An unusually contentious and uncivil presidential campaign is certainly one catalyst for these discussions, and librarian Marilyn Nicolai’s recent article in Life at Valley does a good job of exploring how parents and teachers can help children understand this election. But after the election is over, the challenge of knowing how to help kids make sense of the world will remain, and one of their lenses on the world is the news. It’s one of our more challenging balancing acts: knowing how to both shelter a child from the world and bring a child into the world.
Here are some thoughts for your consideration:
• A child’s ability to understand and give appropriate significance to news depends on his or her age, maturity, developmental level, and personal experiences and temperament. What a fifth grader can handle is very different from what a child in kindergarten can handle, and we need to adjust our approach to a child’s stage in life.
• The very nature of news media, especially in an age of non-stop, 24/7 coverage, is to over-dramatize and sensationalize what’s reported. Statistics show, for example, a decrease in the incidence of crime in our country, and yet reporting of crime has increased dramatically. Natural disasters, wars, acts of violence, and scandals take up a disproportionate amount of time and space in news coverage, while, in reality, these are rare occurrences.
• When it comes to the news, parents need to serve as filters of information: some news gets through, and some news stays out. Parents should make thoughtful choices about the presence of news in the lives of our children. We need to think carefully about whether we listen to the news while driving to school in the morning, for example, or whether TV news is on in our homes. When my kids were little, I made a practice of looking carefully at the pictures and the headlines on the front page of the morning paper before leaving it on the table.
• Experts in child development and psychology are weighing in with greater clarity now about the need for parents to limit the time children spend on digital media, or “screen time,” but I have yet to see specific guidance relating to exposure to the news. For our younger kids, especially pre-kindergarten, it may be that “no news is good news” is the right approach. For older children, there are good web resources that present news at an age-appropriate level, including Scholastic Magazine and Time for Kids.
• Parents should answer a child’s question about the news truthfully, but only with as much truth as the child can handle. As adults, we often want to answer what we think underlying questions and concerns are, but what a child usually needs is a direct, simple answer – and little more. When it comes to questions, we are wise to lean towards following their lead rather than leading them in directions they may not need to go.
• One key to helping children understand the news is to reassure them of their safety and to remind them that both home and school are safe, dependable places. Kids need to know that you, as parents, will be there for them. Reassuring words and the physical proximity and intimacy of family members can help mitigate the emotional distress caused by the news.
• Children take their cues from the adults around them. How we react to news and what opinions we express about people and events in the news both send powerful messages to our children about how they should respond. Our openness to conversations and questions about the news also tells kids that, as adults, we are also inquisitive, engaged in the world, and committed to our civic responsibilities.
• As parents, we need to be available to talk about the news and to help them make sense of often confusing messages about current events. These conversations allow us to lessen the negative impact of news and to reassert the values of kindness, compassion, and respect for others that Valley School families believe in and work to promote.
Our job, both as parents and teachers, is to shepherd kids into the world, shielding them from harm while introducing them to experiences that build resilience and equip them for what comes next. In this digital age, where communication about the news is rapid, frequent, and ubiquitous, our roles as parents and teachers are more complicated and confusing than they used to be. But a thoughtful, balanced, attentive, and age-appropriate approach to the news can help our kids feel safe and make sense of their world.