Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kids and Crises

“Daddy, what’s a gas chamber?”

My eight-year-old asked me this question last week. My immediate hope was that she heard this phrase in science class or in a science book. So I replied, “Well, it’s a chamber that’s filled with gas, thus ‘gas chamber’. Why?”

“Well, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and…”

Lillian then began to explain that she really already knew, roughly at least, what these gas chambers where, that people had been tricked into undressing for them, thinking they were showers, and that they didn’t come out alive. And I then proceeded to have a conversation, an introductory, top-line conversation, with my eight-year-old about the Holocaust, Hitler, Nazi’s, and World War II.

And the world being what it is today, our conversations with Lillian about such heavy topics are not uncommon. She’s got a keen little mind that loves to absorb new information and ideas – sometimes absorbing them a little too quickly for her immature little heart. And so, we’ve learned (the hard way of course, by making many mistakes over some years now) how Lillian responds to such news: she becomes rather manic.

Lillian has what we call a ‘worry doctor’ and she sees this counselor on occasion. This wonderful woman has told us that Lillian has a rather advanced empathetic ability and, when tragedy strikes, it both allows her to become passionately engaged about that issue, while also making her, understandably, a bit of an emotional dervish.

It started when she was about three. She heard from her preschool teacher that some people ‘trash’ the environment and that we should protect ‘Mother Earth’. Lillian then proceeded to pick up trash, even cigarette butts, on all our subsequent walks and scream, “Look at this! Look at what someone did! They hurt Mother Earth!” She continued to call the planet ‘our mother’ for the next few years.
Lillian, NOT reading People magazine
(but apparently ready to catch up
 on some Great Patios & Decks).
When the earthquake in Haiti struck, Lillian found out from People magazine (like with Anne Frankwe were  undone by Lillian’s voracious and insatiable reading habits). She just picked up a copy that she found in our living room, sat on the couch with her legs crossed as if she was 40+ years old, and read much of the magazine while we were outside doing yard work. She then insisted that we take all of her money out of her piggybank (maybe about $14) and send it to help the kids in Haiti, which we did (and apparently now will never be released from UNICEF’s mailing list). She didn’t stop talking about the kids in Haiti for probably about a year, which was far longer than most people did.

The downside of this empathy is that she cannot emotionally process it, and it then exhibits itself in various negative ways. For one, her grades will drop, sometimes precipitously. While Sally and I were preparing to tell her about the Sandy Hook school shootings, plotting the best possible tactics and approach, she (unbeknownst to us) heard about it from an older boy when we were visiting friends at his house. She went from almost straight A’s, to B’s, C’s and even two D’s.

Another response is that she will also stop respecting her systems and institutions. Perhaps so internally distraught by the latest tragedy, Lillian will just decide that the rules no longer apply to her. After all, if our systems of armies, and cops, and fire fighters, and aid programs can’t save kids from gunmen, bombers, or famine, why should she worry about the rules in her classroom anymore? This has exhibited itself in Lillian throwing stuff (papers, books, her shoes, etc.) at her teachers, deciding that she no longer has to do her actual work but can now just read all day in school (thus the D’s), and once, after a tiff with a teacher’s aide during recess, making up her mind that she was done with school for the day and was going to walk home. Mind you this walk is probably three miles, includes crossing two four-lane roads, and is through what some might not consider our city’s best neighborhood. (And, if the teacher’s aide hadn’t caught up to her at the front of the school, I’m very sure Lillian would have made it all the way home, eventually.)

Lillian, during a good day at school.
With the most recent events in Boston, Lillian again started to have immediate, reciprocating issues. She accosted some of her classmates for ‘not speaking English correctly’ (meaning, in her bossy little brain, that they weren’t doing it as well as she could). The kids got mad, and ganged up on her, calling her names and insulting her. She came home bawling, talking about how mean these kids had been – but neglecting to tell us that she had first insulted them (a few texts to her teacher brought that out). At least, last night, I could tell her that the last ‘bad guy’ in Boston had been caught and remind her just how safe she (and each of our friends and family in the Boston area) actually is.

But the truth of the matter is that there will, of course, be other tragedies to come and parents will have to talk to their kids about them. I have friends that live in Harlem and it took them years to tell their girls about 9/11 (understandably, since they had themselves lived through that and were still dealing with it themselves as well). A college friend who lives in the Boston area posted on Facebook the other day that she had told her kids they couldn’t leave the house that day because it was a ‘snow day without snow’, a post that crushed me as I imagined her internal struggle over what to actually tell her kids when the ‘bad guy’ could have been lurking almost literally outside their window.

