The Tragedy in Japan: How Much Do We Tell Our Budding World Citizens?


It’s been a rough week when it comes to world news. It’s impossible to turn on a television or pull up an internet opening page without seeing images and stories coming out of Japan. The numbers of dead, missing, and suffering are hard to comprehend.

As I catch the tears that beg to fall from my own eyes, I am forced to think about my youngest son. He and I regularly watch the news in the morning, as we have our oatmeal together, before he heads off to school. But in the past week we’ve been  bombarded with stories from our devastated neighbors to the east.

Pictures of cars being tossed around like his hot wheels in the bath tub. Pictures of little children, crying and hurt. Pictures of moms and dads, desperately searching for their children. It’s a lot for a ten-year-old to take in.

I'd love to protect his innocense.

My deepest desire is to shield him from all of it. Not just the pain in Japan, but the pain in life. I know that’s irresponsible parenting, so I try to find the line that is balanced. I want him to have a world view, to understand that people live, work, love, laugh, enjoy life, in other cultures and on other continents. But to know those other people exist is to connect with those other people. And as he begins to count them as his worldly neighbors, he is then even more moved when they are slammed by a natural disaster even worse than things he’s seen in the movies.

I want him to know about this disaster, to watch it unfold as survivors continue to be found and nuclear power plants threaten to melt down. But I have to remind myself about one important fact. He’s ten. He’s only ten. There’s only so much a ten-year-old can process and deal with.

It probably doesn’t help that we are in the middle of a huge upheaval of our own, as we are cleaning out our home in New York and preparing to move across the country. He’s excited about our new home state, he’s dreamed of living in Colorado since we moved away from the West five years ago. But he’s old enough to also understand that a move can be happy and sad.

The night we found out about the move, after the excitement had worn off a bit, he came to me and said, “moving might be sad too….”  I told him I completely agreed and reassured him that there will be roller coasters of emotions in the next few months. So far he’s only had a few really sad days, and is mostly riding the wave of excitement about finally having his own room and being able to ski every weekend in the winter again.

But seeing devastating pictures coming from the television every morning, as we have our oatmeal in front of the Today Show, has made me wonder how much is too much for this kid to handle. How do I keep him in touch with the events in Japan, so he can look back years from now and say he remembers living through this historical event, yet not overwhelm him with emotional challenges?

I had a similar struggle years ago, in the early months of 1999. My children were 2, 6 and 7. We were driving some back road in Missouri, probably going to meet their daddy at one of his archeology sites. The van radio was set on the public radio station. It was an historic day. The Senate was voting whether to impeach our president. I wanted our kids to be aware of the significance of the day, but realized it might be tricky, considering the details that led to threats of impeachment.

I fumbled my way through explaining the politics part, how our president might be kicked out of his job, and how it rarely happened, but was a good reminder of the flexibility of our type of government. Then the inevitable question came up. “Why do they want to kick him out, Mommy?”

Knowing how my kids processed the world, the best I could come up with was, “You know how daddy and I are married and we’re not allowed to kiss other people?…Our president is married too, and he was kissing another lady.”  It was enough for them. They couldn’t imagine a more startling accusation. It had never even occurred to them that a married person could kiss someone else. It worked, for that moment.

But as time went on, and they grew older and wiser, news stories continued to surface. Having a mixed age group at our dinner table made it even more complicated. Things I might discuss with our 17-year-old were not even close to being appropriate for our 7-year-old who sat across from her.

It’s one of the tricky parts of parenting, the kind rarely covered in “what to expect” books. We live in a news-saturated world, and hear about every event within minutes of its happening. The pictures come to us almost instantly and video follows not far behind. But just because it’s there, does that mean we need to see it all? Or that our kids need to see it all? Is it possible to share the events with our kids, helping them to become compassionate world citizens, yet not unknowingly cause them stress that makes them feel scared or unsafe?

My fellow GeekMom, Laura, found this post, which might be helpful to those of us with young children. But I’d also like to know, how do you decide how much of this latest natural disaster in Japan you share with your children? Feel free to throw in your ideas and practices. As always, my parenting journey is a constantly evolving process. I’m open to suggestions. And I think other pondering parents are too.

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