“Will a soo-mami come all the way to Greenbelt?”
“What if the earthquake knocks my bunk bed down and it squishes me?”
“Is the nuclear reactor gonna burn our eyeballs out?”
It wasn’t an easy parenting weekend for anyone with little kids and a news addiction.
The questions about the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan were rolling in nonstop, parents told me.
Explaining disasters to small children is a seriously complicated business. And for any kid who watched that jaw-dropping footage of a killer wall of dirty water smashing houses, crunching cars and killing thousands after the earthquake in Japan last week, this one is going to take some hard-core verbal tap dancing by adults.
Grave parent-to-kid talks generally fall into one of the categories of an unholy trinity: sex, drugs and death.
Barring any unlocked bedroom doors or Barrymore genetics, the sex and drug talks usually come at predictable milestones.
The death talk, however, has gone from goldfish or grandma to a new subcategory for this generation: catastrophe. Massive, frightening, outsized catastrophe.
And that chapter didn’t make it into the Dr. Sears parenting book.
Today’s children are growing up in a world where book bags are searched on the Metro, tiny bodies are fully scanned at the airport, water rises to rooftops in some cities, buildings flatten like pancakes and an ocean wave can be taller than Godzilla.
Questions like “Why is the sky blue?” are a picnic compared with “Why do we have to remove our shoes in the airport?”
Disaster is not unique to this generation of American children. Certainly, there are kids who have seen death and destruction up close, in ways no human should ever experience.
The difference today is the way our digital world has afforded us up-close and immediate proximity to calamity wherever it occurs, making sure the latest horror is spread throughout the land.
Whereas a disaster such as Japan’s earthquake once would have been recorded with pictures in the paper and footage on the evening news , the amazing, all-access, 24/7 coverage available on iPads, mobile phones and televisions can haunt little minds everywhere, all the time.
It is particularly acute in a place like Washington, where hyper-connected, supremely (self) important parents might feel the need to be plugged in to every development as it unfolds.
Imagine having cable news on in the house all day, Dad issuing live updates from his #tsunami and #marchmadness Twitter feeds while Mom clicks on one disturbing YouTube video after another and live-chats online about the Lululemon Athletica murder in Bethesda.
It’s enough to make any child nostalgic for the Cold War desk-duck drills or even a fallout shelter routine.
At least Anderson Cooper wouldn’t follow you underground.
Various experts suggest you use this as a time to explain grief and validate fears — but also to provide comfort.
My own parents — and maybe yours, too — would have seized on the suffering to smack the ever-living entitlement, greed and materialism out of me. “See how lucky you are? We still have a house! We’re still alive!”
I try not to give in to that urge. But is it a time for science lessons or prayer?
Do you explain the tragedy and then counter with a project to raise pennies to help — turning a child’s fear into benevolence?
Or do you opt for a total news blackout? Turn the televisions off, put down the BlackBerry and preserve the poor child’s innocence.
My boss tells me how deftly she — a newswoman and news junkie — shielded her younger son, then a second-grader, from that searing image of a plane hitting the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
That lasted for just a couple of days, until he spotted a television in a restaurant that was turned on, and sure enough the plane smashed into the tower, right before his eyes. He was horrified.
What kid wouldn’t be?
Kids will find that awful video clip quicker than they’ll find the last box of Thin Mints you stashed in the back of the freezer if they want to see it.
At our house this weekend, we kept the television off and didn’t really talk about the earthquake much.
We stopped at church and prayed for the victims. My younger son quickly added a request for “15 puppies” to his missive. I resisted thumping him for it.
But my kids were keenly aware of my panic as I phoned family trying to locate my brother.
Uncle Mike lives on a boat in California. (He bought it on eBay. It looks worse than it sounds.) And he spends many of his weekends fishing the Northern California shores that were hit hardest by waves.
“Did Uncle Mike get smashed by the tsunami?” my older son asked.
So we talked about tsunamis and earthquakes and looked on a globe to see where it all happened. And that seemed to quell any fears.
What they didn’t seem to understand was why Uncle Mike was out looking for a surfboard rather than answering calls from his frantic family.
Easy enough lesson to teach: Always call your mother. But there is so much more to grapple with in this tragedy. There’s the immeasurable human grief, the desperation and the looming threat of nuclear meltdown.
For now, a hug, some pennies for charity and a simple prayer will have to do. I’ve got at least two more unholy talks in my future.