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What to Say to Children - 2001-09-20

Many Americans are still asking themselves how terrorists could have so easily staged attacks in the United States. Many parents are also wondering how to explain the tragedy to their children.

At Blessed Sacrament Parochial school outside Washington, DC, the principal, Valerie Garcia, says she has been carefully observing the students. Sha said, "I think they feel safe here, and I think the teachers help to make them feel safe."

Eighth grade teacher is Ann Carney said, "Our directive from our wonderful principal was to let them discuss their feelings and everything. They didn't want to discuss their personal feelings. They wanted to know what they could do. I have a list of 24 things that the eighth graders came up with they're so anxious to help somebody out: they want to make lapel ribbons and sell them and take the money and send it to New York or D.C., wherever the money is needed. They want to make cards for all the volunteers working down at the Pentagon and send them their best wishes. They want to make sure that flags are flown all over the school area. They want to go down and cook a meal for the firefighters [at the Pentagon], which I thought was lovely."

Andrew Baroch: "So I assume tomorrow and the next day and the next day, you'll be looking in their eyes and seeing, 'Okay how much of this concern is still there?'"

Ann Carney: "Oh yes, it's going to be a constant thing we'll do all year long."

Tressie Chipres is one of the parents at Blessed Sacrament School. She said, "I have a 15-year old and an eleven-year old, When I left home earlier, he [the 11-year old] was back home with his older brother, and he had pulled out his 'Light-Bright' set. [What is that?] It's a little plastic contraption with a light bulb underneath a panel. You have these little pegs different colored pegs. He took the different colored pegs and made a U.S. flag out of it and put it where people could see it from the street. Clearly, we have not ever responded to anything as large as this."

Back in the studios at VOA, I talked by phone to an expert on what to tell children about this tragedy. Marlene Young is the executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. I asked Ms. Young, what is that organization?

Marlene Young: "We use the acronym, NOVA, for it, and NOVA has been in existence for 25 years, 15 of which we've spent responding to disasters and catastrophes of all types with teams of crisis interveners who go to schools or community meetings to help people deal with the tragedies they face. We've had teams where 7,000 people were killed in Kobe, Japan, as well teams as at the Oklahoma City bombing and and teams at school shootings."

Andrew Baroch: "What are the most common questions children have and how can adults answer the questions?"

Marlene Young: "I think the most common question we hear is why did this happen and how did it happen. I guess that's two questions. Of course, we can't answer really the 'why' except that I think that based on a lot of what our leadership is saying that it's probably a time that when children ask that question to say that there is good and bad in the world. I don't think it's wrong to say this was done by an evil person or bad person - and that's what caused all of this chaos, these deaths, and this anguish. 'How did it happen. How did their adult world let this happen?' I think then we can simply say, 'Sometimes we're not able to know everything that's going to go on and know what other people are going to do -- and that we see this often in life. It's very sad it happened in such a destructive way, but it is a part of what we face every day as human beings. We're very sad for what has happened and for the victims - but we're going to keep you [children] as safe as we possibly can."

Andrew Baroch: "You have dealt with tragedies in other parts of the world, and I'm sure you've dealt with children's questions [there]. Are they universal?"

Marlene Young: "They're very much universal. Children's biggest concern is 'what's going to happen to me?' So the best thing we can do is maintain routines for them - make sure they feel like life is going on regularly even if it may not be for us as adults, that they're getting taken care of by someone they trust and that they know that their lives continue. You might have to go over it [these issues] with children repeatedly. They may come up with what you think is 'well, I've already answered that question.' But to use a very sort of mundane example: If you're going on a trip for two hours with young children, they often ask over and over again, 'Are we there yet?' You can explain to them over and over, 'We're not' or how long it will take, but the question keeps coming up. I would expect from many young children that they'll be asking over and over as they continue to see us as adults involved in this situation, they'll continue to ask, 'what's going on, why did it happen, are people are dead?' And if they see a [television] show which involves survivors who are crying or grieving, it's a useful sort of learning moment to help them understand that it's always very, very sad when someone is killed. It's perfectly acceptable to cry if you feel frustrated, sad, or angry. These can be for our children important points in time in which we can teach them to begin to cope better with the world."

Marlene Young is the executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.