How to Talk to Your Kids About the Disasters in Japan


Natori, Japan before and afterNatori, Japan before and after

Part of Natori, Japan in satellite pictures taken April 4, 2010 and March 12, 2011 (GeoEye/Associated Press)

It’s difficult to explain a situation to your kids when you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around it, too. The scale of the devastation in many parts of Japan after last week’s cataclysmic earthquake and tsunamis is near-incomprehensible to people of all ages.

So, if you have kids old enough to comprehend the essential facts of the situation, you owe it to them to sit down and talk with them about the disasters in Japan. How best to do that? I wish I knew, but for what it’s worth, here’s my considered advice on how to get the necessary points across without traumatizing them too much:

Start by asking them what they’ve heard. You want to dispel any misinformation they’ve absorbed, but you don’t want to shoot in the dark. The last thing you want to do is bring up a bit of misinformation for the purpose of debunking it only to have them latch onto it because that’s the first time they’ve heard it. When you do encounter a mistaken belief, don’t just tell them it’s wrong, but explain why it’s wrong as simply and directly as you can, while at the same time acknowledging that it’s often hard to know what to believe in such situations without really paying close attention to the news.

Ask them what, if any, questions they have about what they’ve seen or heard, making sure they understand that any question is fair game. Answer all of their questions as simply and directly as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, and if possible work together with your children to find the answer. If they should ask you why the disasters had to happen, answer in whatever way your chosen interpretation of reality compels you to, or simply answer “I don’t know.”

Now, as a parent, part of your job is to make sure your kids are safe and feel safe. If they’ve heard about or seen pictures of whole cities turned to rubble, they may well be scared, especially if you live (and they know you live) in an earthquake-prone area. Acknowledge their fears, and explain that while an earthquake might happen where you live, it’s really, really unlikely to be anywhere nearly as bad as the one that hit Japan, and that (assuming it’s true) your home is far enough inland that tsunamis are not a problem. Remember that it’s OK for your kids to think about what it must be like to live through such an event — empathy is, after all, something you probably want to encourage them to develop — but pay attention to their mood to make sure they aren’t taking the worrying to an unhealthy level.

And then, of course, there’s the nuclear power plant problems. There’s an awful lot of bad or incomplete information out there, so here’s what I suggest telling your kids: Yes, it’s still (as of this writing) possible that there could be a meltdown in one of the plants, which would be a very bad thing for people near it, but the fallout wouldn’t affect us in the United States. We can be pretty certain it wouldn’t affect us because the catastrophic meltdown of Chernobyl in 1986 didn’t affect us, and that was 100 times worse than any meltdown the Japanese plants could have at this point.

What about nuclear plants here in the U.S. — could they have the same problem? The answer is a pretty firm “No.” For one thing, since the U.S. (obviously) has a lot more land than does Japan, nuclear plants here aren’t located as close to population centers as they are in Japan. So even if they could have a problem like the leaking reactor in Japan, the damage would be more containable. But they couldn’t have that problem: The only reason the plant in question might melt down is because the diesel generators used to pump in vast quantities of water to cool the reactor core were wrecked by the tsunami, so they’ve been pumping sea water in as best they can until the cooling pumps’ power can be fully restored, which (according to the news) should be soon. There are plants in the U.S. that follow the “Mark I” 40 year-old design, like the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but none are near enough to the ocean to be in any danger from a tsunami. And newer plants use what’s called a “passive cooling system,” which doesn’t rely on electric-powered pumps and is designed to be completely turned off for as many as three straight days.

Your kids, and you, will probably want to know what you can do to help the victims of the catastrophes in Japan. For most people, the answer is simple: Donate money to organizations that can use it to directly help the victims, by providing medical care, shelter, food, etc. There is of course nothing in any way wrong with donating to the Red Cross, but, in case you’d like to choose a, well, geekier way to help, we at GeekDad have been working on a list of such ways. I strongly encourage you to donate whatever you can afford to, and to in turn encourage your kids to donate some of their money as well, even if that’s only a few dollars.

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