Switching on the news, I sat mesmerized by images of the shock and destruction that rocked Haiti in the aftermath of an unprecedented earthquake. In particular, I remember a picture of a small girl, surrounded by rubble, covered in dust with a deep gash on her cheek.
The memory of her stricken, wounded face stays with me.
How do kids react to global issues?
Countless Haitian children endured and suffered through this unthinkable tragedy. But what about here at home? Canadian children witnessed from afar the images of this event and were shaken by what they saw. They looked to their moms and dads, teachers and mentors for answers; that was certainly the case at Free The Children, where we field hundreds of phone calls each day from young people.
How do we talk to Canadian kids about these kinds of tragedies, whether it’s natural disasters or human atrocities? Should we protect them from some of the harsh realities of the world we live in?
Can kids handle heavy topics?
Jamie Podmorow contemplated these questions when she found herself with an extra ticket to a speech about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Could her fun-loving, soccer-playing, ten-year-old daughter, Alaina, handle such a heavy topic? Jamie wasn’t one to shelter her children: the family routinely watched and discussed the news together. At the last minute Jamie invited Alaina, thinking that if it was too much for her, they could leave.
At the speech, mother and daughter listened as Sally Armstrong, UNICEF’s special representative to Afghanistan, spoke in detail about the realities of life for Afghani women and girls. “The worst thing you can do is nothing,” she said. She painted a bleak picture of limited freedoms where many females are kept out of classrooms, work places and public life. The whole time, Jamie watched her daughter’s face for signs of boredom or confusion.
Your kids might surprise you
At home that night, she told her father what she had learned and said she wanted to do something to help. The next morning at breakfast, Alaina announced that she intended to raise $750 to hire a teacher for Afghani girls for a year. After a string of successful fundraising events and the generosity of the local rotary club, Alaina and her friends were able to pay for no less than five teachers.
Page 1 of 2 - When it is appropriate to start discussions about global issues? Find out on page 2.
Still searching for more ways to help, Alaina remembered learning about Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, an organization started by two Calgarians in 1996. Together with 17 of her friends, Alaina founded Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan. She has been invited to speak across the country, inspiring more girls to start chapters of their own. The government agreed to match the group’s funds, and to date they have raised enough for over 500 teachers.
When should you start the discussion?
Knowing when to start discussions about tragic world events can be the hardest part. Studies from the University of Toronto and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, say that while seven is an appropriate age, as young as four may be necessary. This seems surprising, but if you think about it our culture is already full of images of violence, so if trying to decide if your four-year-old is ready to handle media coverage of buildings collapsing around terrified people, may be moot.
Furthermore, by not being exposed to these kinds of situations, children may feel untouched or unaffected – and therefore not feel the need to act. Or, if not discussed, kids may be confused about the images they see on television and become overwhelmed by fears and anxieties about this happening to them. The solution, many experts feel, is to talk.
As parents, you can simply listen, understand and reassure. You can ask how your children feel about the images they see. If they’re older, you can talk to them about empathy and ask them if they can imagine themselves in a similar situation. How would they feel? And what can they do here to help?
The key is to not overwhelm children with problems, but to help them feel compassion and empower them to take action to help those in need.
Tips for parents:
1. Help your child appreciate that large-scale issues are complex and can take months, if not years, to understand. Pause to help them put things into context and discuss their questions and concerns.
2. Show your kids they can be part of the solution, and talk about how they can help. Depending on their age they can do such things as send cards to our troops in Afghanistan, or put together care packages for a homeless shelter. Spend time discussing what they’d like to do to help and find a solution as a family.
Note: The material for this article was drawn from our book, The World Needs Your Kid, coauthored by journalist and mom Shelley Page. To find out more about our book, visit the Me to We website.
Page 2 of 2 - Don't be afraid to tackle difficult issues. Learn how to openly talk about what your kids see in the news on page 1.