Talking with Kids about Tough Issues
Why is it important to talk with your kids about what they see on the news? As adults, we depend on “The News” as our primary source for information about the world we live in. Whether it’s the local newspaper, nightly TV newscasts, cable news networks, news radio, or Web sites, graphic footage and accounts of the latest happenings in the world are being delivered right into our homes 24 hours a day. This constant barrage can be overwhelming for adults, but it can be especially confusing and frightening for young children.
Many adults do not realize how many kids actually watch TV news or read the newspaper. In addition, consider the opportunities kids have to be exposed to the news. Maybe you listen to news radio in the morning while you drive the kids to school. Perhaps you read the newspaper at the breakfast table. Remember, while you’re reading an article on page seven, your kids may be staring at the front page headlines. You might watch the evening news while helping your kids with their homework. Or they may be exposed to a “newsflash” during their favorite sit-com. Even if you avoid exposing your kids to the news, they still get the latest news accounts from their peers.
It’s no wonder the news can be enticing to children. The average news broadcast contains as much violence, sex and action as many of the most popular entertainment shows on TV. But unlike those shows, the news is real. News shows can show or say things that might be too graphic or intense for entertainment programs. During the recent White House scandal for example, the phrase “oral sex” was commonplace throughout the news media.
As a parent, only you can decide what news is appropriate for your children. Used properly, the news can teach children many positive things about the world. Knowledge and understanding of news events can teach kids a sense of belonging and social responsibility. Most elementary school teachers require kids to follow certain news stories for weekly current events lessons. Additionally, many literacy programs encourage parents and kids to read the newspaper together to develop language skills and healthy reading habits.
At the same time, the daily news can perpetuate stereotypes, confuse, anger and even frighten children. By talking with our kids early and often about the stories and images they are exposed to by the news and other media, we can help them better understand the world around them. This communication can be especially valuable when kids are exposed to tough issues like violence, sex, drugs and alcohol, death and divorce.
Explore the age appropriateness of the news you allow your children to see
Whether and how kids should consume the news really depends on the child and how that news is presented. As parents, we all sense that kids today are growing up too fast. The simple truth is that they have access to much more information than previous generations. To help you decide what’s right for your child, Talking with Kids describes three different age groups and possible effects of their exposure to news. Keep in mind these generalizations may not be true for all children.
Preschool age (under age six) kids have a limited ability to discern the fantasy of an entertainment show from the reality of news. In most cases they don’t really see a difference between a car wreck on TV news and a car wreck in the movies. At the same time, kids in this age range are as likely to be afraid of what they see on the news as they are of dragons, or other fictional worries. Most experts do warn, however, that prolonged exposure to news and other media can lead to the “desensitization” kids. That is, commonplace crime and violence seen in the news and other media can work to reduce the emotional response of even the most shocking images among viewers. Parents should use caution when allowing preschool children to be exposed to all types of media. Talking with Kids strongly cautions against allowing your preschooler to watch the news without your supervision.
Psychologically, kids between the ages of six and ten are most vulnerable to what they see on the news. They know the difference between fantasy and reality, but they lack perspective. Instead of worrying about monsters under the bed, they tend to worry about real dangers like kidnapping, car wrecks and tornadoes. During this time, it is most important to watch the news and other media with your child. If you find these things especially disturb him, consider turning the news off.
Remember that children will not understand the frequency with which events occur. If they hear about break-ins, injury, and murder in their area (even if the area is a large one that contains millions of people), the fact that the event was important enough to be covered will lead them to believe that these are very common events. Help children develop a realistic sense of danger and limit their exposure to gruesome reviews of crime and injury.
Adolescents (age 11 and up) have grown to be much more media savvy. They have a better understanding of fact and fiction and are expanding their own perspective on a daily basis. But their constant exposure to media and peers can lead to conflicting information and confusion. As the parent of an adolescent, you can’t be there to monitor everything your child is exposed to, but it is extremely important to check in with her about the media and other issues she is beginning to experience.
Watch or read the news with your kids
A great way to alleviate the fear and confusion of the news is to share the experience with your child. By reading the newspaper together in the morning or watching a nightly news broadcast with your child, you will be able to know exactly what they are being exposed to and can talk with them about it. If you see something that may be upsetting to your child, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation on the subject. For younger children, you may also consider setting rules against watching the news when you aren’t around.
