To say that Elsa and Clio are oblivious to what is going beyond the confines of their own small, safe world — home, nursery school, and the homes of their friends and grandparents — would be to put it very mildly.
Sometimes we look at maps together. And the girls are aware of the fact that there are other countries. They can even rattle off the names of some: England, France, Germany, India and China. (They’re into major economic powers, I guess.) But do they really grasp just how far away these places are? Or how different (or how similar) they are to where we live? They don’t even quite understand what “tomorrow” and “yesterday” mean, let alone miles or time zones.
So, even if we told them that something terrible happened in Japan, it wouldn’t mean much to them. And if we explained what an earthquake was, or a tsunami — well, it would probably just frighten them. (Is the ground going to shake here? Could a big wave come here?) Clio is spooked enough as it is by the ocean, and Elsa can’t get through the scary parts of most kids’ movies without a lap to burrow into.
So, we haven’t told them about Japan, because there doesn’t seem to be any reason. We don’t watch the news — for the most part we read it or listen to it on the radio — so there aren’t any images of destruction and misery for them to catch sight of that might need explanation. I doubt they’ll be told anything about the disaster at school. And Alastair and I don’t typically have in-depth conversations about current events — particularly disturbing ones — in the girls’ presence.
And frankly, I’m relieved we don’t have to explain things like this to them yet. I mean, jeez, I read Peter Pan to the girls tonight (the Disney-ed down version) and got flustered even having to explain what it meant that the pirates were making Wendy walk the plank. (“Is she going to go swim in the ocean?”) My girls don’t know what “drown” means and I didn’t particularly feel like teaching it to them. Who wants to teach such a word, such a concept, to your angel-faced, innocent, beautiful kids? (I think I hedged a little, saying she was going to have to walk into the ocean, and she wouldn’t be able to swim, and she might die. Even with that, I could feel Clio go still and quiet.)
But this is part of the job, isn’t it? Explaining to your children that there is lots of bad, sad, horrible, awful stuff in the world. And doing it in a way that doesn’t leave them too frightened or heartbroken or hardened. Helping them make sense of the things we can barely make sense of ourselves.
As the girls get older, it will become more difficult to avoid. But is strange, this sort of halfway-place we’re in between toddler/little kid obliviousness and a gradual dawning of more “big kid” awareness. I frequently feel like I’m on uncertain footing, not sure how much to shield and protect the girls from, and how much to let them see and begin to process. (Though I’m pretty confident that there’s no reason to be talking with them about the events in Japan, unless for some reason they hear or see something.)
What about you? Have you talked with your preschool-age kids about this or other tragedies?
My friend Tracey Hahn-Burkett recently wrote a thoughtful post about ways to talk with your children about disasters and the like (with a re-posting of an piece written last year, after the Haiti Earthquake). Read it here.