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Talking to Kids About Tragedy :: Perspectives From Two Moms

talking to kids about tragedy perspectives from two moms

There is so much going on in the world right now — some of it is inspiring, some of it is disheartening. And, there will probably always be this juxtaposition of inspiring and disheartening. But, one thing remains consistent: as parents we have to weigh how much we share with our children, especially when tragedy strikes.

In talking with other moms one thing is clear: there is no one right way to discuss these events with your kids because each parent has to adjust to the needs of their children and consider the history of their own family when determining a best approach to the difficult topics.

9/11, Sandy Hook, the Charleston Massacre and more … below two moms share how they parent when tragedy occurs.

Kristi’s Family

I grew up in the seventies and eighties, and there are three key moments of history that I remember distinctly from my childhood – the attempted assassination of President Reagan, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the wedding of Charles and Diana.

What all three had is common is that although I was miles away, I saw them on the news, and heard reporters talking about them, and so remember them with clarity, even though they did not affect my life in any personal way.

Princess Diana's Wedding dress, 1981

Although I was miles away, I saw them on the news, and heard reporters talking about them, and so remember them with clarity, even though they did not impact my life in any personal way.

The Impact of TV

The impact of TV on the way we experience things hit me anew on 9/11 when, like most of the world, I was glued to the news or the Internet for weeks, trying to make sense of something that would never make sense but had changed our world forever.

I was very much a TV and news junkie when I got married, but my husband not so much, and as newlyweds, we decided to go TV-free, a commitment we have stuck to through the years. We have a television, but no cable or satellite services, so we use it only to watch DVDs, which are carefully selected.

I was especially glad for my husband’s foresight on television when our daughter was born. Sure, she saw her share of Dora and Winnie the Pooh, thanks to friends who passed along their children’s DVDs to us, but also our old favorites, including the old Waltons series.

It was while watching one of the shows from this series that I caught a glimpse into my daughter’s sensitive heart. She was about three years old and in the episode, the youngest boy, Jim-Bob, brings a hamster home from school, only to have it die over the weekend. I noticed my daughter tearing up, to both of our surprises. She wanted to know why the hamster died and if it would go to heaven. And she wanted to know why she felt sad.

Our Approach to Explaining Tragedy to Our Daughter

It was an insightful moment for both of us, one I remembered when, a year later, we heard of the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Because of not having a TV, we learned of the heartbreaking details on the Internet, so had the luxury of discussing it out of earshot of our daughter. We wrestled with the question of telling her about it or not, and chose not to. We reasoned that she was unlikely to hear of it at preschool or church, and the details were too much for our hearts to bear, much less a sensitive almost-five-year-old. And so even today she is unaware of the evil that took place in that gentle town.

When the shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church happened last month, I had to think through those questions again.

Our circumstances have not changed much. We still don’t have cable, and now we homeschool, so my daughter would not have heard about it from classmates or on the bus. But now she is seven and the question of how much to shield her from and how much to expose her to is before us. It is not as if she has never confronted death. Our family history includes five babies born to heaven in first and second trimester miscarriages, three between her and her brother and two in the last year. Our Naomi’s Circle ministry regularly reaches out to other bereaved parents, so the topic comes up often at home. In addition to that, she has lost a beloved pastor and a young Sunday School teacher unexpectedly in the last several years, and prays often for friends and family fighting cancer.

The way we have chosen to deal with these, and the way we dealt with the news from Charleston and other headlines, is by careful exposure. We do not show her unfiltered news items on the Internet or let her see raw pictures. We do not want those images seared on her tender mind and heart, not yet. But we have shared some of what happened, in careful words that she can understand without the stark images that can cause unnecessary fear.

I especially shared with her the story of Tywanza Sanders, the young man who was shot protecting others. We have talked about the crime, but more than that, we have talked about the love that motivates someone to lay down his life for others and that helps people to forgive, and we will talk about it again, as it comes up and as she matures and can handle more and more knowledge.

DC Vigil for Charleston Church Massacre

I especially shared with her the story of Tywanza Sanders, the young man who was shot protecting others.

