To shield, explain, or avoid: What strategies do you evoke as a parent to help your children deal with what's going on in the larger world around them?
Tasha Schlake Festel
I am not usually that mom who shields a lot from her kids. If they ask questions, I do my best to answer them honestly and completely. If they see something on TV or overhear grown-ups talking, I try my best to explain things and put them into a context they will understand. It makes their world make more sense and allows them to understand their place in it.
That being said, I do shield my kids from the news as much as possible. At five and seven, I don’t think they need to know about crime, killing and war. Luckily, those things are so far outside of their day to day lives and understanding that they simply don’t need to know such situations even exist. If something happened “close to home” or became relevant in their innocent and happy lives, I would discuss the issues truthfully and completely, as much as possible.
With all of the “stuff” in the news lately, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to control what my kids have heard. Weather-related disasters and terrorists have filled the headlines, but luckily, not their heads. They did not know Osama bin Laden existed prior to his killing last week, and I saw no benefit of introducing him as a result of his death. The crimes he committed against innocent people are baffling to me. I cannot imagine how my children could possibly comprehend such a monster.
I listened to a story on This American Life on NPR over the weekend, where a college student was interviewed in an attempt to explain the jubilant reaction of her generation to the news of bin Laden’s death. In it, the girl said that the events of 9/11 rocked her then 11-year-old world and destroyed any sense of security and safety that she had felt. Her world was irrevocably changed. Hearing her explain the fundamental change she experienced in how she viewed the world and her safety confirmed my decision to keep the existence of real-life monsters secret from my kids.
If they happen to hear about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda or threats of future attacks from school, their friends, or headlines in the newspaper, my husband and I will discuss their questions in a non-scary way, as much as possible. We will explain that, while scary things happen sometimes, they can and should still feel safe, knowing that we will protect them. We will stress that the chances of anything bad happening to them in the sheltered and privileged lives that they lead are incredibly slim. I do not want their worlds rocked. I do not want them to feel unsafe. I will do whatever I can, as their mother, educator and protector, to keep them sheltered from that view of the world for as long as possible.
The violence of man and monster will not likely impact my children’s lives. Mother Nature’s violence, however, is a different story. In summers past, they’ve seen the impact of hurricanes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as we go on our annual family vacation. We have lost tree branches in our yard after strong winds, and have had roof leaks from driving rain. Weather is comprehendible. It touches us.
My children have seen the photos and video of devastation in Japan after the tsunami and the wreckage of the tornados in the southern United States. My daughter was terrified when I told her the tornados happened in this country – in her opinion, close to home. She looked at me, wide-eyed and horrified, and asked if anything like that could ever happen here. What would we do? Where would we go? How would we stay safe?
Since my daughter is not one to let her imagination run away with her and is generally rational beyond her years, I was really surprised by her reaction. I was happy to have the chance to tell her that we live in a very safe part of the country. One of the many reasons we have chosen to live in this region is because we do not experience the extreme weather conditions that other parts of the country do, and that this country and its generous citizens are well equipped to deal with any natural disasters that may befall us. She was visibly relieved, and then asked a few other questions, based on curiosity not fear.
While the weather is more likely to affect them than the real-life boogie-men we hear about on the news, it’s not so scary because it’s real to them. It makes sense. I am not worried that the kids will live in fear of wind and rain. They have context to understand. Violence caused by man is something for which they luckily do not have context. The concept of man hurting man is so foreign and introducing it to them in these formative years would wreak havoc with their innocent psyches. I will not paralyze them with fear and steal their innocence in the name of current events education. I will protect them from that as long as I can. If I’m wrong to shelter them, then for once, I am proud to be wrong.
My oldest daughter was one year and four days old when the Twin Towers fell. I was watching Good Morning America when the first tower was hit. I watched for a while, talked on the phone with family and friends only stopping when I realized my baby was looking at me confused and sad as she could sense how upset I was. My daughter saw the tears in my eyes, could hear it in my voice and, I’m quite sure, felt me hold her a little tighter than usual that morning.
I was careful for many years after that about what I watched in front of my girls about current events because I will never forget the look on my baby’s face when I was watching 9/11 unfold live with her in the room. I wanted to shield my girls for as long as I could from bad things in the world. As my girls grew and their world began to expand I realized that kids talk on the playground and I would rather my girls watch, and learn, with my husband and I present so we can be there to answer questions and offer our opinions on what is going on in the world.
Not too long ago I pulled out a book that I bought for when the time was right, The Day Our World Changed, children’s art of 9/11. I often turn to books as a way to open up discussion with my girls. This book was a great way to begin to talk to my girls about 9/11. I’m glad we had begun to talk about it because when Osama bin Laden was recently killed I could not turn the TV off – I didn’t want to. I also knew that my two school-aged daughters would hear about this on the playground or in the classroom so I wanted to be sure they were prepared. I was not, however, prepared for my girls to see footage of people celebrating the death of a human being. Even though I do think bin Laden was a monster it still did not feel right to celebrate, because we Americans “don’t do that”. My oldest didn’t have a lot to say but my youngest did. She is eight years old.
"Mom, do you think God is happy Osama bin Laden is dead?" "When did you find out he died Mom? Did you get to watch him die?" "I think God must be happy he is dead since he killed more than 3,000 people."
So how do you answer questions like that? I told my daughter I thought that God was probably happy that bin Laden couldn’t hurt anyone else; I heard he died last night when I was watching the news and I did not see him die. My daughter and I talked about what an awful thing it was that so many people lost their lives and I was very happy that there was one less monster in this word but, no matter who it is that is killed I don’t think I could celebrate death in the streets like many people did.
