By Ellen Wheeler
I picked up my 10 year old son from school the other day and (out of habit) I asked him how his day had gone. He started telling me about a new science project his class was working on and an upcoming math quiz he needed to study for, and in my mind, I started thinking about what was in the pantry that I might be able to turn into dinner…I was just about done with my mental checklist and was satisfied that I had the ingredients for Green Bean Casserole when he said something that brought me out of my reverie. “Right before lunch, they had us practice getting under our desks…in case Putin bombs America with nuclear missiles…”. Green Bean Casserole was immediately gone from my mind as it raced to try to comprehend the full scope of what I’d just heard. I said to myself “be calm, be calm, be calm…”. I couldn’t believe it. Somewhere from deep within my brain’s archives, I recalled films of kids in the 1960s crawling under desks. I was able to gather myself enough to ask him a few questions about how that topic had come up and, much to my relief, he moved on to another topic and we left the Putin Nuclear Threat behind in a flurry of one of his friends getting caught passing notes during a test. But I couldn’t help but think to myself: after two years of Covid, now this? No parental notice? No permission slips to participate in such a sensitive issue? Nuclear attack drills are just like fire drills now? So, here’s my question: how do I have this conversation with my kids? Thanks in advance! - Mom Concerned!
Dear Concerned Mom,
Wow. So many thoughts!
I am just old enough to actually remember those drills in elementary school, and YouTube had this helpful public service announcement in its archives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWH4tWkZpPU Ok, first let’s address the whole nuclear annihilation and more generally how to have conversations about the end of the world.
Our poor kids. We basically pile onto them our own fears and neurosis, whipped into a frenzy by the media, by our own Military Industrial Complex, and of course by Hollywood. Much as we may try, it’s literally impossible that our fears of potentially catastrophic events won’t leak into our children’s sphere of awareness. The Covid-19 Pandemic is a good example of one of those types of issues that hit us all square in the face and there was of course no choice but to figure out how to address that head-on with our kids, no matter how young.
Of course, having this type of conversation needs to be specific to your child, given their age, personality, the context of where/how this topic comes up, and so on. As such, the following guidance should be taken as more general advice or thoughts – you’ll need to customize and adapt this to your own children and circumstances.
First, it’s important to be aware that, generally speaking, tracking our ‘adult’ news headline trends is a good way to build an awareness of what your children are probably being exposed to. I mean, think of how this particular example manifested for your son, “In case Putin bombs America…”. So, whereas two years ago, odds are this topic wouldn’t have come up in school at all, but given the recent headlines and Putin formally warning the West he would use Nuclear Weapons and that he ‘wasn’t bluffing’, it makes sense that it has become enough of a top-of-mind topic that a teacher believed should be addressed with elementary-aged students. Just something to keep in mind so you don’t feel blind-sided… I like to use the old Nightly News (as in old-fashioned TV) as a simple litmus test: if it makes the Nightly News, odds are my child has already been exposed to it and might have questions, so at the very least I can prepare a bit.
It’s important that all of us, from kids to adults, take the time to understand the risk of potentially catastrophic events with appropriate context and level of risk. It’s probable that most kids have a general awareness that nuclear weapons can and do exist and have been used in the real world, much the same way most kids are aware that asteroids or comets do float around our solar system and, very occasionally, one comes into contact with the earth. The majority of kids will be able to tell you how many million years ago one of those things wiped out the dinosaurs. But because they can tell you that 65 Million years ago one hit the earth, it also means it’s been that long since – in other words, while such events do occur in our solar system, they are exceptionally rare, and the vast majority of human beings have lived and died of events not related to celestial events.
Much the same is true of the threat of nuclear war. Yes, it is a possibility, but the odds of such an event actually occurring are quite low, and as a result, we don’t need to spend time personally concerned about such events day to day.
Generally, when my kids ask a question about a topic like this, I assume they have already thought about some of the potential consequences, even if they don’t bring those parts up. Kids are much smarter and more intuitive than we give them credit for (most of the time), so it is key to expect your son has thought a bit about what a ‘duck and cover drill’ might mean, even if it didn’t come up that day. It’s also possible the reason he moved on to different topics like note-passing was that he was uncomfortable with addressing the ‘what ifs’ out loud, at least as of yet. But most probably, just like fire drills or ‘active shooter drills’, our kids have probably considered some of the consequences if such an event occurs. Said bluntly: they are probably aware there is a risk of death for themselves or people they know and love should a fire, a shooting or, in this case, a nuclear attack occur. Thinking about such things is terrifying for most of us as adults, so for our kids it’s probably even more frightening, if for no other reason that they lack the experience and context to put the level of risk into proper perspective. Should they feel anxiety about a potential nuclear war? Perhaps at some level. But should they be focused on it day to day or modify their goals and behaviors because such a remote possibility exists? Probably not.