It is a delicate balance, preserving and protecting our children’s innocence and childhood while at the same time preparing and strengthening them to handle the ugly in our world. I pray for wisdom everyday to do it well, so that both of my children keep their sensitive hearts for others as they grow into adulthood.

Kristen’s Family

Before we adopted children, we lived in Washington, DC. We were there for the Supreme Court Bush v Gore ruling in 2000. I remember going to the Supreme Court after work to observe all of the people exercising their rights. I successfully positioned myself behind reporter Dan Abrams and he asked me: “Which side are you protesting for?” I replied, “I don’t feel passionately about either one of them, I’m just here to watch this amazing process.” He told me it was the best answer he heard all day and to stand over his shoulder so I could be on TV. From that, a news junkie was born.

My Children — Adopted Minorities and the Truth About Their Future

Once we adopted our children, the news hasn’t been on as much but we do occasionally watch. But, my son attends public school so some of these items he has heard within the classroom setting. We’ve addressed tough situations like the attacks of 9/11, Newtown (we were only living 30 minutes from there at the time so there was no escaping it) and now the tragic hate crime in Charleston. Each of these issues has brought up questions in my son that I feel we have to face head on and prepare him with the truth.

Neither of my children will ever be President of the United States. How do I know this? Well, they were born in Korea and adopted at ages 9 months and 22 months. My son does not understand that some will always view him as a minority immigrant. He thinks it’s ridiculous that he can’t be President and is going to settle for a sky-scraper builder instead.

Answering Tough Questions From My Child About Race

But with each major incident he also hits me with extremely hard questions. On one occasion he simply stopped playing with his trains and said “Mom, today we learned about when black and white people couldn’t be friends. Would you have been friends with them out loud or only in quiet so you wouldn’t get in trouble?”

My parenting gears came to a screeching halt. What on earth would make an 8 year old ask me that question while playing with trains? For him, he’s always asking thousand of follow up questions as he processes, trying to make the irrational, rational.

My children come from a beautifully modern, yet traditional country. Korean people are filled with a kindness and grace towards Americans landscaped with modern buildings next to ancient temples. However, the Korean society is fairly homogenous and diversity is a foreign and growing concept. Had my children grown up in Korea they would never know the richness, and the discord, that living in a diverse and free country can bring. It brings me pride and heartache at the same time.


Raising my children among such diversity is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Because our family has been formed through international adoption and we are parenting children with whom we do not share a race, it has become important for me to show them how unique it is to see democracy and diversity in action while also being completely upfront with him about events in the world and how people might view him because he was not born in this country and is Asian.

Answering Tough Questions From My Child About Tragedy

I don’t know how to answer his questions with any other than brutal honesty that is appropriate for his 8 year old mind because he wants to know.

“Why did someone put a plane into the World Trade Center buildings?” Because some people like America and some don’t and those that don’t hate us so much they want to destroy our people and our buildings but we won’t let that stop us from living our life.

“Why did that man kill children in school?” Because some people have an illness in their brains so bad that they do things to hurt other people but not all people that have an illness in their brains do this.

“Why did that man kill people in Charleston?” Because some people have hate in their hearts for others that don’t look like they do but most people have love. You, my son, were not born in this country and are not white and some people might have a problem with it. But most won’t because love is greater than hate and this is why we attended the Unity Rally on July 4 in Columbia, SC. When people of different races, religions and ethnicities come together in peace and love, we develop faith in our fellow humans, despite our differences.

Day 36 Occupy Wall Street October 21 2011 Shankbone 38

Because we are parenting children with whom we do not share a race, it has become important for me to show them how unique it is to see democracy in action.

Our way of dealing with these delicate issues may not be the right way for every family, but for us, it is important to answer these questions directly and honestly so he not only is prepared for these issues when they may affect him, but empower him to know that people can come together for positive change. Once we’ve answered his question to his satisfaction, he’s able to move on, planning on building those skyscrapers.

How have you dealt with explaining tragedy to your children?

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