Talking About Haiti
When the earthquake first happened I didn't know if I should shield my kids from the news or address it outright, and for the first day I didn’t do either. Eventually, it it became obvious that I could not protect my anxiety-prone 9-year old nor my innocent seven-year old from the news. I tried to be casually serious, or seriously casual, I didn’t want to scare them but I also wanted to be clear about the extent of the tragedy. It wasn't until my four-year old ran in with an envelope from school with shreds of red and blue string in it and grabbed some change explaining it was for the kids whose houses fell down, that I realized that it would be virtually impossible to protect any child from the news of the earthquake.
It is hard to know how to talk to your kids about tragedy. They are not immune to the constant talk of Haiti, the graphic photos on the cover of the newspapers and the push at schools to donate. So how do we balance the need to make the world seem like a safe and secure place with the reality of a global tragedy?
Take the lead from your child, says Doone Estey, parenting coach with the Parenting Network. Talk to your child calmly and succinctly. Ask questions like: ‘have you seen some pictures from Haiti?’ even if you know the answers. Always answer their questions but don’t go any further then their questions are leading.
Convey the seriousness of the tragedy. If you are talking in hushed tones in another room, the kids’ imaginations could run away with them, said Estey. You never know what they have heard from their friends or on the news, so keep your answers truthful.
Acknowledge their fears. Children often see the world from a narcissist view point and their fears need to be recognized and not dismissed. So if that means showing them the thickness of your walls or the area of the world where earthquakes happen, then take the extra time to do that. Assure them that you will protect them.
Tell them that help is on the way. Explain that people all over the world are sending money, medical aid and food to help people in Haiti. Do not get enmeshed in the complications of aid delivery unless they bring it up.
Address the why question (and all the others). Older kids will probably want to know why this happens, as they are just starting to figure out the randomness of life. Take this as an another opportunity to admit that you don’t have all the answers and sometimes bad things happen (or however you answer this question in your life).
Try and turn their fear into action. You can say “yes, it is awful. What can we do to help?” Most schools are doing some form of fundraising, but if your child want to do something check out Unicef’s fundraising page and list of ideas. Canadians can even use Bilaal Rijan as an example of a young person who is making a world of a difference. He is challenging every student to raise $100 for Haiti. Estey warns not to force kids to use their own money for donations. Show a good example by donating some of your own money and suggest they add to the pool. Or find a fun way to raise money together. Doing something, whether it is donating money or organizing a fundraiser is a way to fight against the feelings of hopelessness.
Look for the teachable moments: Whether that is looking into the science of earthquakes, the nitty-gritty of building strong housing or Haitian history and culture. (The New York Times has some good learning resources.) You may find yourself meandering through topics that have nothing to do with Haiti – and that’s okay.
Check in with them. Two weeks later the coverage is not stopping, and the images may get worse before they get better. You know your kid, could they still be worried about the situation without telling you? They maybe thinking about one particular child or situation that they heard. Once the stories have disappeared off the front page, children may think that we have forgotten or that something even worse has happened.
So how did you tell your kids about Haiti? Is it still a topic of conversation? Are the kids donating money or doing any fundraising?