I used to watch the news all the time. It was on in the morning when I was getting ready for work, and I watched local and national news broadcasts almost every evening. That all stopped once my kids were old enough to pay attention to what was on TV. I never really tried to shield them from the events of the world — if they asked, I would answer, but I didn’t want them to see all the frightening imagery that most news shows broadcast. I didn’t see any reason to fill my kids heads with fears of horrors that are the reality of the world we live in while they are still so young. They are innocent and believe they live in a safe world where no one wants to hurt them.
I remember the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004 and I heard of how mothers had to choose which child to grab onto as the ocean overtook their homes. That image will probably haunt me forever even though intellectually, I know that I live in a place where something like that will never happen. Recently, my son began having serious sleeping problems and was terrified to be alone starting right about the time of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He had heard a little about it at school, when they had a fundraiser to help the victims, but as far as I know, he didn’t see any news coverage of the destruction in Japan. I asked him about it and he was pretty scared by the few details he knew. This time, it was easy to calm his fears. I had him find Massachusetts on a map that illustrated all the earthquake activity throughout the world. Once he saw that disasters like that really never happen here, he felt a little better. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of their world, but I also want them to understand how the world around them works. I have done my best to explain difficult events to my kids in a way that lets them know that they are safe.
This past fall, my oldest daughter asked what happened on September 11. She was 7 months old on that day and has grown up more or less oblivious to the horrible events that occurred, even though I watched hours of news coverage with her in my arms—protecting her from something that she was mercifully too young to understand. Every year at her elementary school they hold a small ceremony to honor those who died and for the first time, she asked me what happened. So I told her. I tried to keep the details to a minimum and stress all the ways the country is safer now, but of course she had a lot of questions and the more I told her the more I felt like I was ripping her childhood away from her. I watched her view of the world change in an instant. I spared her the gruesome details and tried to present the facts in as unscary a way as I could, but now she knows. And although she is old enough to understand that the world is large and complex and she is just as safe as she ever was, I wish I could keep her innocent just a little longer.
As parents we know that children process information in relation to their level of cognitive development. The answer you give a two-year old when she asks where babies come from is very different from the one you give an older child. The same holds true for discussing some of the frightening events that happen in the world, be they natural or man-made. The youngest children might stay oblivious, school age children may need to feel reassured, and older kids will usually have their own opinions and want to discuss what they hear about in school and the media.
I don’t know then why I was surprised when my oldest daughter, who is almost 18, mentioned she’d never seen some of the September 11 footage being shown last week as part of the news coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death. This particular image was of one of the planes flying into one of the towers. I remember being at work in 2001 and watching it happen live. As the news of that day unfolded, most of us left work early, feeling a visceral need to be with our families. I called my girls’ nanny and asked her to keep the television off when everyone got home from school. Nina was in kindergarten and Leah in third grade. These were not images they needed to see, and apparently they never did.
Even so, Leah knew something was going on. When important news events happen, having children of different ages poses an additional challenge. The older ones will know more about what is happening and will ask questions. My solution was to speak to them together at the youngest one’s level and then take the older one aside for more information “that your sister is too little to understand.” That September day in 2001 we discussed that a very bad man had done a terrible thing because he didn’t like what our country stands for. I assured them both that they were safe and there was no need to worry. Nina, my five-year old, went merrily on with her life. I was amazed at how carefree she remained. With Leah, who was in third grade, I focused on ways we could help the people affected.
Because Nina experienced the terrorist attacks very differently than the rest of the family, even her sister, she was shocked at the celebratory approach many took upon hearing bin Laden was dead last week. She posted as her Facebook status a sentiment that was making its way around the internet: I’ll mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. The discussion in our house centered as much on how people were handling the news as on the news itself. With both girls in high school, the dinner conversation was basically at an adult level. Leah was particularly insightful as she shared some of what she’s learned this year in her Middle Eastern Studies class. We had progressed from talking about “a bad man” to discussing whether Pakistan had any role in hiding bin Laden and whether photos of his corpse should be released.
My girls are ten years older, yet the contrast between our talks in 2001 versus 2011 still managed to amaze me. Through the 2000s, as the media covered the many earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that occurred around the world, we always focused on how we could offer assistance. We discussed wars, school shootings, terrorist activities, and swine flu at the appropriate intellectual levels, always making sure the girls felt safe. As long as I thought they could handle it, I’ve never kept any news from them. It’s been interesting to watch them grow from essentially ignoring the news to needing to understand why the world is rejoicing at someone’s death.
While running errands with my daughter the other morning, there were multiple newspapers on display with images of Osama Bin Laden. My four-year-old can only read a handful of words and had no idea the caption was “DEAD” when she asked me who the scary man with the beard was. After she asked she didn’t wait for an answer (which meant I didn’t really need to give her one). She has no idea who the Taliban is, no concept of terrorism, and was not alive when the tragic events of 9/11 occurred.
As discussed in previous columns, my husband and I want to give Lexi as much exposure and education we can in order to allow her to find the answers she feels are right in her heart. When it comes to things we just cannot seem to explain, such as tsunamis and tornados and terrorists, I am at a loss at how to even start to explain.
The reason I can sleep at night after the questions start is due in part to her age and innocence in asking questions. She wants to know who the scary looking man with the beard is but not because she wants an education in terrorism. She wants to know why cars are floating away where water should not be, yet she is not mature enough to wrap her mind around death and destruction due to natural causes. We as adults know bad things happen to good people. We know there are things you can’t explain away. Additionally, we know it is human nature to strive to find an answer- aka resolution.
For the time being I plan to shield her from as much evil and destruction as possible until the day comes when she needs to learn humans are not innocent, unspeakable evil does occur, and natural disasters happen. At that time I will teach her to always treat others better than she would treat herself and strive to make her little corner of the world a better place. Until then, I will hug her as tightly as possible and tell her I love her as often as I can while I hope to live to see another day with my darling daughter.