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Tsunamis, Tornadoes and Terrorists – Oh My! How Do You Deal With Current Events as a Parent?

Motivated by the parenting challenges related to killing of Osama bin Laden, the Wakefield Moms' Council discusses current events and the impact they have on parenting.

To shield, explain, or avoid: What strategies do you evoke as a parent to help your children deal with what's going on in the larger world around them?

Tasha Schlake Festel
I am not usually that mom who shields a lot from her kids. If they ask questions, I do my best to answer them honestly and completely. If they see something on TV or overhear grown-ups talking, I try my best to explain things and put them into a context they will understand. It makes their world make more sense and allows them to understand their place in it.

That being said, I do shield my kids from the news as much as possible. At five and seven, I don’t think they need to know about crime, killing and war. Luckily, those things are so far outside of their day to day lives and understanding that they simply don’t need to know such situations even exist. If something happened “close to home” or became relevant in their innocent and happy lives, I would discuss the issues truthfully and completely, as much as possible.

With all of the “stuff” in the news lately, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to control what my kids have heard. Weather-related disasters and terrorists have filled the headlines, but luckily, not their heads. They did not know Osama bin Laden existed prior to his killing last week, and I saw no benefit of introducing him as a result of his death. The crimes he committed against innocent people are baffling to me. I cannot imagine how my children could possibly comprehend such a monster.

I listened to a story on This American Life on NPR over the weekend, where a college student was interviewed in an attempt to explain the jubilant reaction of her generation to the news of bin Laden’s death. In it, the girl said that the events of 9/11 rocked her then 11-year-old world and destroyed any sense of security and safety that she had felt. Her world was irrevocably changed. Hearing her explain the fundamental change she experienced in how she viewed the world and her safety confirmed my decision to keep the existence of real-life monsters secret from my kids.

If they happen to hear about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda or threats of future attacks from school, their friends, or headlines in the newspaper, my husband and I will discuss their questions in a non-scary way, as much as possible. We will explain that, while scary things happen sometimes, they can and should still feel safe, knowing that we will protect them. We will stress that the chances of anything bad happening to them in the sheltered and privileged lives that they lead are incredibly slim. I do not want their worlds rocked. I do not want them to feel unsafe. I will do whatever I can, as their mother, educator and protector, to keep them sheltered from that view of the world for as long as possible.

The violence of man and monster will not likely impact my children’s lives. Mother Nature’s violence, however, is a different story. In summers past, they’ve seen the impact of hurricanes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as we go on our annual family vacation. We have lost tree branches in our yard after strong winds, and have had roof leaks from driving rain. Weather is comprehendible. It touches us.

My children have seen the photos and video of devastation in Japan after the tsunami and the wreckage of the tornados in the southern United States. My daughter was terrified when I told her the tornados happened in this country – in her opinion, close to home. She looked at me, wide-eyed and horrified, and asked if anything like that could ever happen here. What would we do? Where would we go? How would we stay safe?

Since my daughter is not one to let her imagination run away with her and is generally rational beyond her years, I was really surprised by her reaction. I was happy to have the chance to tell her that we live in a very safe part of the country. One of the many reasons we have chosen to live in this region is because we do not experience the extreme weather conditions that other parts of the country do, and that this country and its generous citizens are well equipped to deal with any natural disasters that may befall us. She was visibly relieved, and then asked a few other questions, based on curiosity not fear.

While the weather is more likely to affect them than the real-life boogie-men we hear about on the news, it’s not so scary because it’s real to them. It makes sense. I am not worried that the kids will live in fear of wind and rain. They have context to understand. Violence caused by man is something for which they luckily do not have context. The concept of man hurting man is so foreign and introducing it to them in these formative years would wreak havoc with their innocent psyches. I will not paralyze them with fear and steal their innocence in the name of current events education. I will protect them from that as long as I can. If I’m wrong to shelter them, then for once, I am proud to be wrong.

Laurie Hunt
My oldest daughter was one year and four days old when the Twin Towers fell.  I was watching Good Morning America when the first tower was hit.  I watched for a while, talked on the phone with family and friends only stopping when I realized my baby was looking at me confused and sad as she could sense how upset I was.  My daughter saw the tears in my eyes, could hear it in my voice and, I’m quite sure, felt me hold her a little tighter than usual that morning.

