Letters To The Editor Shuttle Grieving: Schools Inherit Family Roles

Posted: February 14, 1986

In her Feb. 1 Op-ed Page article "When children witness tragedy . . . ," Vivian Center Seltzer gently chided the teachers, clergy and mental health professionals who comforted children in the aftermath of space shuttle Challenger's explosion, an event watched widely by schoolchildren because of teacher-astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe's presence on board.

According to Ms. Seltzer, dealing with death, loss and grief used to be the province of the home and family, a province that has been co-opted by social institutions. Loving parents, not professionals, understand how and when to help their children deal with a loss. By interfering, Ms. Seltzer indicated, teachers and other professionals may confuse the children and add to the shock and sadness they feel at the death of the seven Challenger astronauts. Hogwash!

Professor Seltzer writes as though she is in a time warp. This is not the 1940s. The "historic" role of the home and family has been eroded, and it is to the schools that society has assigned their functions. The schools and teachers have not asked for this role. It has been assigned to them by default and, in some cases, by law.

In 1955, 60 percent of U.S. households consisted of a working father, housewife mother and two or more school age children; that family unit represented only 7 percent of homes in 1985. According to Harold L. Hodgkinson, living in a one-parent household for some period has become "the normal childhood experience."

The real fact is that the "historic" family Professor Seltzer says will provide counseling for our grief-stricken children is now the exception, not the rule.

Faced with the additional fact that more than 50 percent of women are now in the work force, one does not get a picture of a family unit poised and ready at all times and in all situations to provide for all of the psychic needs of their children.

This is not to condemn today's parents. It is to state the reality that the majority of families in this country are no longer structured to do what Professor Seltzer says is their historic province.

As a result, our schools must provide Head Start, free breakfast and lunches, latchkey children programs and yes, even grief counseling, all responsibilities that once belonged to the home and families.

If society fails its children, it will be in part because adults continue to reject or relinquish responsibility for helping them learn and grow wherever they are found. If parents, neighbors, teachers or even university experts see the opportunity to teach a child something important like how to express grief and deal with loss, they should do it and do it now, even though the "specialists" may be critical later.

Kenneth D. Kastle

John D. Lacy

William Tennent High School


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