A cool Italian publication dedicated to curiosity and childhood, FarFarFare, asked me to write something on how to talk to children about the news. It seems an important question to ask, especially given how much current events are impacting our lives at the moment – and our children’s too.
As I started looking into the literature and research, the Greek government announced another full lockdown in the Attica region, the area around Athens where I live. This meant no more schools, again. Since my son started nursery he’s had five weeks on, two months off, five weeks on, and now the schools are closed again.
He was just starting to enjoy his routine, and would come home singing songs he had learnt and repeating the names of his friends. How could we break the news to him? As I started looking into the information that’s out there on sharing news with children, I realised that very little is dedicated to early childhood. There seems to be an underlying assumption that babies and toddlers can’t handle complexity and won’t understand.
But while we won’t recall events from our first two years of life (the earliest memories are considered to begin around the age of three and a half, as I wrote in a previous piece, though it varies a lot depending on the community we’re raised in), the events of our first years of life have a strong impact on who we become later on. Trauma can leave a strong mark.
So, what kind of news can we share with our children when they’re still very young? And how do we do it? I’ve been talking to experts about the earliest years, from birth up to the age of four. There are huge variations within this age range, of course, but this is the period that’s usually left out in the research. Here are some tips based on my interviews, and on the resources you’ll find at the end of this story. With one warning: children are very different from one another, and it’s essential to be guided by your child’s personality, by their ability and understanding, and by what they’re feeling at the time.
- Breaking news is a no go. Imagine the scene: the TV is on in the background with the latest news on protests, deaths caused by the coronavirus, and whatever political event is gripping the nation. It’s proven that consuming negative news increases anxiety and even depression in adults. This is even more true for children and adolescents. “The news is not designed for children,” says Dr Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, UK. You may think children aren’t paying attention when you’re listening to the radio in the car, but they are. “It amazes me how much they pick up and how much it can worry them,” says Dodd, referring to her personal experience with her own children. So start by turning off the TV and radio, unless there are specific programmes that cover the news for children.
- Be guided by the child. You won’t get a proper conversation with a baby or even with a toddler, but you can get a sense of how they’re feeling by observing them closely. Is your child repeating one word more than others? Are they clingy or irritable? Have their patterns changed? But if you don’t notice anything strange, it may well be that whatever’s upsetting you – some news about police violence, for example – may not affect them directly, and they may not have picked up on it at all. Maybe the news you thought important to share is not so essential after all. If they ask questions over and over again about how some news related to their friends, or school, for example, make sure you ask them what they know, and then complement that information if you can. Most importantly, be honest. If they ask when the coronavirus will be over, be willing to say, “I don’t know.”
- Don’t share too much. I’m particularly guilty of this one. Sometimes I fill the silences as if I had to narrate every thought that ever passes through my mind, even when it may actually be counterproductive. I could be transmitting my tension to my son involuntarily, and giving him far more information that he can absorb. So beware of how much you say directly to your child, and in what context; think about how much they hear you say to others too. Are you worried about your job security, and want to discuss it with a friend over the phone? Try to find a moment when your child is not around, if you can. Sharing it with them, whether directly or indirectly, may leave them feeling helpless or confused. Overall, remember there are details that your child may not be able to assimilate. You don’t feed your child alcohol or fatty food, because they can’t digest it. Think about the details in the news in the same way, with an awareness that it may be too much for them, advises Jolanda Zewuster, a Dutch psychologist specialised in treating parents with their infants.
- Babies and toddlers can handle more complexity than we think. One clear example is that children notice race a long time before adults seem able to talk about it, different studies have shown. “By three months, infants with extensive exposure to same-race faces prefer those faces,” said Dr Krista Aronson, associate dean of the faculty and professor of psychology at Bates College, Maine, in an email interview. This means that if there are Black children in their school, or migrant children who are discriminated against or whose access to the school canteen is restricted (this happened in Lodi, Italy), or, worse still, if there are episodes of racial violence, you can tackle these complex issues with the help of books or situations they can relate to. For example, you could talk to them about how unfair it is that their friend’s passport doesn’t work the way theirs does. You can also use a variety of books and stories to help you move the conversation in the right direction. (If you’re interested in how to diversify your bookshelves, by the way, check out this video by Syrian children’s author Nadine Kaadan, who is also a member of this community!) And if you and your child belong to a minority group, then it’s particularly important to broach these subjects yourself. “As a parent, you want the best information to come from you,” says US psychologist Faith Sproul in a video interview.
- If the news is affecting you deeply, check in with your own feelings first. If the news is touching you personally, be aware of your emotional response – are you angry, sad, scared? – before you open the subject with your child, and check if it’s a good time for them too. Feelings are OK, but remember that young children take their cue from you. “We want to keep our children safe, and we don’t keep them safe by sheltering them from the news but by showing them how we cope with the news,” said Zewuster. “If we don’t feel safe, they won’t feel safe.” If the news is affecting you very personally (if you’ve lost a loved one, for example), then see if you can get some extra support from someone else. Zewuster: “It’s important to have someone around who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by emotions and keeps the baby in mind.”
