By Liz Buchanan
From where I sit in Arlington, MA, hundreds of thousands of people just a few miles away are in lockdown mode and SWAT teams are all over the TV, searching out a 19-year old who allegedly set off a bomb at the Marathon. One friend posted on Facebook, “Why does life suddenly look like a Batman movie?”
How do we process this? And how do those of us with children in our lives help them deal with what we’re all facing? It’s not always possible to limit their exposure to what’s happening, though we can certainly try.
We need to find ways to overcome our own feelings of terror and helplessness, and to comprehend a world where it seems evil could be lurking around every corner. It might sound like a cliché, but we need to be brave and trust that it will get better – even people in far more dangerous places in the world do that. And then we need to help our children understand that, too.
I work with hundreds of children personally every week as an early childhood music specialist, both in the suburbs and in some of the tougher neighborhoods in Boston. All of these children now find themselves in a world where bombs went off at one of Boston’s most beloved sports events, where kids and families were everywhere and an 8-year-old was one of three people killed. Just a few months ago, a disturbed gunman entered a school in a pristine suburban community, taking the lives of 20 young children and some of their teachers and their principal.
Suddenly preschools in the most “safe” communities are in the same mode as the schools and child-care facilities in rougher parts of Boston. Locks secure the doors; you have to buzz or enter a combination to get in.
We have to figure out ways to help our kids make sense of the situation. A good place to start is with hugs. I’ve noticed that in the urban settings where I work – especially at the sites that serve children in the homeless system – the children really love hugs. Physical comfort and safe touch from adults is very important in giving children a sense of well-being and grounding in the world, especially these kids who’ve already been touched by trauma and disruption in their own young lives.
Keeping the semblance of “normal” life – playing, having snacks, telling jokes, laughing and reading books – is a good thing for kids (and grown-ups) in a time of crisis. It’s good to let off some steam and feel the reassurance that sometime soon, things will return to normal.
But even as things settle down, children need to process all the emotions that have been stirred up. For older kids, “talking it out” is helpful. For the younger ones – the kids I work with are mostly 7 and under – the processing goes on not just through talk, but through action, through play.
Young children comprehend the world not just in a literal way, but through imagination and fantasy. They live in a world where there’s a possibility of magic. They understand evil not just as a bad person with a gun, but as a witch or ghost or monster. A good person isn’t just a fireman or a cop or a parent, it could be a fairy or princess or superhero.
Some of the songs I sing frequently with kids help them play out basic conflicts of good and evil with fantasy characters. In the past few years, one of the most popular songs in my repertoire is “The Royal Children.” I adapted this song, with help from fellow children’s musicians, from a traditional song that tells the Sleeping Beauty story, and invites children to act out the story to music.
In my version of the song, some of the kids play “royal children” who find their castle under threat by evil witches and wizards. The evil ones cast a spell on the children and put them to sleep for a hundred years. Over the years, the castle is threatened by dragons, but brave knights help banish the fiery creatures. At the end of the hundred years, the children are saved by gentle, magical unicorns.
The kids act out the story with colorful scarves, and in the end of the song, everyone, even the “evil” characters, gets to toss their scarves in the air and live happily ever after.
I got a note recently from a preschool director about a boy who told his mom he was excited to be a “knight” and listens to the song regularly. These young children understand that there is both good and evil in the world.
I sing other fun songs, too, that are – in a playful way – about facing up to evil. In my Billy Goats Gruff song, a brave goat stands down the menacing troll (in my song, the troll runs away, rather than meeting his doom). In my “Five Little Mice” song, four mice get captured by a cat, but the fifth mouse finally declares to the cat, “You great big bully, go away!” The kids love singing along with that line.
That’s the kind of world I want the kids to understand. It’s a world where evil exists, but we are brave enough and good enough to overcome it.
Liz Buchanan, MFA, M.Ed. is President of The Children’s Music Network. Her new album – with songs mentioned in this column – is called “Once Upon A Tune” and is available through her web page. The Children’s Music Network’s “Peace Resources” pages contain many useful songs for helping children of all ages deal with violence, trauma and other troubling situations.