Parents talk with kids about terrorism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Why does the sun rise in the east? How do bees make honey? When will that flower bloom? Naturally curious about their world, children often bombard parents with questions. Mom and dad might roll their eyes with amusement about such incessant questioning, but they can usually muster up a quick and satisfying response.

Not so during the past week. Questions posed to parents since the recent terrorist attacks have called for more thoughtful and sensitive responses than ever before. Children look to adults for answers, but this time, there are no easy explanations. One can't simply fire off a response to a child who at bedtime demands to know: "Are they going to fly an airplane into our house?" "Will those firefighters ever be found?" or "Why do some people hate us?"

Family experts are now urging parents to reassure their children that they are safe, loved, and protected; to listen carefully to their questions and answer them honestly and accurately but without excessive detail; and to keep television and radio reports from blaring 24/7. And, of course, they say, comments need to be geared to a child's age and maturity. The talk one has with a toddler will obviously be more basic than with a preteen. Finally, many suggest, families can pray together.

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Many parents seem to have known all of this intuitively. When asked to share with the Monitor recent conversations they've had at home, here's what some parents across America told us:

We have an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. Together we placed an American flag outside, and said a prayer. We watched TV with them, balancing our explanation of what happened with hugs and words to let them know they are safe. We likened it to the day JFK was shot, and explained what it means to be a witness to history. Then we stopped explaining. They must be allowed to be children and go on with their lives. It is their right.

Steven Greene Newark, N.J.

I wanted my 7-year-old son to know this wasn't a movie, a cool stunt. Let's face it, the images on TV looked like something out of the movie "Independence Day," which he has seen numerous times. I'm not sure there is any way to explain the profound sadness that is settling in. I think the most important thing is to just make him feel safe.

Alyson O'Mahoney

Mount Kisco, N.Y.

I have two little girls, ages 6 and 4-1/2. We don't want them to see any television images of this tragedy. We have tried to shelter our youngest completely, but we knew the oldest would hear things in school, so we tried to put it in the most basic terms. We told her that "there are some bad people in the world, and they do bad things that hurt people, but there are many, many more good people, and they are here to help. You are safe. Mommy and Daddy are here to protect you." It's easy to say all this, but it's a shame we even have to have this conversation.

Ed Cafasso Boston

I picked up my 8-year-old son, Henry, after school on the day the attacks took place. His social-studies teacher had already explained the events quite well, but he was still confused on one point. "Mom," he said, "the plane crashed into a pentagon ... or maybe it was a hexagon."

Anne Lewis Houston

I am the mother of 5- and 7-year-olds. We watched the news together on Tuesday, Sept. 11. I wanted them to see our president speaking to the United States citizens, so that they could try to understand our government's leadership and ability to defend and protect our country's freedom and beliefs. We said prayers for all the civilians who lost their lives. They wanted to know who was responsible, and we told them we did not know. We didn't want to guess, which would only promote prejudice toward certain groups.

Carol Foster Poway, Calif.

Our two oldest children were surprisingly quiet about the attack. My initial sense was that they did not hear about the news. But when my wife and I spoke to them at bedtime, my son, who's 6, told us that his school had held an assembly about it. He said that as administrators spoke, he cupped his hands over his ears so he couldn't hear them. We told him that there are some people who do bad things, but that most people in the world are nice. He seemed to take some solace in that. My daughter, age 5, seemed less attuned to the events. But during prayers, while blessing relatives and friends, she said, "And bless the airplanes."

Andy Baron Massachusetts

My wife and children, age 4 and 1-1/2, are in Israel, where we have lived for eight years, while I look for work in the US. My children have been exposed to constant terrorist threats there, and have been forced to grow up faster than usual as a result. Age is not a barrier to communication about these matters. Of course, we talk more with my daughter, who is older, than my son, but we are forced to talk with both of them. They know children who have been killed in bombings, parents who have been lost in reserve duty, and they have their own gas masks, required in Israel after a child's birth. I tell them they are safe and protected. My daughter saw the World Trade Center buildings on TV and was worried about me. I talk with her often by phone and comfort her. The more parents communicate with their children about the situation as they support and reassure them, the better. Children know we love them, but we need to keep expressing it.

Charles Harris

Orange County, Calif.

If you'd like to share recent conversations you've had with your children about terrorism, please e-mail wolcottj@csps.com.

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