What Do We Tell The Children?

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(April 18, 2007) Many Westchester children awoke on April 16 to a “Rain Day” from school, reveling in their spring vacation that didn’t feel much like spring - especially for those who donned galoshes and rain boots and slopped around in the basement with whatever tools seemed to help stem the flow.

After stopping at Mamaroneck High School’s Red Cross shelter to offer my services to flood victims — where I was told the only medical concern was a woman 39 weeks pregnant — I was starting to prepare a talk for parents at my office. The talk is about how we communicate with our kids at different ages and developmental stages. Among other things it’s about how children develop values—about themselves, family, religion, sexuality, money, and more.

Then the news from Virginia Tech flashed on my computer screen. Over the course of the day as the messages became more confusing and more horrifying, I found myself sinking into a funk. How could anyone make sense of this? How should or could we respond? What do we tell the children?

I did what many did. I reached out to my family. I spoke with the kids I could reach by phone and hugged the ones around me. I emailed my mom. As a Midwestern woman who survived the dustbowl, the great Depression, much illness, loss and disappointment, she retains the streak that allowed my forebears to survive calamity. She recalled to me that the old folks (her parents) would have said, “Tomorrow will be another day.” And then she asked, “Do you have lilacs in your yard?”

It’s no wonder that I continued to ponder how best to explain or talk about this with twenty-first century children, mine and others.

On Tuesday, I awoke still feeling inadequate and useless to the situation at hand. When I saw the piles of sopping discarded appliances and personal items, carpets, and even cars in Washingtonville, making Mamaroneck look like a small version of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and then heard about the hundreds of people still needing shelter at the high school, I became determined to find a way to turn this series of calamities into some sort of good, or at the least a learning experience with some hope.

Late in the afternoon, one of my favorite patients came with her mom, one of my favorite grown-ups, and it was they who helped me begin to frame it.

Two of the most urgent causes of our time, they thought, conspired yesterday to sound alarms of all sorts. Global warming and gun control. There. I had it. Somehow I felt a bit better.

Surely, one could debate the contribution of global warming to the Nor’easter and surely one could debate (an NRA official on NPR actually did) the relevance of Virginia’s notoriously lax gun laws to the massacre at Virginia Tech. But maybe we’ve already exhausted those debates. Maybe time is running out.

A third issue emerges today as we hear and consider the history of the gunman. Preventing, recognizing and responding to mental illness in our schools, colleges, and homes remains one of our thorniest problems. I think about young adults and their continuing need for connection in a culture that pushes them toward “independence.” I think about our responsibility as parents, clinicians, teachers, and administrators to see them through the confusing and vast array of choices and challenges they face as they continue to grow up, even into their twenties.

If we really needed one more wake-up call, it seems the last few days have sent us one. After we “embrace our mourning,” as Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech’s poet declared, and after the shock wears off, it will be time once again to find hope. Each of our children should serve as a reminder to us adults to work and raise them in such a way that each of them, in his or her own time, finds and espouses a cause, feels a passion, and commits to making the community and the world a better place.

And in so doing, maybe we all can find some solace, peace and hope.


Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She can be reached at 698-5544.