Why I Talk to My Kids About Controversial Issues & All the Awful Stuff in the News

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I always have – and always will – talk to my children about what’s going on in the world.

Even when it’s awful.

Even when it’s complicated.

Even when it’s heartbreakingly sad.

Whether I want them to hear the news or not, they will. Grown-ups forget little ears easily overhear hushed conversations. Breaking news updates pop up on screens of phones kids are playing with. Open windows allow the voices of radio DJs to float into the minivans stopped next to them. The kids take it all in, then talk to each other later, playing a game of Telephone that will confuse, misinform or terrify them. I’d much rather have my son and daughter hear a simple summary of the big issues that come up from me so we can keep an open dialogue going — like we have with everything else in our lives, good and bad.

With a little effort, nothing can’t be carefully trimmed down into a nugget that kids can understand and learn from: Visceral reactions to politicians, another young kid committing suicide, an NFL player sitting down during the National Anthem, a college boy getting away with rape, celebrity bullying, news footage of the 9/11 attacks, another innocent black man killed by police, a massacre targeting gays in a nightclub, the anniversary of a little girl integrating an all-white school, a documentary on the holocaust, citizens policing bathroom choices, another girl sent home from school because of leggings or bare shoulders, another woman turned away from a job because of dreadlocks, controversial statements, poverty, flooding, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, woman-hating, violent riots, peaceful protests — all of it. We talk about all of it in a manner that is right for their temperaments, ages, and needs.

Of course there is the knee-jerk reaction to want to keep our kids safe in a sweet bubble of childhood innocence. But how does that do them any favors? If we’re scared to talk to them about the big issues all around them, how can we say we’re doing our job well? I believe that filtering down the information on a level that works for your children gives them a social awareness necessary to grow up into purposeful, good human beings. Keeping them awake to what is happening, even if it’s not happening to them, prevents them from being ignorant. And I have seen far too much ignorance cause far too much damage at this point in my life to allow my own kids to keep up that trend.

As adults, we often feel our hands are tied when faced with the big issues that upset us. How many times have we said, “I’m so frustrated by what I saw in the news. I feel like I can’t make a difference.” If you have kids? You can make a difference. Use that frustration as an opportunity to break down a devastating tragedy into a quiet lesson about accepting peoples’ differences, or remind your children that it is imperative to respect the word, “Stop.” Instead of curling into a ball to hide from it all (or shouting at people on the Internet) you can ensure the next generation knows better, acts better, lives better. You can raise the kind of people we need more of, so maybe by the time their kids have kids, there will be a little less awful stuff in the news to feel frustrated about.

So I let my kids lead the conversations we have about the hard stuff. Answer their questions simply and honestly. Don’t give more than they can handle. Frame the angle I take on my answers to capture a life lesson. Of course they will feel things during these talks, and I let them. But I’m right there to cushion the experience of their eyes (and hearts) being opened to injustices, unfairnesses they hadn’t yet imagined. I walk them through it, guiding them with gentle words and a call to action that they can grasp onto, so when they’re older and I’m not around to help them process the harder parts of the world we live in, they’ll be able to guide themselves through it in a positive, productive way.

And isn’t that we all want for our kids: to grow up to be thoughtful, empathetic members of society who can handle the hard stuff life throws their way?

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