Create an open dialogue
The best way to make sure kids know they are safe, is to talk with them about what they see and hear. If your child is worried about the country going to war, talk with him about the chances of that happening and what it would mean for his safety. Additionally, let your children know not to be ashamed or afraid to talk with you whenever they see something they don’t understand.
Use the news as an opportunity to discuss tough issues with your kids. We know it is important to talk with our kids about tough issues, but there isn’t always enough time in the day to sit down for a long talk. Also, kids tend to resist formal discussions, often thinking they are in for another lecture from mom or dad. But if we use “talk opportunities,” moments that arise in everyday life, our kids are less likely to tune us out. For instance, a newspaper item about a child expelled from school for a carrying a gun to class can help you start a discussion on guns and violence.
Share your feelings about the news you see
As a parent, you have the opportunity to be the first person to instill in your child your sense of values and moral principles. The “just-the-facts” explanations of a news report may leave a child confused about right and wrong. Remember, research shows that children want and need moral guidance from their parents. Try starting off a conversation with something like “That news report about gun violence bothers me, because I don’t believe guns should be kept were kids can reach them.”
Let your kids know the difference between news and reality
Is the news real? If you mean did the reported story actually happen somewhere in the world, yes the news is completely real. But the news media can lead people to believe that the stories reported are closer to home, or that they happen more often than they do in real life. Violence in schools is an example of a prevalent story in the news. So prominent in fact, that adults and kids alike are afraid that violence is sure to happen in their schools. The reality, however, reveals that there is less than a one in two million chance that a child will be injured during a violent outbreak at school. Make sure your kids know that just because they saw it on the news, it doesn’t mean it is likely to happen to them.
Acknowledge your child’s fears
Even though many of the stories reported in the news may not really happen to you or your child, the fear these stories can bring out is very real. That’s why it is important to reassure a child that there are people working to make sure her personal world will remain safe. Try saying something like this to your six to ten-year-old: “I know you feel a little scared by what you saw on the news, but you’ll be fine. I am here to protect and take care of you.” An older child might be comforted by a few additional details: “Dad and I aren’t the only ones watching over you. Adults in the community like neighbors, the police and teachers are all looking out for your safety.”
Explore the facts with your child
At times it may be necessary to provide your child with more factual information than is provided in a news report. For example, a news report on the increasing number of people with HIV/AIDS may mean additional facts are needed to properly explain the disease to your child. Research the facts with your child about how the disease is transmitted and what can be done to prevent it. Make sure you look at safety and prevention measures when researching topics.
Acknowledge the complexity of the news
Even the most informed parent is sure to have difficulties explaining why people fight wars, or why politicians don’t always tell the truth. Even when we can explain them, our children might not understand. It’s important that as parents we let our kids know that the news and the world are very complex, and that greater perspective will come with age and continued communication.
Select kid-friendly news sources for your child
All news is not created equal. Take care to select good news sources for your kids. Generally speaking, TV news, especially local news shows, tend to focus on issues like crime and violence. Newspapers are often seen as a better source to get more in-depth news coverage with background and context. Network news usually focuses less on crime and violence than local news. However, there are local news stations committed to presenting “family friendly” newscasts with more responsible reporting. Look for these stations in your area. Also keep in mind that there are news sources created just for kids. Nick News on the children’s network Nickelodeon is an example of a program designed to report on issues that kids care about in a way they can understand. There are also many Web sites and magazines dedicated to news for kids. For adolescents, consider subscribing to magazines that focus on news and issues important to your child.
Balance your child’s news diet
Few parents would allow a child to fill up on an all-chocolate food diet. Thinking about your child’s exposure to the news in the same terms can be helpful. It’s important to make sure kids have a balanced news diet. The best way to achieve this is to know your child’s news environment, that is when, where and what kind of news your child is exposed to. Is your daughter listening to news radio while you drive her to school in the morning, or is she watching crime scene footage on TV news shows that follow her favorite afternoon cartoon?
Whatever the case, balance your child’s news diet by setting clear limits. Make it known to your son that he can only watch the news when you are in the room to watch with him, or limit him to only news sources that are less violence-oriented, like network newscasts. Experience the news with your child, and balance his news diet by talking with him about what he sees.
The same way a nutritious diet, rich with plenty of fruits and vegetables, helps promote healthy growth for kids’ bodies, a balanced news diet, rich in communication and the perspective parents provide, promotes growth for their minds.
Now that you are a news expert, here are specific tips for talking with your kids about common news topics.