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How Do You Tell Fairfield's Kids About a Tragedy?

Most of Kathy Reddy’s students Monday were fourth-graders, and many hadn't even been born on Sept. 11, 2001. And not many knew much about Osama bin Laden , or why the United States celebrated his death Sunday night. The art teacher at Fairfield’s McKinley Elementary said she didn’t broach the subject much with her young charges.

“One little boy did mention to me that he heard that ‘someone that was a really bad man was killed yesterday,’” Reddy said via email. “But for the most part, they just aren’t old enough to make the connection.”

But what should a parent do when every adult in the country is talking about a man whom children don’t know? Fairfield University psychology professor Judy Primavera suggested a simple approach for young kids, especially those too young to remember al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If they don’t ask, don’t tell them.

“Honestly, it’s akin to a parent wanting to tell children about sex before they ask,” Primavera says. “The general rule with very young children is: Why burden them with information that is going to scare them, or that they may not have the ability to understand?”

As children get older, however, they might bring up the subject themselves. For older kids, Primavera suggests a straightforward approach. She says parents should tell their kids the facts — thousands of people died, and this man was responsible. “For most kids, that’s going to be enough,” she says.

Reddy suggested the same tack. “I think the best approach if children ask about it  would be to be honest and keep it simple so as not to scare them,” she added.

If they press further, Primavera stresses being honest, even if it means admitting you can’t fully explain why the tragedy happened. Or you can use the tragedy as a teaching tool, encouraging kids to be open and tolerant.

“Quite frankly, I’m 60 years old and I still can’t make sense of the loss of all those lives. I don’t know what ideological belief makes it worth the slaughter of people,” Primavera says. “So how am I going to expect a child to understand that?”

Did you talk about the history of 9/11 and the death of Osama bin Laden with your kids? Which way did you approach it? Share your own advice for your fellow parents in the comments below.

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