How to talk to young kids about tough topics in the news

When we parents struggle to digest the news these days, how do we talk to kids about everything from school shootings to sexual predators?

Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“I don’t want to talk about that with my kids. I don’t want to ruin their innocence.”

Child looking scared thinking to himself7 ways to reassure your child after frightening news events I have heard parents with young kids express this sentiment a lot lately, and I can’t blame them. The news has been so disturbing, between sexual-assault allegations, school shootings, acts of terrorism, and hateful rhetoric hitting us at every turn. And while Donald Trump didn’t start these fires—to borrow a phrase from Billy Joe—it sure feels like he’s throwing buckets of gasoline on them. I alternate between wanting to scream, cry and crawl under the covers.

So, yeah, part of me wants to sequester my kids in a big, old bubble and pretend that none of this is happening. But I won’t do that. If I did, I would be leaving them completely unprepared, making them vulnerable to negative influences and potentially putting them in actual danger. Talking with your kids about difficult topics in the news in an age-appropriate way is an essential part of parenting—even if it’s also a really daunting one.

Now, before you turn on the 6 o’clock news to give your children a kiddie crash course in current affairs…well, don’t. According to experts, children under seven should be kept away from the news; you can introduce kids over eight to it carefully. “Anything they need to know should be consumed, digested and spoon-fed back to them in a way that nourishes, rather than traumatizes, them,” explains Paul Hokemeyer, a family therapist based in New York City. Parents need to balance their child’s fundamental need to feel safe with their ability to understand what’s happening in their community and the world at large.

Here are some guidelines for talking to kids between the ages of four and eight about some of the most difficult topics in the news today.

Protestors in support of the national 'Black Lives Matter' movement gathered at Dillworth Plaza in Philadelphia on April 30
Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers via iStockphoto

How to talk about racism
Your family’s racial makeup will affect how you address this topic, but all parents need to talk about it. If you don’t think that racism directly affects your kids, you are likely coming from a place of white privilege; remember that a lack of discussion also sends a message.

In the States, the number of hate groups has risen by 20 percent since 2014 and racially motivated crimes have surged since Trump’s inauguration. In Canada, hate crimes are also on the rise and becoming increasingly violent. The most recent Stats Canada report from 2017 reveals that one in two hate crimes were “motivated by hatred of a race or ethnicity.” The controversial not-guilty verdicts in the Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie murder trials indicate that systemic racism against Native youth persists at the highest levels in Canada.

The problem when tackling racism with young kids is that conversations about equality can be too broad, conversations about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement can be too intangible, and conversations about events like Charlottesville can be too frightening.

So, how can you talk about it? By finding a relatable historical hook. For my kindergartner, that hook came in the form of a Jackie Robinson book from his school’s book fair. He’d been excited to learn about baseball, and I saw the larger opportunity. While we had talked about discrimination before, it wasn’t until he heard this detail that he really understood it: A young Jackie wasn’t allowed to go to the local swimming pool because of the colour of his skin. Suddenly, my son understood, in an age-appropriate way, what racism was, and from there, we could discuss that it still existed today, that it was wrong and that there were things we could do to combat it.

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting memorial in Newtown, Connecticut
Photo: iStockphoto

How to talk about school shootings
Our children should not have to worry about being attacked by a terrorist or gunned down at school, and yet here we are. This topic is distressing for adults, but it can be downright traumatic for preschoolers and elementary-school children. At this age, they have one main concern: feeling safe, even when they’re away from their family. So be extra careful keeping young kids from watching news about shootings and other forms of violent attacks.

“For kids who haven’t heard about a particular incident, simply remind them that they can come talk to you anytime about anything they hear,” advises New Jersey–based social worker Talia Filippelli, founder of Starr Therapy. And if they have heard something? “Before assuming anything, ask your child what he or she knows,” she says. “Then listen, ask their opinion and engage in an age-appropriate dialogue rather than pressuring yourself to find the perfect explanation.”

