I think we can all agree that 2011 has already seen many incredibly shitty things happen in the world. Early in the year, we saw Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords targeted in a mass shooting in which six other people were killed. In the last few weeks, people have been killed in droves in Libya, and Japan has been devastated by a staggering natural disaster. Many sucky things have happened in between. As an adults, the events of early 2011 have been almost too much for many of us to bear. Imagine trying to process all of this as a six-year-old.
My daughter is a wonderfully sensitive soul with an early nose for news. Every morning she watches as her dad reads the newspaper and asks what each news story is about (she can read most of the headlines herself). She listens avidly to the news on the radio in the car when I pick her up from school. But, like most six-year-olds, she’s desperately afraid of someone in her family getting hurt and the news scares the bejeezus out of her.
Sissy Jr. followed the protests in Egypt with keen interest. Of course, she doesn’t understand all the complexities, but I told her that the people in Egypt had a president that was mean and would often put people who didn’t agree with him in jail. During elections, my husband and I take our kids to debates and out to vote, so she’s familiar with the concept of democracy and was aware that the people in Egypt didn’t have the freedom to vote. We watched the protests on CNN and saw the triumphant moment when Mubarak stepped down. As a parent this was a godsend: though the story is obviously much more complicated and the situation much more fragile than I can explain to her, at its basics it’s a good news story. The people wanted the president gone, they made their voices heard and he left office. For a six-year-old, this story offers hope and happiness.
So, when the Libyans started protesting, she took note. I was born in Libya, so that country holds a special place of interest for her. Unfortunately, this also means that I know what Gaddafi is capable of, and I braced myself for a less optimistic outcome. And then the earthquake happened in Japan. Sissy Jr. very vividly remembers the earthquake in Haiti, after which she was terrified for months. At that time (when she was four) I explained to her that the people in Haiti don’t have the money to build houses with structural reinforcement and that if there was an earthquake where we live the buildings probably wouldn’t fall. I realize this is creating a somewhat unhealthy divide between “us” and “them,” but when you’ve got a preschooler who can’t sleep because she thinks her house is going to fall down, you do what you have to do.
And then Japan. What do you tell a kid about Japan? We have friends in Japan. Her dad has traveled to Japan. She’s seen pictures of the waves, heard concerns about the power plants. How do you tell a six-year-old not to be scared or sad when you’re unbelievably scared and sad yourself?
And then she said something to me that made me cry. “Mommy,” she quietly said on the way home from school one day, “I know things are bad in Japan. But how are we supposed to know if the people in Libya are OK if the news isn’t talking about them anymore?”
So, explain the news to your kids, even if you have to simplify it and omit some ugly details. Teach them how to engage. They already know and understand more than you could ever realize.