No matter your politics, we can all agree that the last few years have been overwhelming. Thanks to social media and 24-hour news cycles, there is a lot of news, and most of it is quite scary and destabilizing: The 2016 election is still in our rearview mirror, and even preschoolers know the names “Trump” and “Hillary.” Small kids have been separated from their parents and detained. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is arresting people in their homes and workplaces.
And a lot of our kids are asking about it. That leads us to wonder, how much should our kids really know? How much should we share with them, and what should we hide? How do we keep them feeling safe when the world doesn’t seem very safe at all?
Should I teach my kids about current events?
With very little kids, it’s best to steer clear of explaining the news completely. “When there’s an election that’s preoccupying their parents, we might do a mock election at the preschool,” explains Jane Rosen, PsyD, child clinical psychologist and director of education at the IKAR ECC preschool in Los Angeles. “Current events have to be broad or catastrophic to pay attention to them [think: 9/11], and physical distance matters.”
If a catastrophic or nearby event is impacting your child’s life, it’s important not to be too vague—or too specific or graphic. Because they hear things from friends or other adults, your first question should always be: What do you know, and what have you heard?
Even if the event you’re discussing happened nearby, if the kid is younger than 5, you want to, first and foremost, reassure them: I will do everything I can to protect you.
Current Events That Aren’t for Kids
“Anything can be harmful or not, depending on how it’s messaged,” explains Rosen. “Young children have no capacity to make sense of what they’re seeing or hearing. They see that people are frightened, and they resonate with the feelings, but can’t process the event itself.”
Remember, too: Kids as old as elementary-school age may not understand that an image being repeatedly shown on a loop on TV or online is not happening over and over again. (Think, again, of September 11.)
Children may think it’s continuously happening, and this is terrifying. “Much repetition of graphic imagery is upsetting and has a nightmarish quality,” says Rosen. “Find ways that you can do something to help them process an event that makes no sense.”
How to Talk About Current Events With Your Kids (or Not)
- Keep graphics to a minimum. Discussing a recent event with your child is much different than them catching glances of blurry, confusing footage for which they have no context.
- Turn off the TV and put away your phones. There’s no need for them to watch the pundits constantly talking on cable news, and they certainly don’t need to be reading the opinions of the masses on social media.
- Talk to your child about what we can do to be helpful and stay safe. You can say: Sometimes really scary or bad things will happen, and we will keep you safe.
- Reassure them that their world will stay safe. If it’s not an authentic statement—if, for instance, you really fear ICE coming to pick you or your child up—explain what steps you are taking to try to keep everyone safe.
- Give them multiple venues to express their feelings. Drawing and playing are good ways to get things out.
How to Get Your Kids Involved in Current Events
Talking about current events is one thing, but what about kids who want to get involved? That’s not a bad thing, but depending on their ages, you’ll want to be vague.
For instance, some kids at an L.A. preschool recently painted pictures for migrant children who were separated from their parents and detained by the American government. Did the teachers tell the kids all about the kids’ circumstances? No way. If you’d like to do something similar, the message can be: We’d love for you to draw pictures to cheer children up who are sad. The teachers didn’t say they were away from their parents or out of their homes.
It’s nice—and important!—to involve children in what’s happening in the world: collecting diapers, delivering food to those in need. “These instill ideas about healing the world, and that they have a place in it,” says Rosen. But you want to keep it simple at this age.
With slightly older children, you want to help them look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. (We miss you, Mr. Rogers.) Ask them, What can we do to help? “Children that age are action-oriented,” Rosen says. “Can you gather blankets? Cash in some allowance to send money?”
Kids want to be given something to do. Being proactive keeps us from sinking into despair.
Little Activists: Taking Current Events a Step Further
So, should you start molding little demonstration-attending activists in your household? By all means!
But you need to think about the how, when, and why. Who is this protest for? And why do you want to bring your kid? Is it a childcare issue, or is this vital to your family culture?
“I don’t think very young children belong some places,” says Rosen. “You can bring a baby along on a march as long as it’s safe. But the idea that you’ll inculcate your 2-year-old can be inappropriate, and [protests] can be violent. Something peaceful can turn in a moment.” Rosen—who protested the Vietnam War along with her parents—suggests waiting until the kids are closer to 9 or 10.
It’s also important to think about what is being communicated. A 5-year-old who is about to start kindergarten might not feel safe at an anti-gun rally, but a 10-year-old who worries about this issue might be feel empowered by it. You know your kid best, but be mindful of developmental differences in ages, too.
Rosen adds that anything about family separation or where children are being abused is better left unmentioned to a small child. “It’s amazing what sticks, and what comes out in different expressions of anxiety.”