My granddaughter's pretend bottle of sanitizer

How children see a crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has given my 6 1/2-year-old granddaughter a master class about hygiene. She is learning about the importance of hand washing, using a tissue or the crook of her elbow to cover up a sneeze or cough, and keeping surfaces clean. She made a plastic bottle of pretend hand sanitizer with the label “No Bad Cold” that she uses to keep her dolls’ hands clean.

Still, there is much about the crisis that she might not understand. Terms such as “social distancing” and “community spread.” Or why her school has been closed for so long, or why we can’t eat out, or why stores don’t have the foods she likes.

What does a crisis look like to children, especially younger children? I look back to the year when I was Arianna’s age, 1968. That was the year I first became aware of what was happening in the world around me. I had no choice.

A quick glance at Wikipedia will tell you how difficult a year 1968 was. Assassinations, riots, and the Vietnam War.

I didn’t know who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were when they were killed. I knew that TV shows were interrupted by long, somber news reports. For days after, there was a black-and-white picture displayed between TV shows with the picture of a man’s face, a name, and a pair of years ending with “–1968.” When I made up stories with my toys, I would pause and show a picture of a man’s face with a mournful memorial to him.

I remember watching the party conventions that year. I learned about the states by listening to the roll calls to cast votes for the nominees. I didn’t see the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I knew about hippies, and they were bad people who did bad things. Policeman Bill told us that at school when he let us turn on the lights and siren in his police car. And LSD and weed will destroy your brain.

I didn’t know about the riots in Detroit, Newark, and other cities. I knew racism and poverty were bad. But since we lived in a predominantly white middle-class suburb, those places and problems were far away.

I also became aware of the Vietnam War. Unlike the wars we played with GI Joe and green plastic soldiers, I knew this war was bad. People were dying, but it seemed that more North Vietnamese were dying than our troops. And if you kill more of their troops than they kill of yours, that means you’re winning. Right?

I never thought of asking my parents to explain what was happening. They seemed caught up in the emotions of these traumatic events themselves. Or I assumed this was adult stuff that they understood, and I was too young to deal with it. But I was dealing with it. These adult events were seeping into my consciousness and having an effect on my daily life. And there were others my age who were personally affected, like children who had a parent come home in a flag-draped box.

That’s why it’s important to talk to our children about what is happening in the world. Answer their questions honestly. Let them talk about their feelings. Offer reassurance without giving false hope. Show them what they can do to help. If children feel they have some control over a situation, they will feel less frightened.

Children know more and are more aware than we give them credit. We can turn this crisis into a teaching moment for them. And by answering their questions and helping them cope, it will help us cope as well.