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'My Students Want to Talk About Boston'

Photograph by Getty Images

Dear Catherine,

What would the French say to parents and teachers about the recent tragic events in Boston? I am a teacher and, unfortunately, many of my students have been allowed to see some of the photos and videos and want to talk about it.

Thanks for your wonderful articles,

Tongue-tied Teacher

Dear Teach,

I’ve been thinking about, discussing and groaning over your question constantly during the past few weeks. The groans, by the way, are not directed at you for bringing this totally dismal issue to me, but rather a reaction to the awful mess we’re in.

RELATED: What Age Do You Tell Kids About Tragedies?

While exploring the world of French parenting for my grand experiment of upgrading certain behaviors in my home, I was attracted to a difference I detected in the way the French expose their kids to pain and suffering. Namely, they are less likely than we are to pretend it doesn’t exist and don’t hover over their children in an attempt to shield them from any and every misery. One French friend told me about how, as a 6-year-old, he sent his Christmas money (about $20) to Poland because there was a war going on: “My parents never protected me from bad news, and I was allowed to watch the television broadcasts with them.”

I felt like a bit of a fraud when, with this in mind, I realized that I’d somehow managed to keep my daughters, ages 6 and 9, oblivious to both Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing. And by “somehow,” I mean that I hid the front page of the paper when I had to, asked my friends not to bring up these events when the girls were around, turned off televisions in taxi cabs, and whatever else it took to maintain their innocence. This is ongoing ... and not very French.

Until my kids are aware of such evils, I am going with the full-on American, helicopter parent approach.

Or is it? I went back to that same friend and asked him, specifically, how French parents would handle the aforementioned atrocities. I sort of wish I’d never asked: “Well, we don’t have to. We don’t have this happening in France. At least not in the same way.” He’s right. French kids don’t have anything on the scale of 9/11 hanging over them, and they don’t need to worry about the possibility of a gunman visiting their classroom. (Hear me groaning?)

Alas, we do. “Yes, you do,” said my friend. “I think you should devise a way to talk about these things with your children without giving too many details. The details are so scary and easy for a child to fixate on.” This advice is good, and on par with a lot of other valuable counsel I’ve come across. However, until my kids are aware of such evils, I am going with the full-on American, helicopter parent approach. I’m going to build and maintain a stone wall around their innocence.

RELATED: How to Crush Your Child's Dreams

As far as answering questions from students who have seen images of the bombing, I recommend a hybrid approach: Don’t downplay the gravity of the bombing or try to change the subject, but let the student tell you what he knows, feels and fears. Then, try to focus on truths that may help assuage the distress. For instance, people have been running that marathon for over a century, and this is the first time it’s been bombed. Hopefully it’ll be the last—or at least the last one for another hundred years.

If your Facebook feed looks even remotely like mine, no fewer than 35 of your friends have posted Mr. Rogers’s memory of his own mom’s handling of tragedy: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Sure, our friends are serving up straight Velveeta—but this truly is a gentle, helpful way to discuss disaster. Merci Monsieur Rogers (and all of your cheesy pals).

Allons-y! What else can we do?

Not feeling very French today,

Catherine

Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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