Talking to Kids About Tragedy

Between the shooting in Tuscon, the anniversary of the earthquake, and Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I talk with my kids about tragedy.  I try to live my life with eyes wide open – I want to know what is going on in the world and I’m very intentional about educating myself on the issues, even when those issues are hard to face.  I think that is why I am sometimes ambivalent about how to talk with my kids about difficult subjects.  I want my kids to be educated and empathic citizens.  But thus far, I have been relatively silent with them on many things.

I try to shield my kids from tragedy.  I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer in how to deal with this, or a magical age when kids are ready to have the veil of innocence lifted to expose the evil that is in the world.  What I do know is two things: 1) I want my kids to be adults who are informed about world events, injustice, privilege and racism, 2) I don’t think they are ready right now.

Jafta had a fireman come and talk to his school.  In the weeks following, he talked endlesslessly about all the ways he could die by fire.  His stress level went up, and he seemed afraid.  Similarly, I remember a time around that age when my parents were watching the news and explained a bit of the cold war to me.  I remember being so scared of being bombed by the Russians.  I thought about it every night.  I was always prone to anxiety, and so that information was hard for me to process at that age.

With that in mind, I never watch the news around the kids.  I don’t think they are old enough to need to know about death or killing.  At this age, I don’t think that the potential for empathy outweighs the potential for fear.  At some point, it will.  Not yet.

We did not tell the kids much about what was going on in Haiti.  I think it hit a little too close to home for them to know that I was in a situation where there was so much life lost.  Jafta learned more at school than he did at home.  Kembe has no idea what went on outside the gate of where we were staying, and I’m very glad.  Someday I will have to explain those circumstances to him, but I don’t think he’s ready.

I do recognize it is a privilege to live in an environment where I can shield them from hardships.  I don’t want them to live in that bubble of privilege, but I guess I’m not ready to burst it quite yet, if I don’t have to.

Despite being someone who strives to be educated on racism, I have not explained it to the boys yet.  My kids and I talk about prejudice quite a bit, and they understand that it is wrong to judge others based on the color of their skin.  But the boys do not yet know the realities of institutionalized racism, or the heavy mantle of stereotype they will wear as black men.   They do not know that 50 years ago, they could not have gone swimming with their sisters.  They do not know the shameful ways African Americans have been treated.  I will be very intentional in educating them on this someday . . . but I feel l like they both need more time to develop their self-esteem before they can process these hard truths without it shaping their identity negatively.

I realize  their race will shape their identity inevitably – I just want a little more of a foundation before they have to grapple with the impact it has on our society.  I think racism might be harder to explain to a child whose race has been an explicit target.  I think it’s easy for white children to sit and read about Rosa Parks or MLK in class, and vow to never act that way (being in the seat of privilege and power to make such a resolve).  In my experience as a white child, the take-away from such stories was a feeling of self-righteousness for having the power to behave differently.  But I truly wonder what it is like when black chidlren hear these stories.  What is the take-away for them?  I have no idea, but I would imagine it might bring up fear, anxiety, hurt, and confusion.  Black children have to hear these stories knowing that it is not in their control to change the way their group is treated.  I think these stories must have a heavier weight for black children.  I don’t think my boys are ready for that weight.

No.  I just don’t think my boys can process that yet.

So, we won’t be doing anything big with the kids for Martin Luther King day.  It’s a bit anticlimactic and I certainly look forward to the future when we can celebrate the life of such a hero with our chidlren.  But for now, Mark and I will wait for the kids to go to sleep and then take part in our tradition of watching his famous speech online as we bawl our eyes yet.  I can’t wait for my kids to hear it . . .

But not yet.

How about you?  How do you handle talking to your kids about tragedy?

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