Thursday, January 14, 2010

What to tell a 10-year-old

I started this entry the day after the earthquake hit Haiti, and am just getting back to it now. Because such large scale disasters all have a very similar pattern, it's not hard to predict what would come next, and sure enough this disaster held true. It runs something like this: disaster, gather your senses, try to help self/others, find hospitals inundated/destroyed, try to find food/water/shelter, experience widescale looting/lawlessness, tent cities with sanitation and disease threats, large refugee movement, problems with communities absorbing refugees, and so on. It takes time to move help in and get organized.

A 7.0 earthquake hitting the poorest country in the western hemisphere is a double hit. 7.0 is the equivalent of a few nukes going off; and the logistics of helping people in a disaster of this magnitude are daunting, made worse by a modest infrastructure even before the quake almost completely scragged most of what they had.

The situation was updated minute to minute with more bad news, such as airplanes, the fastest form of immediate aid, being turned away. That's predictable too, since large planes need gas, a parking space and vehicles to offload them--logistics 101. (It rankles me a bit that the media almost immediately asked why it was taking so long for the US to mobilize help. Few understand the sheer immensity of what this entails.)

In the midst of this I got concerned about what I should be telling the resident 10-year-old about it. The news can inundate young minds with horror images even in a passing glance of TV or paper. I asked him every day what they were telling him in school, and closely monitored what he saw on TV; thankfully the direst images were not randomly splashed on Nick or Cartoon Network.

Surprisingly though, the schools here did not choose to discuss this with the 5th graders, so he is not getting any perspective except from his parents/guardians. So, I told him about the nature of the disaster, and a little about what it means to the people there (without being graphic about the tens of thousands of individual horrors being experienced). He was attentive but not deeply concerned, and I think that is probably typical for a 10 year old. However, the fallout of this earthquake will descend for quite some time and may eventually pierce even a grade schooler's simple world.

So what should we teach about this? It is an opportunity to compare to our own circumstance and see what we'd do to prepare; also to understand the challenges of keeping civilization on track in the midst of utter chaos. A major point would be on sympathy for the victims, how we might help them, and our obligation to do so. Lastly, not miss an opportunity to tell once again how fortunate we are to be living as well as we do, and not take it for granted. Preparedness, empathy, charity, community.

It would be great if kids never had to face the cruel side of nature, or the fact of our mortality, before they were ready as young adults. But, just not realistic. So, I will calmly ask each day what my fifth grader has heard about Haiti, and take a moment to touch on the points above. We'll see how it goes.

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