Children asking 'why?'
Parents, educators face challenge explaining tragedy, easing fears
Sun, Feb 2, 2003



Dakota Forrester, 5, wanders near the Columbia model at the NASA exhibit in the Children's Museum Saturday in Utica. Dakota was at the museum with his family. Tragedies such as the Columbia explosion pose challenges for parents on how to explain them to children.

By TREVOR KAPRALOS, Observer-Dispatch

Savana Forrester, 6, thinks about what she wants to do when she grows up while exploring the NASA exhibit Saturday at the Children's Museum. In the background is the museum's executived director, Marlene Brown.

"Hey, Savana, see that right there?" Patrick Forrester asked his daughter as he pointed to the 1/15-scale model of the space shuttle Columbia on the fourth-floor of the Children's Museum.

"What is it?"

"A rocket ship," 6-year-old Savana replied.

After telling her it was the space shuttle, the father asked, "Do you know what happened to that today?"


Patrick Forrester then explained the hard part. "Seven people that were on that didn't go home to their families."

Savana paused for a moment, then went off to play with her siblings. Forrester, like many other parents and countless teachers and day-care workers, knows the questions will come soon from Savana and his other children. Chief among them: Why?

Experts say parents shouldn't duck such questions from kids. Children always are aware of accidents or tragedies.

"Kids hear it everywhere," Children's Museum Executive Director Marlene Brown said -- on TV, in school, from friends. Children always want to know what's happened and why, and they want to hear it from the people they trust most -- their parents.

But children don't always know how to verbalize their questions or fears, which is why parents should pay special attention to their children after such tragedies, Brown said. "Parents should observe body language and if the children are quiet and withdrawn," Brown said. Forrester said, "Sometimes it's better to talk about it and try to understand it and pick it apart."

Many parents went through something similar just 17 months ago when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. Brown recalls how her grandchildren reacted and how they wanted and needed to know what happened. One granddaughter lived with nightmares but wouldn't initially discuss those fears.

Even for adults, most of whom remember the 1986 Challenger explosion, Saturday's events hit home hard. Brown spoke of getting off the fourth-floor museum elevator Saturday morning and being struck with emotion when she viewed the Columbia model.

NASA "adopted" the Children Museum just last year, and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe visited last summer at the behest of U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, as the space exploration exhibit was inaugurated.

Brown anticipates a larger turnout for the NASA exhibit in the wake of the tragedy. The Children's Museum is considering how to memorialize the astronauts at the Columbia exhibit, in part physically and in part by incorporating a discussion of risk into the exhibit.

"America is a nation of explorers," Brown told a group of quiet Cub Scouts at the museum Saturday for a program in Space Science Adventures. She added later in an interview, "Nothing really worthwhile in life happens without taking a risk. Continuing to explore space is critical for so many reasons, education, science, medicine, a better way of life."

Meanwhile, Forrester, a West Columbia, S.C., resident visiting his family here, is expecting his children to move from "what?" to "who?" to "why?" as they hear more about the shuttle disaster. "The hardest part is the why," he said.

Helping kids cope

Here are tips for helping children during crises:

        Watch children's body language. If they seem withdrawn or troubled, ask them if they'd like to talk.

        When children ask questions about a tragedy, take time to give them age-appropriate answers. Expect some questions to be repeated over time.

        Do art activities. It might help to draw or paint pictures to express emotion. Work with clay, picture books or puzzles.

        Keep a journal of newspaper clippings, thoughts and drawings. Young children may just scribble, but that's OK. Just ask them what they've drawn.

         If your child is suffering from sleep disturbances, extreme separation anxiety, heightened aggression or exaggerated regressions (thumb sucking, bed wetting or baby talk) contact a professional.

Sources: The Crisis Manual for Early Childhood Teachers: How to Deal With Really Difficult Problems; Marlene Brown, Children's Museum.


Boehlert: Probe will be 'thorough'
Committee head says 'NASA will continue'
Mon, Feb 3, 2003


Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, Sunday predicted a long, detailed congressional review of the Columbia explosion.

"It'll take months, not weeks," said Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee. "This will be very, very thorough."

Boehlert, during an interview with the Observer-Dispatch at his New Hartford home, cautioned against snap judgments and said he foresees no major cuts to America's space program.

Boehlert headed to Washington, D.C., early this morning to meet with officials from Congress, the White House and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

As Science Committee chairman, Boehlert will play a major role in making policy decisions to guide the shuttle program's future funding and direction. Though there has been speculation about the cause of the disaster, Boehlert said it was best not to leap to conclusions. He said immediately following the 1986 Challenger explosion, many incorrect explanations were offered.

"There will be no rush to judgment," he said. "We are in the first stages of a process that will lead us to informed conclusions."

If the Columbia investigation is similar to that of the Challenger, Boehlert said separate House and Senate panels will hear testimony from NASA officials and personnel and everyone associated with the shuttle program, including outside contractors involved in the Columbia's construction and maintenance.

An internal NASA panel and an independent external review panel would also examine the causes of the accident, Boehlert said.

Critics had alleged the accident could be the result of insufficient government funding, but Boehlert said he does not believe NASA's budget compromised on safety.

"No one from either side of the table, Congress or (NASA Administrator Sean) O'Keefe, has ever suggested that safety is an area where compromise is possible," he said.

Boehlert said he does not foresee significant cuts to the space program as a result of the disaster.

"NASA will continue," Boehlert said. "Human space exploration will continue unless a decision is made in a contrary direction. I cannot conceive of the space program not going forward."

President Bush's proposed budget, which will be released today, will include a "healthy increase for NASA," Boehlert said. The budget was formulated long before the Columbia tragedy.

NASA has a budget of $15 billion, with between $6 billion and $7 billion going toward manned flights, and $3.2 billion of that to the shuttle program, Boehlert said.

Asked about the possibility of a change in focus for the space program, he said such questions could not yet be answered.

He said some might advocate an end to human space flight and a turn toward the use of robots and unmanned craft, but he is not in favor of such a move.

"There is no substitute for the genius of human beings and their ability to do things that machines could never accomplish," he said.

The Columbia is the only NASA craft to have a major accident in descent, and one of only three fatal accidents in the 42-year history of the U.S. space program, Boehlert said. The others were the Challenger explosion and the 1967 Apollo I fire.

As for the importance of space exploration, Boehlert said many important advances in technology, telecommunication and medicine, satellites, cell phones, Teflon and Velcro, to name just a few -- have come out of science in space.

"It produces a great return on the investment, not just for America, but for all humankind," he said.

Boehlert called the space program emblematic of the American spirit.

"We're explorers by nature," he said. "We turn dark into light. In venturing into the unknown, we're second to none in the world."

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