I was in 5th grade. I went to the movie theater with my mom. We watched Step Mom with Susan Sarandon. I don’t remember much of the movie except that she died from cancer. I remember leaving the theater in tears. “Mom, are you going to die? I don’t want you to die!”
I was in 6th grade. The news was on in our living room. A constant stream of images of students limping along with the help of their friends, fleeing a school. 2 gunmen had killed themselves after killing 13 innocent children and a teacher. It was Columbine High School. I was terrified. “Could someone shoot us at our school?” I didn’t feel safe. I was frozen with fear.
It was an early September morning. I was headed to class. I was in 8th grade; 14 years old. I got to class and the teachers were a little frantic and were pulling television sets into our classroom. They turned on the news. This was strange. People were talking about planes crashing into something called the World Trade Center; I had never heard of such a thing in my little southern classroom. After weeks of nonstop images of planes smashing into those massive buildings, that billowing cloud of smoke… you know the rest. I certainly knew what they were after the attack. I was traumatized. “What kind of people would do this?” All of those lives. My heart was shattered for those thousands of families. What if it had been my family? How do you pick up the pieces after such devastation and violence? Where are the answers? How do we stay safe?
Just this week…
“Why are parents mean to their kids?”
“Why is that man sleeping on the side of the road?”
“What is a war? Do people really try to hurt the other people with guns and bombs?”
“Why do people die? Will you die? When?”
These are some questions that my five year old and other five year olds have asked. How do we answer these questions when our preschoolers ask them? What about our preteens? Our teenagers? Most of these are huge and complicated issues. And even worse is that all of them are completely out of our control.
It’s hard to feel safe when you feel powerless. This is true for children too, especially since they feel powerless much more frequently than we do.
I believe it to be very important to field these questions right when they are asked rather than trying to put it off in the hopes that the child will forget. They may not ask again, but they won’t forget. And I definitely don’t want my child learning potentially terrifying and inaccurate information from others; like peers that have made up their own assumptions about why life is the way it is.
How to answer the tough questions
- Always be honest. Even if a 5 year old asks questions that we may think they are too young to ask, they have asked it, which means that their questions require an honest response. I would avoid saying that dead people are just “sleeping.” Death is normal. Everyone dies. Nobody knows when they will die. It can feel scary. Loss is scary. But we can comfort them with appropriate facts like they are young and that we are young. That we are healthy. That we try to prevent accidents by paying attention when driving, or swimming together to stay safe. My 5 year old and I had been reading a story. The character in the story wanted to be different people that have changed the world. And all of those people happened to be dead too. Which lead to questions about why they died. And if I would die. And if he would die. He was a bit freaked out, understandably. For weeks he would ask about cemeteries and death. I always answered openly and honestly and as comfortably as possible. I don’t want him to fear death. And I definitely don’t want him to think the subject is off topic just because it can be painful and uncomfortable.
- Help the child feel safe and secure, physically. Witnessing terrible and violent events has an impact on kids. Like the school shooting, a child’s first reaction is how does this affect him? Children are inherently self-focused, as you saw in my childhood responses and fear of the tragedies I witnessed on television, but have zero way of empathizing with the people actually living through it. I was terrified of going to school because I felt that terror so fully. It was real and it felt like it was coming for me. I could have felt more secure if my mom had talked about how I am safe. I am safe in my house. The steps the school takes to keep the children safe from harm. Prevention doesn’t always prevent danger, and you can tell your child this too. But providing statistics (which aren’t so great in the U.S. at the moment) of an incident actually happening to them, and ways that they can stay safe. We won’t be doing school, but if my child was worried about a school shooter, I would go so far as to give him options of what to do if there was an active shooter in their school (I can save further details on that for a future morbid post), like run away or hide. At home, I can show them all the locks that we have, how we don’t walk outside in the dark alone, how we always stay aware of our surroundings. Talking about ways that you stay safe when your child is scared is much more comforting than saying, “nothing will happen to you,” because we can’t guarantee that safety. Knowledge is power.
- Don’t watch the news when children are around. Or even at all. I kind of despise the news. Yes, it can provide information about current events, but it is also mostly negative and fear-based. As an adult, I just as easily fall into that constant fear of “what kind of world am I raising my children in?!” I don’t read the news and I don’t watch the news. If I hear of something, I will search it and read about it, but having a never ending stream of all of the worst things happening in the world isn’t going to lead to any type of positive and healthy thoughts. I want to live fearlessly. I want to use common sense and know how to keep my family safe, but I can do that without reading and watching the horrors of the world every single day. Children can’t separate the fact that these incidents aren’t happening to them or right in their backyard. It becomes their reality and they, even at 5, would constantly be afraid. I know because I was that 5 year old.