I was careful for many years after that about what I watched in front of my girls about current events because I will never forget the look on my baby’s face when I was watching 9/11 unfold live with her in the room.   I wanted to shield my girls for as long as I could from bad things in the world.  As my girls grew and their world began to expand I realized that kids talk on the playground and I would rather my girls watch, and learn, with my husband and I present so we can be there to answer questions and offer our opinions on what is going on in the world.

Not too long ago I pulled out a book that I bought for when the time was right, The Day Our World Changed, children’s art of 9/11.  I often turn to books as a way to open up discussion with my girls.  This book was a great way to begin to talk to my girls about 9/11.  I’m glad we had begun to talk about it because when Osama bin Laden was recently killed I could not turn the TV off – I didn’t want to.  I also knew that my two school-aged daughters would hear about this on the playground or in the classroom so I wanted to be sure they were prepared.  I was not, however, prepared for my girls to see footage of people celebrating the death of a human being.  Even though I do think bin Laden was a monster it still did not feel right to celebrate, because we Americans “don’t do that”.  My oldest didn’t have a lot to say but my youngest did.  She is eight years old.

"Mom, do you think God is happy Osama bin Laden is dead?" "When did you find out he died Mom? Did you get to watch him die?" "I think God must be happy he is dead since he killed more than 3,000 people."

So how do you answer questions like that?  I told my daughter I thought that God was probably happy that bin Laden couldn’t hurt anyone else; I heard he died last night when I was watching the news and I did not see him die.  My daughter and I talked about what an awful thing it was that so many people lost their lives and I was very happy that there was one less monster in this word but, no matter who it is that is killed I don’t think I could celebrate death in the streets like many people did.

Regina Martine
I used to watch the news all the time. It was on in the morning when I was getting ready for work, and I watched local and national news broadcasts almost every evening. That all stopped once my kids were old enough to pay attention to what was on TV. I never really tried to shield them from the events of the world — if they asked, I would answer, but I didn’t want them to see all the frightening imagery that most news shows broadcast. I didn’t see any reason to fill my kids heads with fears of horrors that are the reality of the world we live in while they are still so young. They are innocent and believe they live in a safe world where no one wants to hurt them.

I remember the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004 and I heard of how mothers had to choose which child to grab onto as the ocean overtook their homes. That image will probably haunt me forever even though intellectually, I know that I live in a place where something like that will never happen.  Recently, my son began having serious sleeping problems and was terrified to be alone starting right about the time of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He had heard a little about it at school, when they had a fundraiser to help the victims, but as far as I know, he didn’t see any news coverage of the destruction in Japan.  I asked him about it and he was pretty scared by the few details he knew. This time, it was easy to calm his fears. I had him find Massachusetts on a map that illustrated all the earthquake activity throughout the world.  Once he saw that disasters like that really never happen here, he felt a little better. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of their world, but I also want them to understand how the world around them works. I have done my best to explain difficult events to my kids in a way that lets them know that they are safe.

This past fall, my oldest daughter asked what happened on September 11. She was 7 months old on that day and has grown up more or less oblivious to the horrible events that occurred, even though I watched hours of news coverage with her in my arms—protecting her from something that she was mercifully too young to understand. Every year at her elementary school they hold a small ceremony to honor those who died and for the first time, she asked me what happened. So I told her. I tried to keep the details to a minimum and stress all the ways the country is safer now, but of course she had a lot of questions and the more I told her the more I felt like I was ripping her childhood away from her. I watched her view of the world change in an instant. I spared her the gruesome details and tried to present the facts in as unscary a way as I could, but now she knows. And although she is old enough to understand that the world is large and complex and she is just as safe as she ever was, I wish I could keep her innocent just a little longer.

Peggy Barresi
As parents we know that children process information in relation to their level of cognitive development. The answer you give a two-year old when she asks where babies come from is very different from the one you give an older child. The same holds true for discussing some of the frightening events that happen in the world, be they natural or man-made. The youngest children might stay oblivious, school age children may need to feel reassured, and older kids will usually have their own opinions and want to discuss what they hear about in school and the media.

