Our twins sat quietly on the sofa for a long time after we got home. “Daddy,” one of them finally asked, “do tornadoes have bones?”

The girls were about three years old, and our shopping trip had just been interrupted by Oklahoma’s unpredictable spring weather. It was long before smart phones, so the only information we had was on the radio and what we could see in the sky. Unfortunately, we were not listening to the radio, so the storm caught us by surprise as we drove down Interstate 40. We had no place to shelter. We watched wispy fingers poke through the ominously rotating wall cloud. Eventually, three rope tornadoes touched down in the empty field north of us.

You can fill in the blanks of the conversation between my wife and me. I was as giddy as a schoolboy, shrieking in delight to see three tornadoes dancing around just a few hundred yards away. Renee, however, was terrified and proceeded to list all the dangers we faced. We both used words like “big” and “fast” and “scary”. They went sideways. They switched directions. They were going to get us! Dad was watching an action movie, and Mom was seriously questioning her choice in a husband. It was over as quickly as it started, but we continued our “conversation” all the way home.

We never once considered our poor children strapped in the back seat as we shouted about giants leaving dust trails across an empty field. From their car seats, they could only see the angry clouds directly above them, but they knew something came from those clouds that was fast enough to catch our car and flip it over. They very logically hypothesized that giant monsters from the sky had chased us across the plains in our Ford Taurus. No wonder they sat trancelike on the couch until posing the most brilliant question I had ever heard: “Do tornadoes have bones?”

Somehow, we managed to convince Hadley and Haley that tornadoes did not have bones, but they were afraid of clouds for several months afterwards. And by the grace of God, this event did not scar them forever. It was a lot for a three-year-old to process, but once they eliminated the possibility of tornadoes being flesh and blood, they were pretty satisfied. Nevertheless, we learned a valuable parental lesson about how our children process and absorb our words and emotions.

Likewise, I can only imagine what children are thinking during Covid-19. The experts cannot even explain it, so just consider the mixed messages and emotions our children feel as we adults talk about it day after day after day. We cannot imagine the monsters they have conjured from the back seat. Right now, a lot of kids just need to know if this tornado has bones.

No matter your child’s age, please give them an opportunity to ask questions about our current crisis. I promise you that they have been listening, and I promise you that you will be surprised by not only their imagination but also their ability to critically think through it all. Asking and listening is always better than assuming we know what they are thinking and providing pat answers. Sometimes, they will have very complicated questions, but don’t be afraid. “I don’t know” is sometimes the best response.

Overall, they will still trust you when you tell them everything will still be ok, even if clouds freak them out for a bit. If you don’t know how to start, tell them the story of the crazy dad speeding away from three tornadoes while his twins sat helplessly in the back seat. A lesson on meteorology won’t explain the complexities of a global pandemic, but talking about someone else’s experience can often shrink monsters down to size.

For children, this can either be a time of wonder or a time of worry. I have not seen so many kids outside playing in years. Kids have discovered ditches again! Bike rides with Mom. Walks with dad. I even saw kids enjoying lawn work yesterday. (Dad gave them the leaf blower.) Nevertheless, it is also a serious and stressful time. Lives, businesses, and jobs have been devastated. Even if the storm has not impacted you so far, your kids pick up a lot from the backseat, so see if they have any questions. They may have dozens of concerns, or they might just need to know if this tornado has bones.

Tom Deighan is superintendent of Duncan Public Schools.

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