- Provide opportunities to show how they can make a positive difference. If my child sees a homeless person, he usually asks if they live on the street, if they have a home, if they have food. I explain as honestly as possible that these situations can be very complicated. I also explain how there are shelters if it is really cold, about soup kitchens, and about other ways of trying to help out for people that are in need. If disaster happens, we point out the good guys too. “That ambulance is driving to go help someone.” With witnessing parents harming their children, I always try to show how we can make change. I talk with my 5 year old about this blog, about how we work every day to try and encourage, support, and guide parents; to show that it is possible and even easy to treat children as fully capable human beings without trying to teach them through control or punishment. He is usually very upset when he sees a child getting yelled at, or even worse, being physically hurt. Sometimes, there is nothing that we can do in these situations but talk to our children and model how we can make the world a healthier and more positive place.
In case anyone would like an idea of what I would say to my kids about the questions asked at the beginning, here they are.
Why are parents mean to their kids? My 5 year old asked this just a few days ago.
“Sometimes people just don’t know another way to do things. Some parents had a really rough childhood where their parents did the same thing to them so it’s all they know. It isn’t the right way to treat people. We can try and educate people that there are better ways, kinder ways. But they have to be open to hearing it.” My son asks lots of questions and understands all of this. He then followed up with, “why do parents hit their kids? Doesn’t that hurt them?” I say, “yes it does. No one should ever hit a child.” And it goes round and round for awhile of “if it hurts them, why do they do it?” It’s tough to answer. And tough to answer without scaring him or breaking his heart even more than I can already see it breaking for those kids. But I will talk about it as much as he wants because it’s important to him and it’s important to me. I would be perfectly happy to raise future child advocates.
Why is that man sleeping on the side of the road?
Homelessness is very obvious in bigger cities. We can walk around downtown and see entire camps set up under bridges. Homelessness is very complicated. It isn’t an easy fix. Each individual situation is completely different to the next one.
“That man is sleeping on the side of the road because he is homeless.”
“You mean he doesn’t have a place to live? Why?”
“Well, it’s really complicated. Sometimes people can’t find housing. Or jobs. Or housing and a job. Some have addictions. Some have mental health issues.” I opened a lot of cans here for the little one to ask. I’m thankful he allowed me to save the questions on addiction and mental health issues for another time. Instead he asked, “do they have any family? Are they all alone? Where do they eat?” My heart was full with how empathetic my little man is, but also shattered by how deeply these situations touched him. I felt for him because I was that child. I remember when I was just a child walking with my mom at a baseball park. I saw a homeless man sitting under the bleachers. He was dirty and minding his own business. He caught my eye, or more like I caught his because I was staring at him. I smiled, waved, and said hi. He waved back. My mom hurried me along and said I shouldn’t talk to strange men. Which is true because I was a child. But the underlying message was fear. I became afraid of strangers and afraid to speak to them, especially if they looked different, as this person did. I want my son to be aware and educated, but also empathetic to things that are confusing and potentially scary. I want him to reach out and help others when he feels the desire, rather than hiding in fear of what could be.
“What is a war? Do people really try to hurt the other people with guns and bombs?”
This was asked by a child after visiting a museum. There was a bomber plane. War is complicated. It is definitely scary. The first words that come to mind when I think of war are death. Pain. Blood. Loss. How do you explain these things to children. If my son asked about war, it would probably be the most abstract of all of the questions, especially for a 5 year old. War is armed conflict between different nations or people. How do you explain that. Probably as easy as explaining why terrorists flew a plane into a massive tower full of innocent people. There is no conceivable explanation. Someday, when we discuss events like the Holocaust, I will point out the good that a war can bring. Can it actually bring any good? I know that without anyone standing up and fighting, then millions more Jewish people would have lost their lives. I think people with power and morals need to stand up as soon as something like genocide starts happening, rather than waiting for a sign to attack; like the invasion of Poland. Sometimes guns and bombs hurt good people. But sometimes they hurt bad people too. 6 million people needn’t have died. It’s complicated. I will have these discussions with my kids as they grow. I won’t hide the grisly and devastating truth. If I hide it, what’s to say that history won’t repeat itself, as it continually does.
“Why do people die? Will you die? When?”
Although death is scary because it is unknown, it feels like the easiest to answer. Maybe because I’ve answered it so much lately. For my 5 year old, I usually say “when you die, it is when your body stops working.” You can continue on with your spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs as we do with our kids. The other day, my mom was visiting, and walked in on our discussion. My son had asked about how people die. I had made the mistake previously of saying people die usually when they are old. He has no idea what defines old and started asking if I was old, if my mom was old, and so on. So I realized I needed to be more specific. When he asked this time, I gave more concrete reasons like sometimes people drown (which we have talked about when swimming), sometimes people get fatally injured in car accidents. My mom said I shouldn’t tell him these things because they will scare him. But I feel I would be doing a greater disservice by not answering his questions because then he is left to his 5 year old imagination that people just drop dead because of no reason at all. I’m sure I give too much information at times, but I want to be honest and open.
Kids are going to ask those tough questions. By being honest, open, and empathetic, we can provide our children with the tools, comfort, and security to overcome this anxiety about things that are out of our control and eventually develop into world changers.