In general, it’s smart to discuss emergency plans with your children. For example, if your child goes to a school that practices lockdowns, ask about the process and remind them to follow the teacher’s instructions. Talk about hiding in a dangerous situation and staying with a sibling or buddy. Devise a game plan for meeting in case you’re ever separated, and tell them whom they can go to for help if you’re not there, for example: a police officer, fireman or mom with small children.

Activist protest as Bill Cosby departs after the second day of jury deliberations on day 13 of the actor and comedian's sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Court House, in Norristown, PA
Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How to talk about sexual assault
Between the outpouring of #MeToo allegations and the trial of Larry Nassar—the former gymnastics doctor who sexually abused more than 265 young girls—the news keeps reminding us us that sexual predators could be anywhere—and our kids could be targets.

While no victim of a sexual aggression is ever to blame, we can help protect our kids to some degree by arming even the youngest of our children with some very matter-of-fact knowledge about good touching and bad touching. If we do that, the concept of body safety can become second nature to them, just like looking both ways before crossing the street. Tell children that no one is allowed to touch their private parts—not teachers, coaches, friends’ parents, relatives or even doctors, unless a parent is present. If anyone does, they should say “No!” loudly and forcefully, do what they can to get out of there and tell you right away. Tell them they should trust their gut.

Still, having that knowledge is only part of the equation. According to Hokemeyer, “parents also need to empower children to have a voice in regard to their bodies.” Children should start using that voice to say “no” to family or friends when they don’t want a hug—or to you when they don’t want to be tickled. When you respect your child’s voice, you are sending a very clear message: They have control of what happens to their bodies and you will always back them up.

How to talk about gender inequality
Ingrained attitudes set the stage for how women are treated in the world. Women make, on average, 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes. In a broad range of fields, only 10 to 20 percent hold top leadership positions. And in government, women’s representation sorely lags behind; there has been only one female prime minister in Canada—who held her position for just five months—and there obviously haven’t been any female presidents in the U.S.

As a parent, you probably talk a good game when it comes to gender equality. You tell your kids that men and women are equal and that women can do anything men can. Still, some day, your child still might say, “Oh, that’s not something girls do. That’s only for boys.” When my son said that to me, it took my breath away. Without realizing it, my husband and I had split housework along traditional gender lines, but after my little boy made that unintentionally sexist comment, guess who started changing light bulbs and batteries a lot more frequently.

The bottom line: Talk the talk, but also walk the walk, and you can do that in the home, in the toy store (don’t get sucked into the world of gendered toys), and out in the world (make sure your kids come into contact with men and women in non-gender-typical jobs). Our children are always watching, and they internalize what they see and hear. “Most people simply adopt the values of their parents or society during childhood, without revisiting those values to see if they’re a good fit in adulthood,” explains Filippelli. “Values often lay the foundation for how we make decisions.”

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses following an announcement about drug prices in the Rose Garden at the White House May 11, 2018
Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

How to talk about the bad behaviour of leaders
People in power can be self-serving and disappointing, and this is confusing for kids. Why don’t these people do as they say? Why would they say something that hurts others? Why would they take advantage of their position? It goes against everything children are taught.

Thankfully, you don’t need to discuss every “grab them by the p*ssy” and “sh*thole” comment or every sex scandal involving community leaders. Instead, talk about how all people are just that: people. They have flaws, they make mistakes, and they’re not always right simply because they’re in charge. You can discuss this in regard to world leaders, YouTube personalities and even fictional characters on a favorite show. “The most important message is that what looks like success on the surface can be an illusion,” explains Hokemeyer. “This is of particular relevance in our social-media-saturated world, where one’s success is measured by Instagram followers and Facebook friends.”

If your kids do know a bit about a specific situation or you feel that it’s important to discuss, focus on the different—and better—choices that could have been made. With my 6-year-old, I also emphasize that his voice is just as important as anyone else’s, so if people in power are doing or saying something abhorrent, he should speak up and stand up for his values. He knows what’s right…even if they don’t.

Read more:
Are you talking about race, power and justice with your kids?
How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guide

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