How should parents talk to their children about major tragedies like the Humboldt Broncos bus crash?
In southern Ontario, one father says he was shocked to learn that children in his son’s kindergarten class were told by their teacher to remove sports jerseys worn on April 12 during a Canada-wide showing of support for the victims of the horrific collision.
“She made him take the jersey off because he didn’t know about the Saskatchewan tragedy when she asked him along with all the other kids,” Chris Mulchinock told CTVNews.ca. “If my son wears a poppy on Remembrance Day, and he doesn’t know exactly why he’s wearing a poppy, maybe because he’s in kindergarten… what are you going to do? Make him take it off?”
In a note sent home with students that afternoon, the teacher said that while they appreciated “the desire to show sympathy” they also felt “uncomfortable” talking about a tragic accident that many of the young children had “had no idea” about. Had there been an official school-wide Jersey Day -- a move the teacher opposed -- their actions would have been different, they added to CTVNews.ca.
From the House of Commons to offices and schools across the country, thousands of Canadians donned sports jerseys on April 12 to show support for those affected by the awful April 6 Saskatchewan bus crash, which claimed 16 lives. The display of unity was inspired by a group of B.C. hockey moms who urged Canadians to share messages with families who lost loved ones in the rural Saskatchewan collision using the hashtag #JerseysforHumboldt on social media. Their call was taken up around the world.
Donning jerseys, the Mulchinock family attended a memorial in their hometown earlier that week. And on April 12 itself, like many others in the school, Mulchinock’s eight-year-old son and his Grade Two teacher also wore jerseys. Both of his children play hockey, Mulchinock added.
“This was one of the worst tragedies ever in Canadian history that involved a lot of young kids getting killed,” Mulchinock said. “But if (my six-year-old son) didn’t know about the tragedy, then how is it a problem wearing a jersey?”
Mulchinock met with both the teacher and the school’s principal the following day. According to Mulchinock, the teacher had said that “tragedy should be left at home and not brought to school.”
Still steaming about the incident 36 hours later, Mulchinock decided to describe it in a Facebook post.
The school, which is located in Stouffville, Ont., is part of the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). In a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca, YRDSB spokesperson Licinio Miguelo said that while the board respects some parents’ decision not to discuss the tragedy with their children, the teacher was ultimately in the wrong.
“Children should not have been asked to remove their jerseys; we regret that the actions of this teacher have upset some children, their families and members of the community,” Miguelo said. “This action was not reflective of the many heartfelt and meaningful acknowledgements that occurred throughout our region in the wake of this terrible tragedy.”
Like several other schools in the district, the Stouffville school did not have an official Jersey Day on April 12.
“Making students aware of this tragic event rests with the home, and not school,” the school’s principal said in an April 11 email to parents. “It is important that participation in an event such as this remains voluntary, and caution should be exercised so as to not cause pressure on students and staff to participate, or alarm students who may be unaware of the tragedy.”
Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Dina Lafoyiannis, who works extensively with children and families, says that avoiding talking to young children about tragedies like this could have unintended adverse effects.
“Parents should probably try to limit a child’s exposure to a lot of media and national news when they’re quite young,” she said. “At the same time, when a tragedy like this happens where it’s of a national level, children generally do have some exposure to it. And if a child does have a little bit of exposure or a little bit of knowledge of a national tragic event, I think it’s really important for the adult to be open to discussing it with them because children often have a sense of it and a curiosity about it and they can then also have a fear about it. So it’s better for the adults to address this curiosity and fear directly than to avoid it, because this can increase a child’s anxiety.”
Such discussions, Lafoyiannis added, should also be developmentally appropriate.
“So, limit the amount of information, remind them that this is a rare event that happened, remind them that they’re safe, give them concrete examples of how they’re safe and really just give them a brief overview of it -- avoid the details,” she explained. “You want to teach them that they can acknowledge their feelings and they can only do that by seeing adults acknowledging their own feelings about something.”
In Stouffville, Mulchinock says that he never expected the teacher to explain what happened in Saskatchewan.
“It’s too bad she wouldn’t just say, ‘I made a bad judgement, this was overreaction and I apologize,’” Mulchinock said. “(My son) thinks something wrong has happened and he’s done something bad along with some of the other kids -- and that’s why I’m furious.”
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Meredith MacLeod