Looking back at all these tragedies, with the power of both hindsight and also years of experience (aka making various mistakes) in dealing with Lillian, I’d suggest these steps toward speaking with kids about disasters:
  1. Talk to them soon. While it’s far easier to wait and talk with your partner about how to tell your kids, and then wait some more and talk with your partner some more, you’re not only delaying the inevitable, you’re also increasing the chance that they’ll find out from People magazine, or your friend’s 12-year-old, or the iPad left on the kitchen counter open to the New York Times photo-spread. Delaying your talk with them only increases the chance that they’ll get the wrong ideas, or hear them in the wrong way, or possibly see images of the tragedy and then, perhaps worst of all, just hold it all inside, internalizing it all, without your assistance in putting it in context. So, talk to them soon.
  2. Be (lightly) honest. You’re not talking about Santa or the Easter Bunny here folks, so it’s tempting to steer away from the truth or glaze over the heart of the issue. But to try to protect them now is only going to set them up for failure, I think, down the road. Bad things happen in the world: it sucks, but it’s certainly true. And our kids have to start building their own emotional and psychological responses to terrible things so that they will be prepared to somehow deal with them on their own someday. This also starts to prepare them more to not be victims themselves. If your kids realize that there are bad people in the world, for example, it can start to help make them more vigilant toward those people. As my wife and I like to say, ‘A little paranoia goes a long way.’
  3. Go lightly. I used the word ‘lightly’ above and what I mean here is obvious to virtually any parent. Still, I’ll repeat it here in order to round out this list. As you talk to your child, you should speak to them enough to create the concept in their minds that something bad happened, but only touch upon the details. You certainly won’t want to go too deep. Numbers of kids dead in a Connecticut classroom, photos of marathon spectators covered in blood and missing limbs, video of people of jumping off the towers on 9/11 can wait for junior high school (if then...). Again, this is obvious to virtually any parent I’m sure, but I think it bares repeating here for clarity’s sake.
  4. Trust them. This is, like so much of parenting, the hard part: you have got to let go of some control. Giving them this information is giving them this concept of tragedy for them to start deal with, however they may, in their own amazing little minds. Thus, by doing so, you have to put your trust in them to then start to deal with it as they will – and no longer as you might want them to. Trust them to take it, mull over it, stew on it, come back to you (hopefully) with many more questions, talk it out as much as you can, and allow them to continuously process it. (Lillian’s questions to me last night were, “Were these people [the bombers in Boston] insane?” “If they were insane, how could two people go crazy like this at the same time? Isn’t that impossible?” “Were they mad about something? Did someone do something terrible to them?”)
  5. It’s okay to not know the answers. I know I love helping my girls figure things out and give them new information, especially answers to their many wonder-filled questions. But none of us have very many good answers as to why people go into a movie theater and start shooting people, and that feeling of exasperation at not knowing is multiplied many more times when your little son or daughter starts to ask you very basic, very good questions as to why things like this happen in the world. Why couldn’t everyone in the world give some of their food and their money to the kids in Haiti? Well, I don’t know… Why do people hate our country and fly planes into buildings? Well, that’s really complicated… Why would two brothers blow up innocent people who were just watching a race? Well honey, I think that… well actually, I really don’t know at all...
  6. Point out the good. Perhaps another ‘no brainer’ to any parent, but also worth repeating regardless: always finish on the positive. Point out all the EMT’s rushing to help people while all the cops look for the bad guys. Show the aid workers and NGO’s in the country who set up hospitals and distribute clean water. Remind them how incredibly safe they are in your house and how far away (hopefully) they are from these events. 

So, that’s all I’ve got. I’m quite sure that none of these suggested points are news to any engaged parent, but, somewhat overwhelmed now by how many times I’ve had to talk to Lillian about various tragedies now, I just felt an urge to write down what ever thoughts or ideas that I had in regard to this issue. Hopefully a parent or two out there might actually read this and get a glimmer or a new idea on how to approach their child, or maybe (more likely) just get a bit of an affirmation that other parents are out here too, dealing with the same difficult issues that they are.

Oh, one last suggestion, call it #7: Friggin’ cancel People magazine. It used to be a fun, ‘guilty pleasure’ for Sally to read, but a weekly, home-delivered magazine like that lying around the house, often with a beautiful photo of Taylor Swift on the cover but photos of mangled bodies lurking inside, is just too much a temptation if you have a little Lillian in your house too. So, cancel that thing, and those like it. We certainly did. 

Emilie Parker, 6, Sandy Hook victim.
Martin Richard, 8, Boston bombing victim.