This week Elli's school had a fundraiser for Japan tsunami relief. Their charity of choice was the International Red Cross which seems like a fine place to send money if you are going to send it. I wondered a lot about whether they were actually going to be able to get the children to understand what is going on over there and how they would frame it. Clearly they want the kids to understand that people in other places have it pretty bad and that there is merit in helping them but they want to avoid making the kids scared that their everyday life is going to be destroyed by an earthquake or tsunami. How do you convey the magnitude of destruction that occurred in Japan while giving your child an accurate idea of how safe they really are from such things?
I asked Elli on our way to school if she understood what had happened over there. She answered "The ground shook and buildings fell down and a big wave came and smashed everything and people got hurt and died." I can't argue with that summary at all so I guess the school did a decent job of communicating to her what went on. I was curious as to whether or not I would have to follow up with corrections or more explanations as children have greater difficulty understanding things like that which are so far out of their realm of experience. She seemed to have a good idea of what went on but I also wanted to be sure that she understood that such things occurring was a very rare thing and that we would likely never see such a thing happen. I reminded her that we had an earthquake last year in Toronto (horrific photo of the destruction from the Great Toronto Earthquake is at the bottom of the post) and that earthquakes happen all over the world but that very few of them were really dangerous like this last one in Japan.
What I ideally want for Elli is an understanding that terrible things can and do happen in the world but that the only sensible response is to understand both the problem and the chance that it will happen and take careful, measured care to prepare for them. Worry, panic and fear are not useful and indeed are usually destructive responses to threats to our well being. When I was young my parents taught me how to deal with different kinds of animals and the lessons almost always came down to
1. Learn about the animal. Find out if it has any particular things that set it off.
2. Respect the animal. Do not threaten things it cares about: Babies, food, home.
3. Do not fear the animal. Stay calm. When you are calm they will take the hint and do the same.
Whether you approach a dog, a bear, a wolf or a person you move slowly and without threatening gestures, stay away from their children/food/home and stay calm. I watched the effects of teaching children that dogs were dangerous, malevolent creatures last summer and was just horrified by the resulting conflict, panic and terror that ensued every time the children saw a perfectly friendly dog. The same applies for disasters; understand it, prepare for it, do not be afraid. I am very happy with the way I have prepared Elli for dealing with animals so far as she has been able to be very friendly and comfortable with any dog she has come into contact with. Now I just have to hope that I can prepare her for dealing with the other challenges in her life in the same way. Those, however, are a lot harder to test. I can't exactly order up a small earthquake just so we can see how she reacts...