Talking with Kids about the News



What They Understand about the News

Older children begin to think more logically about events in the news but still relate them to themselves. While they don’t think abstractly the way adults do, they begin to understand more complex ideas and like to examine problems of all kinds. Their insights can be amazingly deep. However older kids still rarely see the whole picture. They start to look at causes for events and ask more challenging questions but don’t always put together their conclusions in a logical or adult way.

“Once children begin to become capable of logical thinking, they are also able to see the contradictions between what is actually happening and what adults say about it — for instance, adults telling them not to fight or hurt other people at home or school when countries fight in wars and terrorists use bombs,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. “Some children will bring it up and be confused or mad about it and some will be critical of adults for letting bad things happen and not making them better.”

Older children can still be prone to misconceptions about news events. Some create their own versions of what happened and this misinterpretation spreads as “news” in school. When this happens, you can respectfully help kids clear up these misconceptions without making them feel “wrong.”

Signs of Stress

Older grade-schoolers can become stressed about news events because they are not able to fully understand them and are hearing “half-truths” from their friends. Like younger children, they may still get scared about their safety. Although older kids are more capable of discussing these fears than younger ones, they are sometimes less willing to do so. When they do ask questions, they usually want more detailed and logical explanations. Older kids begin to realize that their parents can’t make everything better and things do happen beyond their control.

When extremely stressed by scary events in the news, older kids often revert to younger kid behaviors — they may cry easily, have tantrums, and have trouble sleeping. Some will get sillier and hyperactive; others may shut down and feel like everything is “futile.”

While older kids’ discussions of news events can be complex, these kids can still have nightmares and unconscious reactions to events like deaths of political leaders, wars, and community violence.

Media Exposure

Provide regular exposure to the news, within appropriate limits. Listen to news on the radio and put out the newspaper for your child to read. Allow your older child to watch “some” TV news as well. To get kids regularly engaged, talk about a news topic that interests them. You might discuss a topic they’re studying in school or places they have visited. Think of stories that are meaningful and have some connection to your child.

Watch the news with your older child. Find some time to listen to, watch, read, and discuss the news together. However keep in mind that it’s still not appropriate for kids this age to watch news coverage non-stop, even when a crisis is occurring. “When watching the news, kids this age pick up on the panic button stuff,” reports teacher Paige Williar. “That’s why you don’t want to leave them alone while they watch it. You need to help them understand the whole story.”

Be aware that interest levels may vary. Some kids this age will express great interest in the news, while others will not, unless their friends are talking about news events.

Communication Strategies

Developmentally, kids this age are engaging in more sophisticated conversations, but many are less communicative with their parents than they are with their friends.

Find out what they know. You might start a conversation about the news the same way you would with 6 – 8 year-olds, by asking what your child knows and what other kids at school are saying about a particular event. But where you can go in the discussion next expands as you take your cues from what your child tells you.

Don’t over-explain. Be aware that you still don’t have to explain every detail, but do want to discuss what is important. You might express your feelings about an event, while leaving room for your child to form his own.

For example, if an older child says, “Did you hear about the shooting in the next town?,” you might explain what you know (briefly) and ask, “What did you hear?” If your child says, “I heard someone shot the person who owned a store,” you might comment on why that’s sad, describe how we are safe at home and then see where your child takes the conversation.

Allow kids their own opinions. Older kids can be very vocal about news events. Some may get angry and ask why “those stupid idiots” are going to war and killing innocent people. Others may start talking about how they would retaliate if they were in charge and become adamant supporters of a military action or political cause. In response, you might ask questions about what they think, and why, without making them wrong.

Use this discussion as an opportunity for growth and understanding. While the older child may still need soothing if he’s scared, this is a chance to introduce a thoughtful analysis of what’s happening. It’s also an age when kids start to do things about the events that concern them. “This conversation can become a jumping off point to study the issue more or to take constructive actions. They want to feel their voices are heard and valued. It can be reassuring for them to start to take constructive action themselves, for example to get involved in local efforts to aid victims of war and violence or provide relief to victims of a natural disaster,” says Diane Levin, Ph.D.

Informed parenting

Michael Mount
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