Voice | Parenting Tools | Elementary | Child Health + Development | Behavior + Discipline

Help your kids cope with oceans of images

It's a little bit easier to watch TV this month. The video of crying children with large, frightened eyes has been replaced by video of bulldozers and earth-moving machinery. Earth is the operative word here: We want to feel grounded again. We saw what the water moved and took away, and some of us still can't wrap our minds around the magnitude of this loss.

It is not so much the images of walls of water that distressed our children. As tidal waves go, this was not -- in most cases -- what Hollywood has told us one would look like (think "Hawaii 5-0" or "Day After Tomorrow"). It's not the oddball view of watching cars and buses floating along and parking themselves in trees (or boats).

One tsunami story bothered children more than the tsunami itself: Hearing that parents sometimes had to choose which of their children would live or die. While this story has a nightmarish effect on all of us as parents, the impact increases geometrically on children. Any kids that heard that story asked themselves the awful question: Would I have been let go?

It's easy to tell ourselves that such a disaster could not happen here, and from the safety of the front seat of the car, or the big pillow on the sofa, assuage the fears that such a choice would ever present itself in our tidy lives. But our children quickly point out that we are on the Pacific Rim, where earthquakes -- and thus tsunamis -- can happen. So they won't want to ask us that question.

Watching television showing a natural disaster shouldn't be all about inoculation (Quick! Change the channel! Turn it off!), but about empowerment. When a disaster like that occurs (not again within any of our lifetimes, we hope), the first activity must be to ask your child, "How do you think we can help?" This approach reminds children that even though the other side of the world is experiencing a catastrophe, this side of the planet can experience compassion -- and put it to good use. You will be surprised at the passion and enthusiasm you can tap into. It is, in fact, quite a wave of its own.

And as you discuss this with your children, you can point out that the parents whose children were swept up by the tsunamis did everything they could to save their families -- just as you would. You can make a disaster plan saying where you would meet in the event of a family emergency. You can choose a preventive measure (a tsunami warning system, for example) and ask your children to write a letter to our government, and those governments around the world, supporting such an action.

The very last thing we should do is to say nothing and let our children rewrite "Sophie's Choice" in their heads -- in living color.

With older children, you may be able to put December's images in a different perspective. This month, and every month, more people will die of diarrhea (149,000) malaria (165,000) and AIDS (240,000) than in the recent tsunamis. Yet for every $100 of national income, the United States gives 15 cents to developing nations. Add in private donations, and the amount reaches a whopping 21 cents. Based on our share of the population, out of 22 "civilized" countries, we ranked last.

We don't see those pictures. We don't hear those stories, or if we do, we don't put faces on them. But they are there. And in three or four months, when the impact of Dec. 26, 2004, begins to be felt in far-reaching social and economic terms, will we remember the images that swept us to our checkbooks and computers?

We have to. We owe it to our children, as well as to the ones who slipped away. In remembering, and continuing to act, no one is truly let go.

Lynn Ziegler has been media critic for Seattle-based Action for Media Education since 1991. Her book, Spongeheadz: U & MEdia will be published in 2005.

Tsunami relief: Where to give
  • American Red Cross: visit the Web site at www.redcross.org/donate.html and choose options for donating online, by mail or phone.
  • World Concern (Seattle): donate online at www.worldconcern.org or by check (make out to World Concern Tsunami Relief Fund) and mail to World Concern, 19303 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle WA, 98133.
  • World Vision (Federal Way): donate online at www.worldvision.org, or via phone at 1-888-511-6593.

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