I don’t know then why I was surprised when my oldest daughter, who is almost 18, mentioned she’d never seen some of the September 11 footage being shown last week as part of the news coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death. This particular image was of one of the planes flying into one of the towers. I remember being at work in 2001 and watching it happen live. As the news of that day unfolded, most of us left work early, feeling a visceral need to be with our families. I called my girls’ nanny and asked her to keep the television off when everyone got home from school. Nina was in kindergarten and Leah in third grade. These were not images they needed to see, and apparently they never did.

Even so, Leah knew something was going on. When important news events happen, having children of different ages poses an additional challenge. The older ones will know more about what is happening and will ask questions. My solution was to speak to them together at the youngest one’s level and then take the older one aside for more information “that your sister is too little to understand.” That September day in 2001 we discussed that a very bad man had done a terrible thing because he didn’t like what our country stands for. I assured them both that they were safe and there was no need to worry. Nina, my five-year old, went merrily on with her life. I was amazed at how carefree she remained. With Leah, who was in third grade, I focused on ways we could help the people affected.

Because Nina experienced the terrorist attacks very differently than the rest of the family, even her sister, she was shocked at the celebratory approach many took upon hearing bin Laden was dead last week. She posted as her Facebook status a sentiment that was making its way around the internet: I’ll mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. The discussion in our house centered as much on how people were handling the news as on the news itself. With both girls in high school, the dinner conversation was basically at an adult level. Leah was particularly insightful as she shared some of what she’s learned this year in her Middle Eastern Studies class. We had progressed from talking about “a bad man” to discussing whether Pakistan had any role in hiding bin Laden and whether photos of his corpse should be released.

My girls are ten years older, yet the contrast between our talks in 2001 versus 2011 still managed to amaze me. Through the 2000s, as the media covered the many earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that occurred around the world, we always focused on how we could offer assistance. We discussed wars, school shootings, terrorist activities, and swine flu at the appropriate intellectual levels, always making sure the girls felt safe. As long as I thought they could handle it, I’ve never kept any news from them. It’s been interesting to watch them grow from essentially ignoring the news to needing to understand why the world is rejoicing at someone’s death.

Holly DeSouza
While running errands with my daughter the other morning, there were multiple newspapers on display with images of Osama Bin Laden.  My four-year-old can only read a handful of words and had no idea the caption was “DEAD” when she asked me who the scary man with the beard was.  After she asked she didn’t wait for an answer (which meant I didn’t really need to give her one).  She has no idea who the Taliban is, no concept of terrorism, and was not alive when the tragic events of 9/11 occurred.

As discussed in previous columns, my husband and I want to give Lexi as much exposure and education we can in order to allow her to find the answers she feels are right in her heart.  When it comes to things we just cannot seem to explain, such as tsunamis and tornados and terrorists, I am at a loss at how to even start to explain. 

The reason I can sleep at night after the questions start is due in part to her age and innocence in asking questions.  She wants to know who the scary looking man with the beard is but not because she wants an education in terrorism.  She wants to know why cars are floating away where water should not be, yet she is not mature enough to wrap her mind around death and destruction due to natural causes.  We as adults know bad things happen to good people.  We know there are things you can’t explain away. Additionally, we know it is human nature to strive to find an answer- aka resolution. 

For the time being I plan to shield her from as much evil and destruction as possible until the day comes when she needs to learn humans are not innocent, unspeakable evil does occur, and natural disasters happen.  At that time I will teach her to always treat others better than she would treat herself and strive to make her little corner of the world a better place.  Until then, I will hug her as tightly as possible and tell her I love her as often as I can while I hope to live to see another day with my darling daughter.