So, this is one approach I use: use something they already have some awareness of, like an asteroid, to provide a comparable ‘unlikely’ event, so they can frame the potential risk against something they already have a frame of reference against. The odds of that type of event occurring are so extremely low that, while we do want to be aware of and prepared for them, they do not need to occupy a significant part of our lives. We wear seatbelts even though the odds of a traffic accident are very low, but we don’t spend 20% of our days thinking about seat belts.
As kids get to about age 8-10, historical context can also be a valuable part of understanding a subject like this one. In fact, you might even show them the Bert The Turtle video mentioned above, so they get the history of this particular topic. Nuclear weapons have been a part of humanity’s reality since World War II, and Putin is merely the latest in a long string of political leaders to attempt to use the specter of nuclear weapons to get their way. It isn’t that the latest rhetoric isn’t frightening, but it is important for them to understand that it isn’t new or original. Billions of human beings have lived and died on this planet since the end of World War II, and none of those were killed by nuclear war.
It might be valuable to understand the context in which this topic even came up. As parents, we should probably be exploring this theme more often about a wide range of topics, but particularly in this case since this might be a good topic to bring up at your next Parent-Teacher conference or PTA meeting…so, how did this topic come up in the classroom? Was this something the teacher volunteered out of the blue? Was it an object lesson as part of a history class, about how kids in the 1950s & 60s had to go through these drills constantly? Did it come up based on questions that came from students? Was it part of a science class about the risks and effects of nuclear radiation on human cells and organs? Or is this now part of school policy, decided by a school board or superintendent or US Civil Defense? Very different situations, I think. Having this conversation with your kids needs to be done sensitively: generally, we don’t want to make our kids feel like they are ‘tattling’ on teacher or put them in a place where they feel like they are responsible for playing bad-cop. Wherever possible, they need to feel like they can trust their instructors to at least have their best interest at heart, even though teachers are human and can & will make mistakes. That said, kids do end up being our best eyes and ears for what gets communicated in the classroom, so it’s a balance of being informed without making your kids feel like they’re an informant.
So, you might ask, “Wow, I can remember doing drills like that or having Grandma tell me about those drills from when she went to school. What class was that in, how did it come up?” You’re aiming for friendly and curious, not accusatory and concerned. Understanding the context can help guide you in terms of how significantly you need to dig into this with your child. [Of course the follow up questions should probably be something along the lines of “How did it make you feel?]
Behind that conversation though, I’d suggest this might be something worth discussing with your educators or administrators. If this was part of a historical object lesson, that might be one thing. But if this is a ‘new’ official drill that the School or US Civil Defense is another matter entirely. By not informing parents of such events, schools (probably unwittingly) are disarming your capacity as a parent to help your child properly understand the ‘why’ of this new experience and the potential anxiety or questions it might inspire. As far as I am concerned, that’s something Parents should be informed of, at the very least, if not the option to opt-out. In the 50s and 60s, it was taken as a given that the right place for kids to learn what to do in the event of a nuclear attack was in school. Are we sure we all still feel that way?
Kids are already bombarded constantly with ‘end of the world’ existential threats, from Pandemics to Climate Change to Asteroids, so adding another world-ending cataclysm waiting in the wings is certainly worthy of your keen notice. That’s a lot of anxiety for a young and developing person to absorb and properly contextualize. Heck, we all struggle with it even as allegedly fully-formed adults (I’m not even sure my husband and I agree on how big a risk Nuclear War against Putin is in terms of risks we should concern ourselves and family with, let alone asking an 8 year old to carry that burden).
Remember that all kids are different. Some kids are naturally curious about (or even obsessive about) death and the risks of it, especially if they’ve experienced a death in the family or a friend’s family, and a funeral. Other kids may just seem aloof to it, or uninterested. So every conversation on topics like this will end up being unique and nuanced. One of the main gifts we can give our children is the capacity to integrate new knowledge or experiences with proper context, and given the videos of mushroom clouds that our children have probably seen in movies or on YouTube, having our kids duck and cover under desks has a way to bring that distant or almost-imaginary or fictional event from Hollywood home to them in a very real way. That makes it real for them in a way that probably should be addressed…both with our children and with our educational professionals.