the loss.

For weeks, I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t catch my breath from the flood of pain.I knew that sweet little girl. I knew her mother. I knew the mother who was behind the wheel. They were good people. How could this have happened to them? It didn’t make sense.

I immersed myself in a frenzy of activity – how could I help make things right? I volunteered to help with the funeral program, and found myself sobbing at midnight at Kinko’s. My friends and I threaded the programs with purple ribbons -- Jordan’s favorite color -- in the car on the way to the funeral the next morning. I helped my son’s class mosaic a birdbath in tribute, and helped plan a memorial garden near the library in Jordan’s honor. Others brought the grieving family meals, or were driven to create our amazing school carpool line. We came together as a community to grieve and pay tribute and make meaning where we could not make sense. We kept moving forward.

But another shock wave hit me a few months later, when I almost lost my toddler in a near-drowning, despite the pool fence we’d installed. The grief from Jordan’s death re-surfaced then, too, and I found myself stuck and spinning in a morass of turbulent emotions. A friend suggested a retreat – desperate, I signed up for a poetry workshop at Esalen in Big Sur. Deep healing happened for me there. After years of putting my kids first and my personal need for creativity last, I had time, space and permission to re-connect with my self. Pouring my heartache onto the page was first aid for my soul – like draining pus from a festering wound – and enabled me to tap back into a deep sense of well-being and see once again the wonderful in this world.

Nothing we do can keep our children completely safe. We can and should try to ensure their physical safety…teach them to wear seatbelts, stop at red lights, look both ways before crossing. But we also need to help them cultivate a deeper kind of security: the emotional resilience and a toolkit of strategies to cope with life’s challenges big and small. We can help kids foster strong connections with nature, friends and creativity. We can show them that it’s okay to express their feelings and trust their intuition and ask for help when they need it. That way, when they encounter darkness on their journey through life, they will have within them the light they need to navigate their way safely to the other side. Poetry in motion.

Poet Susan Schaefer Bernardo lives a creative love-filled life in Los Angeles, where she is raising her sons, a flock of chickens, two cats and a terrier named Poppy. Her first book for children Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs (available on Amazon) led to a collaboration with Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton on The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, a picture book to help families cope with challenges (available now online and in bookstores nationwide). She is a contributing expert at,,, and and has written many articles for Read more at