Tasha Schlake Festel May 11, 2011 at 09:10 PM
I posted this on my FB page, but I'll share my thoughts here as well... As a result of reading Laurie's piece and her point on kids learning from other kids on the playground and at school, I am rethinking my decision to keep 9/11 and Osama bin Laden a secret from my kids. My intent was to protect them from scary things. But it may be much scarier to hear about those things from their peers, who may be filled with misinformation - however innocent. I was also unaware (where have I been???) that there is a school assembly honoring the victims of 9/11 at the elementary school where my daughter - and Gina Martine's kids - goes to school. It's quite likely that my 1st grader has knowledge of this terrible chapter in our history, but I have no idea what she knows. That scares me and makes me think I have done her a disservice by protecting her instead of arming her with knowledge and understanding. My husband and I are planning on figuring out how to best discuss this difficult subject with our daughter and her 5-year old brother. Laurie has graciously offered me the book she has used and I plan on taking a look at it for some ideas. The whole thing makes me feel physically ill. I feel like I will be taking away innocence - one of the things I feel is my job to protect. But I also now feel it's naive of me to think she's been able to be "out in the world" and not hear anything about the tragedy. My kids are smart but very sensitive beings. I have no idea what to expect.
Sara Jacobi May 12, 2011 at 02:24 PM
Thanks for sharing Tasha! I'd be interested to know how it goes... :)
Erin Calvo-Bacci May 12, 2011 at 06:44 PM
Laurie, I too was watching morning television getting ready to leave the house for a meeting when I witnessed the plan crash into one of the twin towers and then watched in horror as it collapsed. I just bought my baby girl her first pair of walking shoes the day before. I was consumed with fear and found solace in our Minister Pastor Weisenbach and listening to Gary LaPierre on WBZ. My daughter wasn't old enough to understand, but she was certainly curious and was already empathetic. I spent many moments just holding her because I was afraid of the unknown, which realistically is life. I, like Tasha try to answer my children in the context that they can understand. I hate television, but I know that what I might try to keep them from learning they'll learn outside of the house and I rather give them a solid factual foundation and we make sure they now home is their safe zone and my babies are now almost 11, 8 and four and I still hug them which the almost 11 year old allows in the home :)
Laurie Hunt May 12, 2011 at 09:40 PM
Tasha, I just listened to the story on NPR you linked to. Wow. I was so upset by seeing people celebrating death when Osama bin Laden was killed then I listened to this young woman talking about how scared she was as a child when September 11th happened. These kids lost something that day and I don’t think we could ever understand how they felt to have experienced that in childhood. I think, now, they were celebrating the end of something so awful that happened in their childhood that left a huge footprint on their very souls. I was also moved by this: “…for the September 11th kids… they are called Millennials… Osama bin Laden was the boogey man, their Voldemort.”
Erin Calvo-Bacci May 12, 2011 at 10:24 PM
The Voldermort connection just gave me chills! How fitting because even Voldermort will meet his end in the movies soon too!
Laurie Hunt May 12, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Erin, I got the chills too. That really moved me, made me think about this from a different point of view. It's funny, my parents had Kennedy being shot, some of my friends children had 9/11 (my kids I consider too young to be in that grouping)... what do I have?? I can't compare anything that significant. I can't even imagine...
Erin Calvo-Bacci May 12, 2011 at 11:18 PM
We have the freedom of Nelson Mandela who then served as President of South Africa, we have the fall of the Berlin Wall and our Daughter's have more opportunities than we did. We live in a great country which experienced horror and tragedy during the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Imagine living in parts of the Middle East and Africa which live with genocide daily. I will continue to keep my family close, thank God for our blessings and pray that those who are filled with hate will find peace. And hopefully have a drink with all you lovely mom's from the Wakefield Mom's council soon :)
Tasha Schlake Festel May 12, 2011 at 11:23 PM
I was just thinking of another defining moment. We have the explosion of the Space Shuttle. I will never forget that. We also have the Oklahoma City bombing and even Columbine, although that happened as I was an adult. I'm not sure that we have anything "as big" as 9/11, but we sure do have a lot. We live in a different world now - for better and for worse. I'm glad you both took the time to listen to - and were moved by - the piece from This American Life. I thought it was so powerful and shed so much light on it for me. If you listened to anything else from that program, there was also a fascinating piece on Egypt and an account of the tornadoes from a survivor. Really moving stuff that put things in perspective for me. And I cannot wait for that drink. Perhaps next week??? :)
