Help kids make sense of tsunamis

Perhaps it was the timing that made the Indian Ocean tsunami all the more staggering.

To wake up after a day of rejoicing, gifts, and way too much food to such terrible news from the other side of the globe was almost too much to bear.

Though the first casualty reports were in the low thousands, somehow I knew in the end there would be so many, many more. To think of the loss others were facing hurt my heart. Would you understand if I said I wanted it to hurt my children's hearts too?

I've always had this thing about not getting too comfortable, always felt compelled to teach my kids not to take our security and material blessings for granted.

For years, I've cut out National Geographic pictures of children all over the world - eager African children crowded in ramshackle classrooms, kids coming home from the market with bunches of fish on their heads, squatting on a dirt floor to shape tortillas with Mama, herding sheep with Papa. Like the ticker running at the bottom of the news channel screen, they hang at kids' eye level throughout our house, subliminal reminders that our American lifestyle isn't really the norm.

As a Montessori teacher, I was taught to do this - to introduce at an early age the diversity of the world through striking visual images. I was also trained to look at things through children's eyes. And so when a cataclysmic event occurs, my first thought is with them.

My advice for parents:

• Do all you can to make this a meaningful event for your children, and to manage the meaning in a way that will build their character, their compassion, and their willingness to sacrifice for those in need. Also remember that there may be fears pulling like an undertow beneath a sunny surface. Hold your children close; be ready to listen and to reassure.

• Watch the post-tsunami coverage with them, putting the images into words. Don't let your little ones be blindsided by glimpses of broken bodies and weeping parents on TV or in the paper. Without your intervention, these images can produce deep fears that children have no language to share.

• Show them on a globe where you live and where the tsunami struck.

• Teach them to give, but teach them in a way that involves real sacrifice on their part. Put a jar in the middle of the table - as a constant visual reminder - and fill it with change that would have gone to sweets or movie rentals or something currently taken for granted. Young children can comprehend the abstract only when we make it concrete. The sight of the jar, the sound of the change hitting the glass - these seem insignificant to us, but will shape memories for children of their first sacrificial giving.

• Above all, read to them or tell them the stories of survivors. These will instill a message of hope, reinforcing in your children the habit of turning in that direction when times are tough.

Look for stories of courage and selflessness. I was particularly struck by the tourists who, despite their own hardship or loss, rolled up their sleeves and pant legs and went to work wherever they could. At my house this led to an interesting family discussion - What would you do? How I hope my own children will grow up able to ease their grief by helping others!

Be sure to tell your kids the story of Tilly Smith, the 10-year-old British girl who, according to The Sun newspaper, saved her family and 100 others. She was on a beach of Phuket, Thailand, with her mother, father, and 7-year-old sister when the tide rushed out. While others gawked in bewilderment, Tilly - who'd had a science lesson on tsunamis two weeks earlier - warned that they were in danger. Because of her quick thinking, the beach was evacuated before the waves crashed, and no one on that beach was seriously injured or killed.

The lesson: Even a little person can make a big difference.

But I'm hoping for an even bigger lesson as we all absorb what has happened. Perhaps the good that may finally come of this terrible, terrible event is that none of us will ever again be able to stick our heads in the sand, ignoring the world beyond our small communities.

And our kids may grow up living locally, but thinking globally - and consistently making choices that show they care.

Barbara Curtis a writer and mother of 12. Her fifth book, 'The Mommy Manual: Planting Roots to Give Your Child Wings,' will be published in April.

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