Guiding Our Children Through Life, One News Cycle at a Time

I wrote a piece last year for Momversation about kids and television. In it I took exception to the "tv is bad for kids" idea, noting that as long as you, as a parent, provide the proper supervision, an atmosphere of encouragement for discussing what kids are seeing, and actively participate in their choices, then it can often be a great learning medium. As a child growing up I witnessed many significant historical events watching tv - Robert Kennedy's funeral, the moon landing, Nixon's impeachment hearings and his White House exit, the last days of the Viet Nam war, just to name a few. I remember these things because I saw them. I am not sure I would remember them so vividly had I only heard about them discussed by my parents at the dinner table.

But I saw so much because I was looking for it. If I hadn't been, most of the important things I witnessed would have been easily missed.

Not today. These days, we have the opposite problem - it's very difficult to get away from the never-ending onslaught of what passes for news. Which makes it hard when you have kids, since most of it simply isn't appropriate for children. 

It's a dilemma, though. You want to protect your children from things they do not have the tools to deal with yet, but you also don't want them living in a cocoon, oblivious to the world around them. It's a balancing act, and admittedly, I feel like there have been times I've just fallen off the wire with my son Zach.

Before Zach was old enough to understand things that were being shown or talked about on the news, there were a couple of significant events that I can remember - the death of Princess Diana and the massacre at Columbine High School. He was very little and even though both were all over the news for days, he has no memory of either. But on Sept 11th, 2001, he was not quite 5. Old enough at that point to be very frightened by what he might have seen or heard on the tv but certainly not old enough to really understand what was happening nor why. He remembers that day, because he does remember me telling him that he had to go play in the other room while I had the tv on. He remembers how upset I was. He remembers a glimpse of the smoke pouring out of the towers he saw on our tv as he left the room. I tried very hard to keep him from seeing any more of it. And was mostly successful. Though it was not easy, the images were everywhere. I did my best to explain what had happened in terms that he could understand, as he knew from how distressed I was that something was wrong and I didn't want him finding out some other way, when I might not be with him to talk through it. I did think he should know, I just didn't feel it was appropriate for him to see it. It was a good thing I did talk to him, because even though he was only in Pre-K at the time, they were talking about it in his class the next day.

Over the years as he has grown, there have continued to be major events that take over the media for periods of time, and as the internet has become more and more a part of his life, it has been harder and harder to walk him through it all.

From plane crashes to earthquakes and tsunamis, terrorist acts to political upheaval, the world is a pretty rough place. Especially when we now have 24hr news channels and an internet which never sleeps to keep it all in your face every minute of every day. It's hard not to be worried about well, pretty much everything, especially when you are young.

Cliche as it sounds, the most important thing you can do is talk. It's not enough to just let them watch it unfold on their computer or tv screens. The media isn't going to give children the answers to the questions they are going to have, it is not going to provide reassurance, it won't explain contexts and subtleties - kids cannot process and understand what's happening, if they can't talk about it. They need more than one side to any given story. They need perspective - and they need it from people they trust, not the weather guy on CNN who is suddenly an expert on Nuclear meltdowns.

As much as it can be a big deal to see current events as they unfold, figuring out how they feel about what's happening is just as important as knowing what's happening. And more often than not, they can't get there without our help. I can't tell you how many times Zach has breathlessly informed me of some news-worthy item, complete with his opinion on the subject, based solely on what he's just seen on the news, be it internet or tv. When I ask him some pertinent questions, there is usually some pause for reflection and often a revelation or two. I love that he is forming his own opinions and ideas. But I also want him to be able to do that with as much care and thoughtfulness as possible. I want him to always look inside himself for how he feels about what he's being told, not just what he thinks he should feel based on what he sees.

Two nights ago, the news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces. I knew before Zach, as I had seen it on Facebook of all things first, then the MSN home page's Breaking News. Zach found out a short time later and came racing to find me - even though I kept much of the imagery from Sept 11th from him, we have talked about it quite a bit as he's grown up. So he knew who this was and why it was so significant. At first he was filled with the same adrenaline that everyone else seemed to be, literally unable to sit still explaining to me everything the President was saying since I was getting Toad (my younger son's nickname) ready for bed and couldn't watch the speech myself. He was excited.

I was somewhat reserved, though, I'll be honest. Which surprised me. I wasn't sorry he was dead. But I also didn't feel particularly... happy. There was some hope that those left behind when we lost those 2976 people, now had some closure. But I had a lot of different emotions about the whole situation which I'm still not sure I can put in to words.

To my surprise, so did Zach.

After his initial excited rush, he settled down and watched on tv as people celebrated outside of the White House. He came to talk to me after Toadie was asleep. He told me about the cheering crowds, what people were saying they thought should be done to the body, and he wasn't happy at all. We talked through his feelings - as excited as he was to hear that OBL had been killed, the images of crowds cheering and celebrating really disturbed him. And he was enormously upset by what he'd heard people saying should be done with Bin Laden's body. At first he was ashamed of our country, he felt that these images and words were only showing the rest of the world why there are those that hate us. Insightful for a 14 yr old. I told him that for some people, specifically those who lived in places that had been directly affected on Sept 11th, like Washington and NYC, it was much more significant than it was for us. They were there, we had only watched it on tv. I told him to put himself in the shoes of those who'd lost loved ones, family or friends that day and wonder if he might not have some of the same feelings he was seeing projected on the news. He thought he could understand that. But he still felt uncomfortable with the whole notion of this being a big public celebration and he was absolutely firm in his condemnation of those who suggested doing damage to the body. We talked a lot about his perceptions of what was happening, repercussions, and what it might mean, if anything. 

Regardless of how you feel about it, there was so much more to think about than simply "getting" the bad guy. And Zach understood that. That he reached some perspective beyond what he was seeing on tv on his own, made me enormously proud. Whether or not we feel exactly the same about things doesn't matter. All I want is for him to think for himself, to trust his own heart and mind, to use his inquisitiveness to broaden his understanding.

News cycles come and go. Once this has faded from the spotlight, something else will happen to take its place. And when it does, I hope Zach will continue to talk, ask questions, think and debate.

The media in all its various forms, will throw news at you and give you a place to start. It's where you go from there that will stay with your children as they grow.

 

*originally posted on my blog 5/2/11

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