By Shara Darke
We, as adults, have been gone from childhood long enough that I think we have forgotten some things about children. For people who have worked with children, they know that there are three points that need to be followed in order for a child to understand what he is being taught.
First, focus. If too many items are under discussion, the child may get lost in the maze. Try to keep the discussion short and sweet. Do not stray from the main topic, though discussion on related items is definitely acceptable.
Second, honesty! A child often knows when an adult is hiding something or not telling the truth. The child does not know why the adult is doing this. The problem that this causes is mistrust, and in an emergency situation, doubt can potentially harm him. On the other hand, brutal honesty can also be damaging. There needs to be a balance between honesty and need-to-know.
Third, understanding. These types of situations can be scary to think about, and children do not know how to cope with those feelings that come up which are really very normal. A gentle but firm hand in these situations should help him reach the necessary conclusions while being able to sleep at night.
I found myself following a pamphlet once, without realizing the havoc that I was wrecking on my children’s lives. “What would you do if there was a fire?” Amidst the scary thoughts of their home, toys, and books going up in smoke, being all alone, and being afraid of dying or some other horror, their eyes opened wide and they said, “I don’t know.” Wow, I had to give myself three cheers. I had just scared them speechless.
Now it was time to try a different tactic. “I have a question for you. Do you remember when you were a bit nervous about the first day of school? It was because you didn’t really know the teacher. You were getting used to a new grade, a new room, different kids in your class…. These all led to some concerns about how it would go. Now, you’re an old hand at it, aren’t you? You know where the gym is, what time lunch is, and how your teacher expects you to act in class. You get your lunch and your backpack ready to go to school, get dressed, and catch the bus. This is called preparing for school. Preparing is what we do to get ready. Do you understand?”
This nonthreatening type of discussion helps prepare their minds for talking about situations that have always seemed scary to them. They know that people get hurt. “Do you know what emergency preparedness is? It is preparing, or planning for an emergency. If you have been taught what to do, then you will be more ready to handle something happening in the future. I don’t want you to worry about it, because knowledge is a valuable tool for staying safe, but if you get scared or have questions, make sure that you ask! It is okay to feel some nervousness. Lots of people do, even adults. But if you keep your mind calm, and think about the steps that you are learning, then you will be able to use what you learned.” We don’t want children to feel badly for having feelings. They need to understand what they are feeling and accept this as okay, because they are more likely to gain control of them or overcome them in an emergency.
One example of questions I get asked is, “Why do we have fire?” What those children are really asking is, “Why do we have something so big and scary that hurts people?” I tell them that fire can be a great tool for humans. It helps us cook our food, so that we have yummy food like hamburgers. It helps us stay warm, so we don’t have to freeze when it snows. And like all tools, we must try to take very good care of it and treat it with respect so that it doesn’t get out of control.
The discussion can be much more angst-ridden for the adult than for the child. Not speaking down to a child, but treating him like he is capable of learning and understanding what is being discussed with him, makes both the adult and the child feel like they are on even ground. The child can get answers, the adult can help him prepare, and hopefully both parties come out of the discussion much happier for having had it.