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Honesty is best when talking with kids about life’s dark events

By Minx McCloud

If war is imminent, what do we tell the children?

How do we deal with their night terrors when even we adults are looking up at the skies every time the roar of a jet is heard?

I keep flashing back to the Cold War in the '50s when I was in elementary school. We kids knew something was up, but we didn't know exactly what. We knew there were people called communists over in Russia and they hated us. They wanted to make us communists too and that was a very bad thing.

How sadly naive we were to think that if "the bomb" hit, we would be protected -- that in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, our parents would pick us up at the school and take us home for our milk, cookies, and an episode of "Howdy Doody."

I lay awake in the dark, listening to my father talking to my mother. He made it clear that it would be better to die than to be a communist, and that scared me, because I didn't want to die. My grandmother had died when I was 7, and I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but I never saw her again, so it had to be really, really bad to be dead.

We had seen pictures of the mushroom-shaped cloud on television, and they always called it "the bomb," as if there were only one. We knew it could kill people, and we were frightened. Each week, a high-pitched signal sounded and we all had to line up and go out in the long corridor of our single-story school. We didn't have to line up in order of size as we usually did. In this case, speed was of the essence. We were not allowed to talk. Anyone who did was soundly rapped on the hand with a ruler. (Naturally, I had permanent ruler marks on my knuckles.)

We crouched in the corridor, backs against the cold marble walls, our heads between our knees, our arms protecting our heads. There was no basement. We were safe in the halls, our teachers said, because there were no windows and flying glass would not hit us.

How sadly naive we were to think that if "the bomb" hit, we would be protected -- that in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, our parents would pick us up at the school and take us home for our milk, cookies, and an episode of "Howdy Doody."

But that's what they told us. They had to tell us that because we were only children, and when you're a child, you have to be protected. You have to be spared the truth, because the truth is so damn scary.

At some point, a light bulb flashed over my head, just like in a cartoon, and I realized that if "the bomb" hit, I would be safe, but my parents and my dog would be killed. They didn't have a long, safe hallway to hide in. Our house was full of windows. There would be flying glass everywhere, and even worse, the bad mushroom smoke would seep in through the shattered windows.

In what would turn out to be the bravest moment of my life, I decided that I would rather die with my parents than be left alone without them. From that moment on, every time the high-pitched tones sounded, I bolted for home.

Many times, I was out the door before my teacher could even shriek my name. We lived only a few houses from the school and I figured I could make it home before "the bomb" was dropped. In my best-case scenario, I was able to return to the school with my parents and dog, and they would be safe too.

How to describe the fear I felt ... it was like living with a heavy lump of ice in my heart. I would be playing, laughing and chatting with my friends and suddenly someone on TV would say the words "Russia," or "bomb," or "communist," and my friends and I would perk up our ears and strain to make sense of the words. What did it all mean to us?

We had heard that if we were attacked, New York would probably be a target -- we didn't understand why -- but we knew we were only an hour away from New York, and that did not bode well for our little suburban town, which almost certainly would be sucked up in the devastation.

There's such a chasm between what children comprehend and what is actually happening, and yet, they are so perceptive. They most certainly know when adults are disturbed and upset. There's no hiding that. We knew only certain facts, and they were conflicting. Fact One: A bomb could destroy everything around it and turn the area into dust. Fact Two: We were safe in the corridors of our school.

It didn't make sense, and we talked about it as we whittled horse chestnuts into pipes on a fall day, or crouched under the covers with flashlights during sleepovers.

We were frightened, no doubt about it. Our parents were telling us everything would be all right, but something was very wrong. We alternated between childlike games and adultlike fear, and that's a sad way to grow up.

So what do we tell the children?

Many psychologists have been questioned in the past week, and they all seem to agree. First, they say, it is imperative that you tell your children the truth. You must not lie to them. Second, you must reassure them that they are safe; that measures are being taken to protect them.

I find these instructions contradictory. I agree with telling them that measures are being taken to protect them, because we know that they are. But as for reassuring them that they're safe, I'm not sure you can do that without telling a little white lie.

I don't feel safe anywhere now. Do you?

Minx McCloud is a free-lance journalist who writes about life in New Jersey. She can be reached at To see her most recent column, click here.

This article is copyright 2001 by Minx McCloud and appears here with permission.

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