Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan -- The Kid Version

As many of you know, I have a 5-year-old son. As you may also know, I believe strongly in talking to children about traumatic events if they affect your family, if they are going to hear about them from somewhere else, or if you are very affected by them. Since my husband, my 12-year-old and I are talking a lot about Japan and it is all over the news, I have been talking to my 5-year-old as well. This seemed especially important since he has a little friend in his kindergarten class whose family is from Japan. I'll call him Taro.

My son knows about earthquakes. He heard about the one in Haiti, and that learning was reinforced when I went to Haiti to do some intervention work with kids last summer. His class also recently learned a little about plate tectonics, and his science fair project involved modeling how mountains form using sheets of lard floating in a pan of water. So we had a starting place.

On Friday, I explained that there had been a very huge earthquake in Japan. He immediately exclaimed, "Taro comes from Japan!" He was happy about this -- he had a personal connection to a grownup thing. That's a big deal when you're five. We then talked about tsunamis, which he has also heard of from a children's book called The Magic Fan in which the hero saves the town from a tsunami because he has built a giant bridge over the village. We talked about how the earthquake starts a big wave, and how, just like water sloshing in the tub, it sloshes one way and then sloshes the other. In this case, it sloshed all the way to Hawaii and California.

Interestingly, my son seemed to completely miss the idea that this was a scary thing. He's in the stage of his life where science is very cool and big things moving in the earth are even cooler. He does not connect that real people just like him live where all this is happening. It's like a cartoon to him, and that's probably just as well. His comment after I explained all of this was, "On Monday, I will tell Taro that there was a big earthquake and tsunami in Japan." I suggested that Taro might already know.

Over the weekend, my son asked what a nuclear accident is. This feeds into another parenting principle -- if they're asking, you need to answer. But explaining nuclear power to an adult is hard enough, let alone a kid. I explained it this way:

There are lots of different ways to make electricity. A lot of times, to make electricity you need something very hot. Often they use fire by burning coal or gas. Another way to make something very hot is called nuclear reaction. They take two chemicals and they bang them together, and it makes a whole new chemical and it gets very hot. The chemicals are dangerous, so they keep them in a strong container so they won't make anyone sick.  After they use the chemicals to make the electricity, they're still hot, so they put water around them to cool them down.

In Japan, they had a very smart system. As soon as there was an earthquake, the chemicals stopped banging together. That was really good thinking. But the earthquake broke the part that puts water around the chemicals to cool them down. So they are really, really hot and people are worried because they might melt the strong container and let some of the chemicals out, and people could get very sick from that.

This explanation is not very precise, but I thought it wasn't bad for a five-year-old's purposes, and my son seemed satisfied.

This morning, I asked him if he had talked to Taro about the earthquake. He replied, somewhat dejectedly, "Yeah, he already knew about it." I said I wasn't surprised, and that I guessed Taro's family was very worried. I said (and kicked myself for not saying earlier), "A nice thing to say would be, 'I heard about the earthquake. I hope your family is OK.'" Then, out of nowhere, my son said, "Taro says his grandmother was swept away in the tsunami. He also says that his house is gone and he doesn't know where he will live when he goes back to Japan."

Now, let me say up front that I have no idea if this is true. I don't know if Taro said it, and if he did, I don't know if he meant it. It is not at all unusual for kids -- either Taro or my son -- to "try on" a tragedy to experiment with what it would feel like or mean if it were true. Of course, it might be true. My son said that this was a discussion he had with Taro after school at daycare, so it wasn't at all clear to me that the adults knew about it. I put in a call this morning to my son's teacher and left her a message to let her know, in case she didn't, that either this family has suffered a terrible loss or that the kids are trying this trauma on for size. This triggers yet another principle -- if the kids are talking about it, you need to be talking about it too.

My son is still not too phased by the situation. He knows about it, and he knows it touches his friend. It certainly matters to him. But it's about at the level of the extinction of the dinosaurs in his mind. It happened, but it so remote from his experience that there's no real need to worry about it. I don't know about you, but I find myself wishing I could feel that way sometimes, too.


Anonymous said...

I love the way you explained the nuclear accident phenomenon to him--it's great to have a model for which words to use. So often I think we avoid these hard conversations with our kids because we just don't know what the "right" words are, and we're afraid of doing more harm by getting it wrong. You eloquently point out that not having the conversation at all is probably more harmful than a genuine but perhaps fumbling explanation. Thanks!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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