- Play is a great way to process the news. Several researchers, including Dodd, have been collecting evidence on how children have changed their play habits during the pandemic. She has observed that many kids are including the coronavirus in their games: socially distancing their teddy bears, or putting masks on dolls, or playing games such as “Splat the Virus” – a variation of hopscotch on a pavement. “We may find it a bit disturbing as adults, but it’s very healthy for kids to process the news through play. In those situations, just let them play, otherwise it removes an opportunity for them to understand what’s happening,” says Dodd. Play can also help parents and children bond in difficult times, as long as we adults let children take the lead without imposing our own games. As I’ve written before, children’s play time needs to be unstructured.
- Show your kids that action is possible. If the news is making you angry, do something about it. Go on a march, write a letter to the city council. This way you teach your child that action is possible. Also, ask your local and national governments to address the questions and doubts that children have, as Jacinda Ardern did when she said that the Tooth Fairy was considered a key worker during the pandemic and free to go to children’s homes when they lost a tooth. Children make up nearly a third of the world’s population, and governments should address their concerns directly too.
- Do the work yourself. Ask yourself which subjects you feel uncomfortable talking about. Death, perhaps? Or race? One study showed that white children were absorbing racial prejudices from parents who avoided the issue of race. So be ready to check your own biases and to have difficult conversations – the kind when you may have to admit that you don’t have an answer. At the end of the day, it’s better for the child to hear about difficult subjects from you than to sense that something’s wrong, or hear them second-hand from others. Otherwise young children may imagine something even worse. Lorenzo, my son, now associates death with a wolf eating a rabbit in a book we often read together. So if he hears the word “death”, he thinks of wolves. This may be quite scary for him, and telling him about a natural death could feel less threatening.
Did any of this information help me when it came to telling Lorenzo about the kindergarten closing down? I think so. Two weeks after the closure, Lorenzo is still waking up in the morning asking whether he’s going to kindergarten. When we say no, he responds by saying “oraviru“, which is his version of the word ”coronavirus“. We didn’t go into many details. We said that schools are closed, and playgrounds too, because of the coronavirus, and we have to keep our masks on for the same reason. We explained that other children can’t go to school either, so he’s not missing out on anything. He now insists on having his own mask, and wears it as a game from time to time. We didn’t have to tell him about the new strains of the virus, or explain that it’s a very deadly disease, because – thankfully – that hasn’t been our immediate reality. Hopefully all of this will be over before he starts asking more difficult questions.
Join the conversation!
I thought that this week’s subject might prompt further questions, and wanted to give you members the opportunity to talk about this issue a little more. That’s why I set up this platform in the first place: so that we could create a sense of community, and give members a chance to interact with experts and vice versa. So, this week, I’m glad to announce that there are some cool people that you can talk to on here, who are open to your questions:
- Jolanda Zewuster, a psychologist in the Netherlands
- Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, UK
- Melissa Hogenboom, a journalist whose parenting newsletter I recommend below
Remember to log in, and scroll at the bottom to leave your questions or comments!
What I’ve been reading
There are all kinds of resources out there to help you go more deeply into this subject. For example, Common Sense Media, a US non-profit, has a useful guide on how to talk to kids about difficult subjects, according to their age group. When it comes to the coronavirus, the World Health Organization has some useful tips for parents on how to talk to kids about washing hands, for example. Journalist Melissa Hogenboom, whose parenting newsletter I highly recommend, recently wrote a piece about how much children really understand about the coronavirus.
What I’ve been listening to
Julian, a talented musician in Buenos Aires and a member of this community, shared this song composed and sung by friends of his. It’s called Lila and is about a dog, but it could equally be about a child. Here’s an attempt I made to translate a couple of the lines: “Lila runs out into the garden and the flowers greet her as she goes by. Petals of rain caress her and ask what’s her secret for happiness – happiness that knows no greed, nor war, nor the misery of a loveless Sunday.” Thanks Julian!
What I’ve been watching
I discovered 1Minute documentaries thanks to Aeon. They are Dutch mini animation films in which kids recount episodes from their lives that feel like fairy tales. This one, called Blackbird, tells the story of how a kid rescued a baby blackbird and witnessed it learning to fly.
Who’s been inspiring me
Children’s literature inspires me, constantly. Whenever I’m feeling a little tired of my son running around and screaming, I try to bring up a book that will help us both calm down a bit and give us a chance to rest and have fun. We’ve recently been reading Adrienne Yabouza’s The Magic Doll, a beautiful book, translated from French, set in a Ghanian village.
What members are saying
Two weeks ago I sent out an email to founding members asking them if they were OK with me publishing their names on the Wall of Founders on my website, as an extra sign of gratitude and acknowledgment of their support. A few of you replied that you didn’t like the idea of a Wall of Founders because it only recognised the support of those who have the means to pay more for my work. You people were right, and you’ve changed my mind – I’ve decided to scrap the Wall of Founders. I’ll make sure to listen very carefully to your suggestions and ideas, and will just thank you all more often!
Until next week!
With love and care,
📣 Kate Kingsford, a member of this community and former colleague, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Scotland. Thanks, Kate! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)…