Suddenly, I come across a picture of a traffic accident. My daughter is not paying attention—at least that’s what I think—but then she turns to me.
"What happened?" she asks.
I share an edited version of the story and tell her that a few cars hit each other. I try to be calm.
"That’s scary," she tells me. "Did people get hurt?"
That’s hard to tell from the picture but clear from the story. "Yes, I tell her. Doctors are helping them."
Moments later, my daughter loses interest. She returns to drawing. I turn the page.
This experience raises questions for me. I feel like my daughter may have seen too much here and I’ve got to be more careful. Still, I wonder: What should I share about the news with my kids? When should I shield them from what’s going on in the world?
These are not simple questions, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era. The most telling story here for me, though, is not the news. It’s the interactions my wife and I have with our daughter. We try to answer her questions honestly while knowing it’s our job to frequently serve as editors of the information she receives.
The next day, I am reading a newspaper again. This time there’s an image from a war-ravaged city in Iraq. Occasionally, I have hidden an especially violent image from my daughter, but not this time. I don’t make a big deal of it, partly because no one appears to be hurt in the picture.
This time, Dina is not paying attention—she is so engaged in an art project she ignores what I’m doing.
Later in the week, I am reading a magazine story that contains a photograph of a man’s lungs. My daughter looks over my shoulder at the picture.
"What is that?" she asks, fascinated.
I tell her and ask her if she finds the picture scary. She assures me: "Nothing’s too scary for me."
I file her sentiment away for the moment. At her suggestion, we open up a book of hers that has information on human anatomy and talk about it.
Fear, disinterest, curiosity, brash confidence—my daughter shows me all of those things and more. Much of the time, she also looks to me for guidance.
I contact a few people who have studied how kids respond to the news to ask about their thoughts on the subject. All agree: Parents clearly help set the tone for how their children view the news through the way they manage their own feelings—and listen.
"If parents want to help children, they should know what their own feelings are and what messages they are conveying," says Milton Schwebel, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who has spent decades studying how to help kids cope with war and a dangerous world.
This, I find, is a constant challenge, since my response to the news is often complicated. My gut tells me my daughter should not be exposed to extreme violence in the media. My senses tell me that just about any time my daughter is exposed to a newspaper, television, radio or computer she could be one page or one click away from a troubling story. She is also, I have found, one page or click from something she’ll enjoy and maybe learn from.
One longtime observer of how children respond to the media says parents should focus less on what they think and more on what their children think.
"In terms of seeing something accidentally on TV or in a newspaper, there may be times children see images we wish they hadn’t seen," says Steven Marans, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence. "That’s the time we want to listen to young children and find out what questions they have rather than focus on our own preoccupations about a subject."
I do encourage my daughter to ask questions and find she is often reassured when I can explain a story in terms she can understand.
Still, there are some stories I can’t easily explain—such as stories about the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, there is information out there to help parents talk to their kids about these subjects. Following Hurricane Katrina, the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence published a booklet called "Parents’ Guide for Helping Children in the Wake of Disaster." Marans also wrote the book Listening to Fear: Helping Kids Cope, from Nightmares to the Nightly News, published this year.
This morning I am reading a story about the war on CNN’s Web site. The story includes a photo of people who appear to have been hurt, though it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. My daughter approaches me. She wants to play a computer game—but not before she asks me about the story on the computer screen.
I make a quick judgment. I tell her people have been fighting. I tell her some people got hurt. The image in front of me does not appear to upset my daughter—yet—but after a few seconds I feel she’s seen enough anyway. I switch to her favorite Web site, a move she endorses.
I suppose one possible response to the news would be to cut down the amount of media my children are exposed to. It’s more likely, though, that my wife and I will continue to strike a balance between our protective instincts and the need to be direct with our children.
After all, we know what’s around the corner. It’s never too long before our daughter will ask one of her favorite questions again: "What happened?"