Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Do Our Kids "Need" to Know?

Yesterday, the BlogHer network syndicated my last post about what you could say to your children if they asked about the woman who killed her two children.  A commenter on their site (with tongue firmly in cheek, I'm guessing), wrote,

You mean leaving my kids in a bubble until they're adults (and possibly after) isn't an option? Sad.
As much as I'm sure she was kidding, I also know where she's coming from.  All of us, as parents, have moments in which we want to be able to insulate our kids from the outside world (in my case, it was the day that NPR "outed" the tooth fairy for my 8-year-old daughter, who, although very knowledgeable and savvy about all sorts of things, still believed).  We know we can't keep them isolated forever, but how long is reasonable, and what should we or should we not be keeping from them?

Obviously, some of this is going to depend on your personal style, your personal values, and the circumstances in which you are raising your children.  A friend, for example, once told me she was not going to tell her children that other religions other than hers existed before they were about 10 years old.  She (a Roman Catholic in a very Roman Catholic community) might possibly be able to accomplish that.  I (a Jew in a predominantly Christian society) may not choose to tell my kids about other religions, but I probably can't keep the information from getting to them if I intend to, say, take them to the mall in December at all.

There are some rules of thumb I think represent best practice for deciding what to expose your children to and what to say to them.  These ought to apply to any circumstance, even though those circumstances may be wildly different from family to family.

1.  If they're going to hear about it anyway, and you care about how they understand it, they should hear it from you.  Please note that this has to do with whether they are inevitably going to hear about it, not with whether you want them to inevitably hear about it.  This applies particularly to high profile news events which other children may be talking about or which they may hear or see snippets of in passing on TV, radio, at news stands, or overhearing telephone conversations.

In 2009, one of the women who worked in the lunch room at my school was murdered by her boyfriend.  A parent was concerned that we told the children that she had been "found dead" and that this implied homicide, which she did not want her children to know.  While we can quibble over the words and whether they were the best way to phrase things, the notion that these children were not going to find out that this staff member was murdered was not realistic -- all of the kids were talking about it and it was all over the news.

2.  If there is a reasonable chance that they are going to hear about it, and if and when they do they will feel betrayed by the fact you didn't tell them, you need to tell them.  This applies to all kinds of situations where we decide kids are better off not knowing, but they beg to differ when they find out.  You may think you're doing your kids a favor telling them the dog went to live in the country, but when the neighbor expresses condolences that their dog was hit by a car they will not only be shocked, they will be mad at you for lying.

3.  If you are finding the news or the situation extremely stressful, the kids will know something is up, so you need to talk to them.  No matter how horrible the situation, if you are noticeably upset and the kids think things are so bad you can't tell them about it, what they will imagine is far worse than reality.  You also, by not talking, send the message that they can't talk to you, so if they do find out they won't have anywhere to go.

4.  Talking honestly does not mean giving gruesome details.  It's OK to speak in generalities and then only give specifics if asked.  For example, we told the kids that our lunchroom staff person was found dead.  Only some of them wanted to know how she died, and we could say that we didn't know the details but the police believed that someone hurt her on purpose.  That was good enough for most kids, and we could answer more questions about who and how for those who were asking.  We could also talk about what they were more concerned about -- is someone out there attacking people -- by listening to the melody as well as the lyrics of their questions.

5.  Don't assume you know what they're thinking or feeling.  There's an old joke about the boy who asks where he came from.  His parents explain about the birds and the bees in some detail, and he says, "That's funny, my friend Johnny comes from Chicago."  Sometimes, just answering the specific question asked is what the kid is looking for.

6.  If they're asking, it doesn't really matter whether you want them to know about it yet.  There are things that all people eventually come to know about -- murder, rape, child abuse, and sex are just a few -- that we'd just as soon our young kids didn't know about.  However, if and when your child asks you what one of those words -- or some other along the same lines -- means, you have to answer them in a kid-appropriate way.  If you refuse, you send a powerful message that they are never to ask you about such things. 

Which brings us back to #1, above -- if they're going to find out, wouldn't you like to be in control of what they hear?


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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