A Message on Peace

 

IN A TIME OF TRAGEDY
Helping Children Understand Good and Evil

A Personal Message from Joan Almon
U.S. Coordinator, Alliance for Childhood

December, 2001

As we face the tragedy inflicted on us all by the terrorists, many people are wondering how to help their children come through this experience without trauma but with new strength. Our national leaders speak of "evil-doers," and this raises the question of how children understand good and evil.

All children, especially young children, need to feel that the world is a good place. They can accept that bad things exist alongside goodness, but they need to believe that the good will prevail.

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded with teacher Christa McAuliffe on board, millions of children were watching on television. The next day I saw a tape of a psychiatrist speaking to a kindergarten class that had seen the explosion. What can one say to five-year-olds about such a tragedy? The doctor's words were simple and eloquent: "Yesterday, a terrible thing happened. Nevertheless, the world is good."

Children need to be reassured that there is love all around them - from their families and community, from the heavenly world, and from the beautiful Earth itself. This is a time to let your children feel the strength and warmth of family life, neighborhood and community life. If you are part of a religious or spiritual community, let your children experience the solace and transcendence of your religion. And let them feel the healing qualities of the Earth. Take your children out into nature or into the garden to absorb the sun, the light, the sounds of water flowing, the colors. Nature in its beauty is a great balm to the soul.

Fairy tales and myths from around the world are full of examples of the battle of good and evil and of how goodness triumphs. So are stories from the great religious books. Tell your children these stories or read them aloud. Knowing these stories inspires children to make the best choices they can when faced with difficult situations. These stories serve children well throughout childhood and into adulthood as well. The beautiful words of Genesis, for example, tell us that God, at the end of each day of creation, looked at what had been created and found that it was good.

Do not let children spend too much time in front of television and computer screens, especially if they are seeing images of violence and death. (The same advice applies to adults as well.) If you do expose children to news reports of disastrous events, follow this wise advice from Fred Rogers: "When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, that's where I focus my attention -- to the many caring people in this world."

Parents will find more helpful information from Mr. Rogers at the following web site: http://pbskids.org/rogers/parents/sept11a.htm; and articles on children's grief at
http://wnet.org.

Young children need to be reminded that however strong evil is, in the end it is never as strong as goodness. But goodness must be nurtured so that it can grow and thrive. Children understand this. They understand the goodness of the thousands of people who have reached out to help in this time of sorrow - the police and firefighters, doctors, nurses, all the people giving blood and food, and those raising their voices in prayer and in song.

Help your child to find his or her own way to contribute. It may be giving money to the Red Cross, or drawing a picture and sending it to a fire or police station in New York - or in your own town - with a word of thanks. It may be setting up a special table of remembrance in your home with a bouquet of flowers and a candle that is lit once a day with a prayer or a verse said for all those who died or are suffering.

School-age children and adolescents will want to go further. They will want to understand why evil can take hold of a human heart and cause it to act in such violent and depraved ways. Depending on their age, children can begin to understand that one of the great gifts - and great challenges - of being human is that we are free to choose how we will act.

Assure your children that, even in the midst of conflict and strife, there are people of good will in every country who share their hunger for peace and justice for all and who abhor killing. In the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is written that "if anyone kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And if anyone saves a life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity." This same passage, almost word for word, appears in the ancient Jewish teachings of the Talmud.

Now it is our daily task to choose whether or not we align ourselves with goodness. How do we handle frustration, pain, and anger? Do we lash out in ways that hurt others, or do we find ways to transform them into new strengths? Do we think only of ourselves and our wishes or do we reach out to others to be of service? Do we give in to the temptation to lie or do we stand up for the truth? Do we give in to destruction or do we use our energy to create new possibilities?

Every school child wrestles with these issues on a small scale or a large scale. You can help your child understand that it is always tempting to give in to our lower selves, our baser emotions, but we are able to practice good deeds daily, and this strengthens our ability to do good at the times when it really counts.

Remember that children look to adults to see how we handle crises like the terrorist attack. It is all right that they see we are saddened or grief-stricken, even that we are shocked, puzzled, and angry. But mostly they want to see what we will do to help put things right. Can we rise like the phoenix from the ashes and build a "new economy" that is more compassionate to the poor? Can we develop a knowledge of peace that is even greater than our knowledge of war?

Many have commented that we will never be the same. If that is the case, then let us make the changes count for the good. That would be the best memorial we could create to those who have died or sacrificed so much.