Jillian Sallee May 13, 2011 at 12:50 AM
The Voldemort connection is a strong one for me personally. I have a five (almost 6 year old) in kindergarten and a 4 year old in preschool and so far they have been very shielded from most current events. I don't watch adult tv with them in the room, except Ellen, and she's mostly harmless! My oldest, Ryan, asks tons of questions about everything so I think that if he had a question about something someone might be saying at school he would ask us. He wouldn't know the difference between Osama Bin Laden and Justin Beiber and I'm glad for it. Until they start asking questions, I don't see a need to burst their bubble of innocence. And even then, the information I give them will be basic and will not come from fear. Being an early education educator I have a pretty good idea of the level of comprehension that my kids can handle and the evil that is in the world today is not in my comprehension level!! Tasha, how did your talk with your kids go?
Tasha Schlake Festel May 13, 2011 at 01:53 AM
@Jillian, I haven't brought it up yet. I don't know quite how to start talking about it - or when. Randomly, the subject of Hitler came up this evening (?!?!) while we were talking about a veterans' memorial they'll be doing at Walton, and I tried - vaguely - to say what a lousy guy he was (to say the least!). Neither of the kids seemed all that concerned or upset that he killed thousands. It was kind of odd. Maybe "the talk" about 9/11 will be inconsequential. We shall see! Laurie dropped off her book at my house today and when I can figure out how to stop time so I have a few minutes to read it, I'll take a look and see how/if I can use it. As for your point about waiting until they start asking questions, that's what I was going to do. But then I started thinking. Addie is 7 and doesn't miss *a thing* that happens around her. It's probably silly of me to think she doesn't know anything. I think Reid - at 5 years old and in preschool - is completely ignorant. It's the older kids at elementary school that Addie is exposed to that worry me. Blah! I hate that this is something I have to worry about!
Mary Bright May 13, 2011 at 07:33 PM
We have always been pretty open with our kids regarding the news. I have a 13 year old daughter and an 8 year old son. We get the Globe, the New York times and the local papers. We leave them around the house (actually spread out all over the table :-) so there are many pictures that the kids see that will spark conversation. And we do initiate discussions as well. My husband is a Firefighter. The day after 9/11 he looked at me and said "I have to go"....he went to NYC and dug through the pile. I was terrified. My daughter was 3 and at the time they weren't sure if there were chemicals on the planes etc. I wanted everyone locked in the house, but I know my husband, and he did what he had to do. He returned a couple of days later, only to go back several times to attend many funerals. We have reminders of that day all over our house, pictures, etc. and the kids have been to Ground Zero. My children were raised knowing about 9/11 . And the day Osama was finally caught and killed was a good day in my house. I don't think they regard Osama as a human being, but more of a monster. Bye Bye Monster.
Laurie Hunt May 14, 2011 at 12:31 AM
Thank you for sharing Mary. What an amazing man your husband is to go to Ground Zero to help out. My husbands has a friend who went to Haiti after the earthquake to help out and was hurt very badly while he was there and had to be airlifted to Florida. I am in awe of the brave Men and Women who will put themselves in harms way to help others and I have a lot of respect for their families who have to wait and worry.
Erin Calvo-Bacci May 14, 2011 at 02:13 AM
Mary ditto Laurie's comments. I have so much respect and admiration for people like your husband, what a fabulous role model and you deserve credit for being so loving and supportive!
Mary Bright May 14, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Thanks for the nice comments about my husband (I did get a good one :-)...to him it wasn't a choice, he "had" to go. And Erin...I wasn't very supportive of him going to NYC the day after 9/11....I actually remember begging him not to. And the worst part, was waiting for a call (which I made him promise to do)...he lost his cellphone going through the pile and wasn't able to call until late at night from a Firestation he slept in. When I finally got the call, what did this supportive wife do? I believe I screamed at him :-)
Tasha Schlake Festel May 14, 2011 at 08:52 PM
@Mary, I'm so glad to hear you are human!! I would have begged my husband not to go and also screamed at him for making me worry. We should totally hang out. :) He does sound like a hell of a guy. People who feel compelled to help are one thing. The people who actually act on that feeling are truly special.
Laurie Hunt May 15, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Yes, I would have screamed as well! You deserve a lot of credit, wives left behind while their husbands help during disasters and serve during war time do so much and often don't get enought "atta girls". I can't imagine trying to hold down the fort at home while holding it together - you deserve many screaming moments!!!

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