September 20, 2001
Talking to Children about Terrorism
We are all going crazy. That Tuesday I woke up my 10-year-old by telling her, "Terrorists flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., this morning," carried her downstairs half-asleep and sat her in front of the television just in time to watch the north tower fall. Before bedtime I did a little show-and-tell presenting her with an old photo I had downloaded from the Web: Osama bin Laden from the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list complete with height, weight and a $5 million reward. Why did I do this? I don't know.
No one can handle this ordeal with grace and faultless parenting but there are some guidelines to follow. I offer an excerpt from a letter sent home to parents by Reveta Bowers, head of the Center for Early Education, a local elementary school:
1. Keep your routines as normal as possible.
2. This is not a time for your children to have unlimited access to phone, radio, television or computers.
3. Don't be surprised if you begin to notice behaviors that are different. Your child's normal patterns of eating, sleeping and play may be interrupted.
4. Your children will want reassurance from you that you will keep them safe and that they don't have to worry. You must be able to be calm and contained in your own anxiety as you offer those reassurances.
5. Especially with young children, answer their questions and have any family conversations early in the evening and not just before bedtime. This is not the kind of talk to have just before you turn off the lights.
6. As you speak with older or extended family members and relatives, be careful about what you say and what your children overhear.
7. "Bad people do bad things, and this was a bad thing but most people are good" is a message that young children can understand.
8. Remind children, especially those whose parents fly a great deal, that accidents like this cause everyone to be more careful and cautious in the future.
9. Don't speculate with them about what will happen next.
10. Many will hear frightening words, "war," "aggression," "terrorist," etc. They will mimic what they have heard and quote what they hear you say. Be careful.
To this list I'll add a few items of my own:
Take Children's Questions Seriously
Yes, we psychologists will tell you that some of their questions are really a cover for anxiety. We'll tell you that, rather than answering the questions directly, your children will profit more if you can unearth or pinpoint their underlying fears. But sometimes a cigar is a cigar. Or worthy curiosity about science or theology. So if your child asks why the World Trade Center towers fell when the planes crashed into them, find out. OK, I'll tell you this one. According to Hyman Brown, the engineer who oversaw the construction, it was the 24,000 gallons of burning aviation fuel that turned the steel into a soft noodle, not the impact of the crash. The towers melted. If they ask about search-and-rescue techniques, military operations or life after death, or if all Arabs hate Jews, more often than not respond by saying, "That's a good question."
If you don't know the facts, get the encyclopedia or browse the Web together. Judaism teaches that we should all be lifelong learners. Excavate the facts or the philosophy the children are seeking.
Teach Them a Patriotic Song
That Wednesday afternoon, I sat talking with three bright 10-year-old girls in our den, girls who are each receiving an education as good as anyone on the planet. One goes to a local public school, one to a Jewish day school, one to an Episcopal school. In the middle of our conversation, one of the girls spontaneously said, "This seems like a good time to sing a song about our country." We all agreed, but it quickly became clear that not one knew all the words of a single patriotic song, not even the national anthem. Of the three, the child who goes to the most Dodger games did best but they all stunk. Our children's magnificently enriched school curriculums fall down here. The children learn HTML and Spanish and advanced drawing techniques, but most of them don't learn songs or anthems that proclaim their love of their country.
Like prayer, patriotic songs are packets of spiritual power and shared emotion at the ready. If we only teach the children fancy stuff, we deprive them of some ordinary but essential tools for living fully. Do the prep work of teaching and, if necessary, learning the lyrics yourself -- and the words to prayers if you haven't memorized a handful -- so the children will have these spiritual tools when they need them.
Yes, I'm nervous about war fever, but children are not ready for a critique of global capitalism and its piece in this catastrophe. Find a patriotic song you can live with. If you choke on "banner yet waves" what about "amber waves of grain"? Don't leave "God Bless America" for foxhole conversions to citizenship and pride.
Hold Your Tongue When Watching Television
I'm troubled by the negative running commentary I hear coming out of the mouths of intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful parents while watching television. When children hear adults dishonor our leaders and our government we are inviting them to become cynical themselves. These beliefs breed fear and alienation, just the opposite of the attitudes we wish for our adolescents. In addition, if children learn to see the world as a place where others are constantly judged behind their backs, they may become inhibited, fearing that their own actions and words are not safe from ridicule.
If the president isn't showing up to talk to the nation as quickly as you deem appropriate, or if the speech he makes doesn't seem particularly profound or moving, hold your tongue. Making negative statements without taking action demoralizes children and crushes their need to have something to believe in. It's up to us to bolster our children's enthusiasm and optimism, not undermine it.
Our country is a democracy, but it isn't one long episode of "Survivor." We aren't entitled to weigh in with our sophisticated opinions every few seconds. If you need to talk, follow Torah teachings about avoiding lashon hara (evil tongue). Learn to measure the words you use in front of the children. Tell them the beautiful and moving tales that emerge from the rubble daily. Tell them about the courage of the rescue workers, Mayor Giuliani's grace, interfaith worship services, the melting away of partisanship among politicians. Mine the rubble for tales of the good.
Don't Forget That Teenagers Are Also Frightened
Even the most self-sufficient, unapproachable teenager needs comfort as much as the rest of us. One mother told me that her 16-year-old son, normally disdainful of verbal or physical contact with his parents, has been doing his homework in their bedroom since Sept. 11. Knock first and then visit your teenager's lair. Tell him about your day, what you've been reading in the paper, your thoughts. Then just wait. He might tell you about his.
Be of Service
Whether or not there have been deaths in your own family, the words of the late Lubovitcher rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, hold. He said, "There is no way to replace a departed loved one, for each person is a complete world. But there is a way to begin to fill the void. When we do good deeds on behalf of the departed, we continue the work of their soul. By performing acts in the memory of the loved one we truly build a living memorial. Death then is a form of energy because it can be used as a tool for leading a more meaningful life."
This week at least, it's easy to wave flags, to love our neighbors and to hold our tongues. The challenge is to carry the parenting lessons we're learning into the weeks and months ahead.