Talking with Kids About the Tsunami Disaster by By BRIAN DONOHUE, MA
Jan. 04, 2005
Parents here in New York City may particularly recall the challenge of discussing death, crisis, and tragedy with their kids. But it's an all-too-common fact of life in our time, no matter where you go; you might say it's become one of the defining dynamics of our era. If there can be said to be any transformative potential in such moments as 9/11 or the recent tsunami disaster, it lies in the way such shocks still the voice of ego and allow us to communicate on a more spontaneous and open plane of awareness -- especially with our children. To speak and listen honestly, openly, and respectfully with your kid (or any kid, for that matter) is one of the truly nourishing moments in a parent's life. These are truly the moments that promote the general healing in the field of consciousness that is so urgently needed after a crisis like the tsunami disaster of Asia.
My experience in this vein came yesterday -- New Year's Eve -- as I was writing my "grownup piece" on the disaster. My daughter approached me here at the computer as I was working, saw what I was doing, and asked if I was writing about "that thing that happened in India, where all the people died."
In the discussion that followed, I found, once again, that you will avoid mistakes if you discard from the beginning the attitude of the parent "explaining things" to the child. That approach always fails because it puts adult and child on an unequal footing -- I had observed this during the days after 9/11. So, this time, I asked Maria (my daughter) what she had heard about the disaster, and then I described what I was writing, and why. I pointed to the computer, where I had opened the CNN story (referenced in my "Two Questions" piece) about the odd fact that no dead animals were being found at the site of the disaster, and this got a spirited conversation going between us. Maria, a great lover of animals (not just dogs and cats, but any animal she comes across) was visibly relieved and happy to see that the animals seem to have escaped before the tsunamis arrived; and that allowed me to ask her some questions about what that might mean for us people. This led in turn to a lively and often humorous conversation about evolution, the animal nature of people, and the relationship between humans and their planet.
The conclusions we arrived at together in this conversation were, first, that Nature is not to be blamed or demonized for these events (this is a common error made by the mass media, making Nature into a monster); second, that whether we're descended from apes or from cats (there was a friendly disagreement on this point), people need to learn how to be animals again, so that they can benefit from the blessings that our animal nature offers us, and not just be "all brain" and nothing else. Welcoming your animal nature is not about thinking less, but feeling more -- it doesn't mean that you "give up" your thinking self or your language; it just means that you get rid of the dumb ideas that people have come up with about our animal nature being "lowly" and "sinful." Feeling your animal-nature also helps you to develop a more modest and mature vision of Nature, and the place that humans have in its vast fabric of diversity. Believe me: a ten-year old can understand this!
Finally, we agreed that we need to do whatever we can to help -- if they're organizing donation drives among the kids at school next week, Maria will get involved. And I reminded her of something else that we talk of frequently: Helpers. I said I'd be calling on Cosmic help to come to the aid of the people in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the other countries whose people had been hurt; and I asked Maria if she could call Helpers too. Maria knows all about Helpers, and calls on them herself whenever she feels a need, so she understood what I meant by calling Helpers for the people in Asia.
Based on this and other experiences I've had with Maria, I would remind other parents of the one guiding principle of parenting that I've had to continually remind myself of, whenever I'm tempted to "take control" and get pedantic on my kid: this is what I call the Principle of Sufficiency. Kids are born with all the neuro-cognitive and ontogenetic material and wherewithal to successfully navigate life with very little Ęsteering from their parents and other adults in their lives. Successful parenting, I have repeatedly found, is more about getting out of the kid's way than channeling her with pedagogy. Development happens when parents and teachers are able to show kids that they already know how to handle the myriad of tasks and responsibilities involved with living a decent human life -- reminding them of it, and then stepping out of the way and just watching. Thus, the guiding metaphor for teaching children is not the cultivation of an empty field but rather the tending of an already verdant garden.
I know this principle seems rather simplistic (remember, it's a principle, not a prescription), but my experience tells me that it works.
In fact, the greater the emotional import of the situation at hand, the more essential it is for the parent to guide as gently and minimalistically as possible. The other point I might have for parents in such encounters is not to feel religiously bound to instructional minutiae from "experts" in developmental psychology or such matters. If you're trying to remember a script that Dr. So-and-So had laid out during Good Morning America today, then you're not connecting with your kid at the most crucial time!
If people would only come to recognize the value of simple Love -- not love-as-possession or love-as-claim or any other kind of ego-warped love -- if they would only open their awareness to the essence of Love as the deep connection between autonomous individuals; the force that provides insight, communication, and protection -- then the fears, commandments, conflicts, divisions, petty moralisms, and pedantry of our culture would instantly be dispersed from the hearts of parents and children.