After events such as the devastating earthquake in Japan of March 11, 2011, many parents are at a loss about how much to tell young children and how to answer questions about the death and destruction that accompany such disasters. Most psychologists will focus on the need of children to be assured of their own security and ability to depend on the adults around them to care for them and keep them safe. Now I am no psychologist, and I donít argue with this, but I think that children are interested in hearing about more than how a disaster affects (or doesnít affect) them personally.
Certainly discussions with children about disasters should be limited to age-appropriate levels of facts and details. Graphic and excessive imagery of disasters should be controlled and limited. But when information is offered appropriately to kids and their questions are addressed, children are capable of immense empathy and can, through modeling, learn to experience world events of this sort in healthy ways, and channel concern into positive action. Childhood is the perfect time to begin to understand how people react to adversity and tragedy and how we organize ourselves to support one another.
My husband and I were still awake in California when he received a text from USGS about the quake. We followed the internet headlines and eventually turned to CNN, watching in shock and sadness. In the morning, we checked in online and over her breakfast I told my 8-year-old daughter the basics of what had occurred while she slept.
When deciding how much to tell kids about a disaster, it is of course important to consider what they will encounter on their own. We donít watch TV news with our kids around, but I know that lots of families would have been watching the news that morning and that the kids in her class would have stories to share. On the other hand, our 4-year-old preschooler, who barely has a realistsic concept of what an earthquake is and certainly what a serious one would be capable of, even living in Greater LA, is mostly blissfully ignorant of the whole event.
My daughter thought about this on the ride to school and asked if instead of participating in the city-wide yard sale this spring, could we collect all our things we no longer needed and send them to someone who had lost their home. Even though we live in earthquake country, she hasnít really taken that mental leap of worrying about her own safety, at least not yet. And while we are certainly watching for signs of concern, especially as news of the extent of the devastation and relief efforts spread, I didnít feel the need to create that concern for her by shifting that focus ourselves.
What we did discuss was that while her suggestion was a lovely one, that relief efforts in this sort of event are actually an incredibly complicated issue, and that we would find a way to show our support and help people through organizations that are experts in that area, and she understood why boxing up our stuff and sending it off somewhere wasnít immediately practical. We also talked about the practicalities of why what sometimes organizations need the most is money, because they can use that money to offer relief in efficient ways.
What we have done so far is part of a story that warms my heart. A kindergartener at my daughterís school woke to find her parents experiencing the news. Concerned for those who lost everything, she asked to donate her savings from her allowance ($7.50). She thought about how her dad had participated in fundraisers by running and her parents found a 1K walk for the Red Cross in which she could participate. She has already exceeded her goal of raising a quarter a step (about 1200 steps) and has declared she will walk twice as far (!) if friends and family will keep giving. We sponsored 50 of her steps, and my daughter is asking whether we can go to the walk to cheer her on.
I share this to demonstrate the depth of childrenís empathy and ability to organize themselves around helping others when given the chance. Her parents expressed some concern about whether they had erred in letting her catch them watching the news of something so tragic, but clearly the empowerment she feels in being able to rally support and relief for others eclipses any potential effects of personal fear. This will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Children do need to be protected (as do adults!) from excessive or graphic images of tragic destruction and certainly death. But before sheltering children completely from disaster, remember that in stories of tragedy of this sort there are also stories of heroism, of generosity and of redemption. Children are particularly able to rally behind and connect to these stories and connecting them to that instinct to empathize and to help teaches them to be a generous and caring person.
UPDATE: The kindergartner I mentioned above completed her 1K on March 20, after having been up all night sick with the stomach flu... brave little girl. She wanted to keep her word and see it through for her supporters. As of that date, she raised more than $1600 for the Japan relief efforts of the Red Cross. You can support her too (any amount will help and show her that people she doesn't even know are proud of her) at Riley for Japan.
Here are some resources that might be helpful to parents and educators: