Talking to kids about scary news, such as Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks

September 7, 2011

U.S. forces kill Osama Bin Laden

Explosion, shootings shake Norway

Earthquake jolts D.C. area.

News — big, scary, hard-to-understand news — is everywhere.

Honestly, as a mom, sometimes I wish it weren’t. And this from a person who relies on news to keep a roof over her head and food on the table.

How much a parent tells a child about the outside world is an intensely personal family decision. As KidsPost editor, I have been privy to the gamut of feelings on this. Each week, we publish the names and photographs of children having birthdays. Parents divide sharply into two camps on this. (I paraphrase, but you’ll get the gist.)

●“It’s the nicest thing that The Post does to acknowledge something as important to kids as their birthdays.”

●“You’re publishing a yellow pages for pedophiles. How dare you?”

Neither parenting group is wrong. Each family gets to make their own value judgments about how much of the joys — and terrors — of the world gets communicated to their kids.

But I’ve been thinking a lot as the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches about how, when and how much kids need to know about the outside world.

Of the three news stories reflected in the headlines above, KidsPost wrote about two of them: Bin Laden and the earthquake. I confess that it never occurred to me to write about the Norway shootings until a colleague from NPR e-mailed me to ask: “How did KidsPost handle the breaking news of the recent Norway attacks — the bombing and shootings — on its Web site?”

In retrospect, the question shouldn’t have rocked me. The shooting occurred at a camp, and many of the victims were young people, although older than KidsPost’s 7- to 12-year-old readership.

But ultimately, I thought the harm of scaring kids (you, too, could get shot by a madman as you head off to summer camp) far outweighed any lesson a story could impart about how the world works. Yes, that horrible things sometimes happen is a life lesson we all learn. But I’m not sure we need to serve it up with cereal and a banana to 8-year-olds.

Bin Laden and the earthquake seem different in that each provided what we love to call a “teachable moment.” In the first, I think it was important to explain to kids the phenomenon of the celebration of a death. Not to say whether it was right or wrong, but to provide a bit of context to people who were not yet born when those planes went into those buildings. After all, for most kids the equation is simple: death = sadness. It was perfectly reasonable for them to wonder what the dancing in the streets was all about. The earthquake was even easier. It happened here. Most of our readers experienced it, so why not slip in a little plate tectonics with that plate of pancakes?

Sometimes the question for parents about talking to their kids about the big (and bad) things in news is as simple as: Is it avoidable? Unless your 10-year-old asks you flat-out about a shooting rampage in Europe, pedophile priests or an issue as controversial as Roe v. Wade, I think you’re fine with not bringing it up at the dinner table.

But this weekend, it will be pretty close to impossible to avoid images of pain from a decade ago. And I would encourage you not to try.

I understand history better for having heard my dad talk about the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. History comes most alive when we hear it told by those who were there. So talk to your kids about what you were doing when you heard about the events of Sept. 11, 2011. If your son or daughter was alive but too young to remember, tell them about what they were doing that day. Younger ones may gain tangible understanding from being told something as simple as, “We didn’t always take our shoes off in airports.”

My then-12-year-old sons were in­cred­ibly moved several years ago when we went to the Newseum (admission is free this weekend, by the way) and sat in the small theater that plays the live TV coverage of the events of that day. One of the boys wondered aloud why there was a tissue dispenser at the theater entrance. When we left after 15 minutes of watching in silence, he had his answer.

As each family makes its decisions about how much news to let their kids know about, I would offer that not all news is created equal. This weekend presents us with an opportunity to talk to our kids about events that changed us as individuals and as a nation.

To not find a way to gather as a family to talk about that would be an opportunity missed. (And if you’re not sure how to begin the conversation, may I humbly recommend the KidsPost section for Sept. 11, in which we talk to local children born on that fateful day.)

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.

SECTION: {section=advice, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=15, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=15, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=advice, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=15, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=15, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle