Know Your Child

Tralee Pearce’s article deals with the question of how much, if any, media coverage about natural events we should share with our children. As a parent, naturally, I want to protect my children from anything that might do them harm or cause them pain. As a parent, again, I also want them to understand their world and have empathy for the people in it. When it comes to media portrayals of natural disasters, I am pretty sure that the “know your child” rule applies: I can’t, nor do I want to totally shield my children from knowledge of the events of this world, both good and bad; I just want them to learn in a way that is respectful of who they are and how much I think they can handle.  Letting my children watch the nightly news seems much like teaching them to swim by throwing them in the deep-end. I’d rather they ease into the water, myself.

But that’s not necessarily what they want. They are not isolated from the facts of what occurred in Japan. My children continue to ask questions about the earthquake and tsunami. Of course, they wanted to know whether what happened in Japan could happen here. They needed to know that they are safe.  They wanted to know what happened to the children in Japan. They even wanted to know the physics of  how tsunamis work.  At school, they collected loonies and folded paper cranes.  They pledged money from their piggy banks to be donated to the Red Cross.

They also wanted to watch the news.  You Tube videos of the tsunami rushing in,  in particular, fascinated them. Neither of them could have articulated this, but I understood: they wanted to make the abstract, concrete.  Having no frame of reference, seeing what really happened in Japan helped make it real to them. Out of an abundance of caution, we might have chosen not let them watch the news clips, and perhaps, in a different circumstance, we may demur.  This time, however, I think it was okay to let them.


Memory of Terror

I read Tralee Pearce’s article about children and upsetting news with a combination of relief and recognition.  It is interesting that one aspect of children’s exposure to news about natural disasters is through schools’ fundraising efforts, and that has certainly been the case for our two eldest.  My sons, thankfully, have not shown any signs of having difficulty coping with news about the events around the world for which our family and their school fundraise.  I have lived in both Haiti and Japan, so the disasters hit close to (a previous) home.  We worked as a family to raise money for the relief efforts, and we discussed what had happened and how our efforts could begin to help.  Almost all of the kids’ exposure to these events, though, would have been aural.  The children do not yet use the internet at home, and we do not have television on at all during the week, so they would not have seen any news footage of the devastation.  (They use their precious television time on the weekend for cartoons and sports highlights.)  They might have seen the images on the front page of the newspaper, but if they did, they did not comment or show any signs of having difficulty with what they saw. 

Relief, then, that the boys have been able to participate in doing good and not be affected negatively by their awareness of disaster.  The recognition is of my own terror in childhood.

When I was seven years old, my mother and brother and I lived with my grandmother in Yorkshire for a few months while my father was finishing up work in Haiti and transitioning to the next job in Saudi Arabia.  

During our time there, a serial rapist and murderer was on the loose, and the tabloids called him the Yorkshire Ripper.   He was in the middle of what would be a six-year killing spree, so had an established track record of crime, but had not yet been caught.

I could read at that age, so I imagine I must have seen and read the headlines.   I would also certainly have seen the television news.  There was one television, it was on all afternoon and evening, and it dominated the living space of my grandmother’s cramped house.  I have no specific memory of how the information about this man was imparted to me, and I know that I did not understand the sexual aspect of the crimes, but I understood what murder was well enough and I understood that the only people in danger were female.   I also remember my utter terror of going upstairs to bed alone in case he could get into the house and kill me.   I would begin to feel nauseous every night right after dinner, because bedtime loomed and I was terrified of what came next.  My mother and grandmother were able to calm me by keeping the hall lights on and door at the bottom of the stairs open so that I could hear their voices or the sound of the television as I fell asleep.  I remember laying very still every night and listening intently for any sound that was not from the light and safety of the adults downstairs. 

My fear eventually bubbled over into hysteria one night when my mother went out to a pub with her cousins, leaving my brother and me with my grandmother.  I cried all evening as she got ready, wailed that I didn’t want her to go out, filled up with more and more panic as the time drew near for her to leave, and had to be pried off of her, crying hysterically, as she went out the door.  I had a new fear; I was afraid she would be killed.  Here’s the thing: I did not tell anyone why I did not want her to go out.  I knew that if I spoke my fear out loud, it would be laughed off.  A part of me knew it was irrational, but a bigger part of me was terrified nonetheless. 

This, I think, is the great difficulty with children’s anxiety: we cannot know how deep it goes or how deeply our reasoning will penetrate if and when they tell us what scares them.  One more good reason to keep the television off.  Pierce’s article asks “How much upsetting news should children see?”  I say, “None.”  Keep the television off and talk about the news of the day instead.  I don’t want the boys to grow up in an insular bubble, but I remember my own terror and am glad our house does not have a television as a part of our daily engagement with the world.

It’s a mad, mad world.

How much bad news should we share with our kids?  Opinions on this matter run the gamut.  Our world is rocked by natural disasters, threatened by extremists and in environmental peril on an on-going basis.  Parents are often confronted with how to explain such atrocities to their children.  Opinions on this matter run the gamut from full on disclose to extreme censorship.  Where do your beliefs fall on the spectrum?  This week the 4mothers weigh in on this issue using Tralee Pearce’s article,How Much Upsetting News Should Your Kid See, featured in the Globe and Mail on March 14, 2011 as a starting off point.

As always, we encourage you to share your opinions on the subject by writing a comment.  Perhaps you have an experience we can learn from or just want to join the conversation.  Either way, we welcome you to do so!

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