The most coveted item on the breakfast table in our house is the newspaper. While this may reflect poorly on the quality of our breakfasts, I think it actually says more about my family’s appetite for current events—and when I say family, I’m including my kids.
My boys, 9 and 7, are voracious readers. Their ongoing fascination with the news often derails our mornings—there’s no way they’ll brush their teeth until they understand why indigenous children were put in residential schools to be starved and abused. Who is to blame, have they been punished and how could this ever happen? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the school bell ringing a couple of blocks away while my mother (whom we live with) and I plunge deeper into explanations of human rights, colonialism and democracy. We’re not foisting this stuff on them but rather responding to an insistent battery of questions.
Some might think it’s wrong to expose kids in this way, but I can’t imagine why. My older son gravitates to stories about technology, sports and celebrities. He is also interested in how things work and shares his younger brother’s interest in plane crashes, train derailments and natural disasters. His younger brother is fascinated by the dark side and hones in on images of horror: bombed-out Syrian cities, Russian protestors being bludgeoned by security forces, the devastation wrought by terrorist attacks. He collects stats on political figures like trading cards and tries to rank Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Bashar al-Assad, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau in terms of power, significance and badness. Why would I shut down their curiosity? Why would I go out of my way to switch off the radio during a newscast, as I know many parents automatically do?
There’s a prevailing belief in our culture that the innocence of childhood is sacred and must be preserved at all costs. A fisherman once tried to tell my kids that the trout floating belly up in his bucket were just sleeping. (My kids responded, “No, they’re dead.”) It’s unfair to cheat kids out of the truth, and it’s an insult to their intelligence. And, though it’s always framed in terms of protecting the child, it often says more about an adult’s laziness and unwillingness to engage.
Consider how many children are regularly allowed to disappear into their basements to play Mortal Kombat on an XBox, watch genetically mutated creatures devour each other at a Cineplex or peg each other off playing laser tag. It’s awfully convenient: They’re quietly engrossed in the violence and it’s not doing them any evident harm. But I’m not convinced that virtual horror is more child-friendly than what’s actually going on in the world they live in.
Cynthia Carter, a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, has been studying the relationship between kids and the news for more than 15 years. In her fieldwork among 11- to 13-year-olds, she has been struck by how many kids report feeling patronized by adults who shield them from the news. She correlates overprotective attitudes to low youth engagement in party politics and finds that sheltered young people are less likely to be civically engaged and more likely to be traumatized in adulthood.
“There’s a popular view that we should keep children away from the ugliness of war, torture, rape and murder,” says Carter. “But in 2017, they’re going to find out anyway. Why wouldn’t we opt to engage with them constructively?”
During the reign of Toronto’s foul-mouthed, cocaine-smoking, finger-flipping mayor, a lot of parents agonized over how to shield their kids from Rob Ford, with child psychologists writing newspaper columns and weighing in on radio call-ins on the subject. But my kids couldn’t get enough of Ford—a larger-than-life character who seemed to have walked right off their bookshelves, somewhere between Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk. What did parents fear? Did they think kids would emulate him, look up to him or—perish the thought—ask what cocaine is? For me, the Ford aberration was a great opportunity to talk about democracy, resentment, class and the rifts within our city.
Of course, Ford is benign subject matter next to ISIS executions, mass shootings in American schools and missing and murdered indigenous women—all of which catch my kids’ attention as well. These conversations are tough but doable and generally lead us to conclude how fortunate we are to live where we do.
They also tie into the world our children live in. We’re deluding ourselves to think otherwise. Why do our kids practise lockdowns at school? Why do they acknowledge the territorial lands of the First Nations every morning in announcements? Why are there suddenly so many Syrian refugees in our midst? To answer these questions fairly, you have to acknowledge some difficult truths—and these truths matter.
On a recent holiday, my kids and I were having dinner in a small restaurant, seated cheek by jowl with other guests. A young man at the neighbouring table asked my seven-year-old what he thought of his dinner, and my son responded by asking him what he thought of Donald Trump. The discussion quickly expanded to include several other tables, and the subjects ranged from federal politics in Canada to the annexation of Crimea to American-Russian relations. My son was right in there, bouncing questions and opinions off a circle of rather amused adults, delighted to be included in a discussion of things big and real.
Of course, not all kids are interested in the news, just as not all adults are interested in the news. But it seems like a huge missed opportunity to not harness children’s natural curiosity and help them understand the world they are entering and realize that it’s shaped by individuals—visionaries, despots and everything in between—just like them.
For those who feel that the news is too terrible and frightening to share with kids, I would say this: There is nothing more terrible and frightening than things that can’t be spoken.
This article was originally published online in August 2017.