When children ask . . . Offer details about Somalia, but also allay any fears

December 11, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Young children, subjected to horrific images of starvin Somalis, need a way to understand the tragedy and relief effort in the Horn of Africa without fear for their own health and well-being.

"On one hand, they're curious and on the other hand, they don't want to feel bad, so they only pick up bits and pieces of what's going on," says Robin Shobert, a guidance counselor at Fort Garrison Elementary School.

Those bits and pieces can add up to frightening misconceptions, Ms. Shobert says.

To gauge what kids know and whether they are willing to discuss the crisis, it is important to follow their lead. Ask the children what they think about the situation "to get a feel of where [they] are coming from," Ms. Shobert says.

This way, adults "can fill in the blanks" without giving them more explanation than necessary. "I think one thing we need to be careful of is we can frighten children more than they need to be frightened by giving too much information," she says.

Without a personal connection to someone who lives on the edge of starvation, "It is so difficult for children to understand being hungry," says Judy Barrett, headmistress of Ruxton Country School. When Somalia came up Wednesday at a group meeting of kindergarten through fourth-graders at the school, a student asked why soldiers were arriving in the country. "To help the skinny children," a 7-year-old boy replied. Ms. Barrett and her colleagues decided that his simple grasp of the crisis was sufficient explanation for his young classmates.

Although they may not comprehend hunger, children are "extremely egocentric" and need to be reassured, perhaps with the aid of a globe, that the violence and starvation are taking place far away and pose no threat to them, Ms. Shobert says.

Factual information is comforting to children who express concern about the graphic tolls of hunger they see on television and in newspapers, she says. Discuss the basics of nutrition and health and explain how adequate food and vitamins are not available to Somalian children and that is why they have lost so much weight, Ms. Shobert says.

Helping a child to initiate a project, such as writing letters to soldiers or taking up a collection in school, is a way of preventing children from feeling powerless, Ms. Shobert says. "They can take a hand in it and do something about it."

Encouraging a child to contribute to the relief effort can have a long-lasting impact, says Dr. James McGee, director of psychology at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and Health System. Somalia's plight can be used as an opportunity to teach children that "famine and starvation are a fact of life in certain parts of the world," he says.

The crisis also offers "a chance to teach kids about compassion, and courage in the sense of teen-age American boys going into a terribly dangerous situation to help others," Dr. McGee says.

"Parents can go on to say it's a situation where people have to honor their responsibility to their fellow human beings . . . and maybe put together a little care package to donate to a needy family," he says. "The coincidence with the holidays presents an opportunity to get kids engaged in charitable activities for the homeless or people who don't have enough to eat."

Shielding a child from hardship can be detrimental, Dr. McGee says. "If a kid hasn't learned something about sharing, compassion and generosity by the time they are pre-adolescent, if those messages haven't sunk in, then you'll have a hell of a time civilizing that child," he says.

While it is fine to give children "a little dose of reality," Dr. McGee says, do not do it in a way that will "traumatize or threaten them, [such as] 'If you don't do your homework, we'll send you to Somalia.' "

Like Ms. Shobert, the psychologist recommends a "matter-of-fact discussion that's tailored to the level of development of the child." It is also important to protect young children from particularly gruesome footage or photos of starving Somalis, he says.

At area churches and synagogues, the effort to be aware of and alleviate hunger worldwide is often an ongoing effort. At Govans Presbyterian Church, children in the preschool and Sunday school programs are participating in a holiday food program for hungry neighborhood families and homeless people.

In preschool and kindergarten classes, teachers are talking to children about the Somalian famine, says Edward Richardson, director of Christian education at Govans Presbyterian. When a child asks a question, instructors "try not to answer any more than what the child asks . . . they try to explain it honestly and on a level children can digest. They don't understand political jargon. They just want to know why children are starving," Mr. Richardson says.

His own son, who is 10, "hides his eyes whenever [news of Somalia] comes on . . . He understands [what it means], but it's so painful to him, he literally hides or runs and turns off the television . . . it just hurts him to see it."

Bearing in mind the brutal lesson of Somalia, it is important to explain it in a way that allays children's fears about their own well-being, Mr. Richardson says. "I think it's important to build a good, solid foundation of self-esteem and self-worth in the midst of watching pictures of starving children. . . . By trying to help create a safe and positive environment for them . . . that will spill over when they begin to think globally."

The shockingly cruel images of chaos and death in Somalia have broken through "our healthy, sanitized version of what the world looks like," Mr. Richardson says.

"It takes a picture like that to jar us into dealing with it and talking to our children about it," he adds. "It's going to be up to our children to see that these things do not happen again."

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