Friday, September 02, 2005

Teaching Children to Handle News

As parents, my wife and I have struggled over the years about how to deal with the news. Our oldest was 2 and a half during 9/11, too young to process what was going on, so we did our best to keep most of the images from him. We'd been to the World Trade Center just a few months before, so we worried that he would remember them and feel a sense of connection.

Overall we find it difficult to have the news on with our children around, simply because it's so unpredictable. There may be a political story we want to hear, then, immediately after, will be a story about a deadly shooting in Dorchester or something from Iraq. Also, as most parents know, kids understand more than they let on. I remember listening to news radio with my oldest in the car, I think he was still under 3, and he asked me what a governor was. Turns out, he was understanding some of the stories about then-Governor Swift. I liked that he was learning politics, but worried about what else he understood. I tried to stop listening to news radio with him in the car at that point.

After the tsunami in December we struggled over how much to tell them and erred on the side of caution. But when our then 5-year-old went to school a few weeks later he came home and told us about it as if we hadn't heard. At that point we decided there were certain things that we had to tell him and show him. He needed to hear these things from us and know that we are here and can answer questions.

If nothing else, he needs training on how to handle the news. Over time I've tried to explain that things are on the news simply because they are unusual. They don't happen all the time. If they did, they wouldn't be news. As adults we can process this type of information, but children don't yet have that capacity.

At first we showed them some of the images from Hurricane Katrina. In a sense, we knew what to expect from watching coverage in the past. There would be pictures of strong winds, powerful rains, flooding, broken homes, people crying, water being handed out, etc.

But obviously the story took a turn. The TV has gone off, they know what they need to know at this point: that there was a hurricane, that people are suffering, that they need help, that we need to send it.

I don't want them to know how a government can abandon its own people, that people can take such advantage of a bad situation, that a horrifying scene can continue to get worse. There is no way for a child to put that in context.

Honestly, there is no way an adult can do it either.

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