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Filtering the News—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m trying to process what happened at the Capitol so I can help my children, ages 8 and 10, put this unprecedented election aftermath into mental storage.

We’ve discussed how it’s okay to disagree and how there is a clear process for determining who won a presidential election. While my husband and I hope to instill critical thinking skills in our children we also want them to be the kind of citizens who use civil means to express disapproval of government actions. Inauguration Day is so close, yet there has been so much uncertainty in our lives, especially since the pandemic, that I’m almost afraid to look forward to it.

Unbelievable Seditious Actions

Dear U.S.A.,

In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, the armed invasion of the U.S. Capitol building indeed marks this time in history, adding to childhood memories for better or for worse. Children need their parents to filter the ongoing news and to take charge of the family’s responses regarding both of these situations.

PG for Violence

Witnessing violence of any kind is known to have negative effects on children, even when viewed from a screen. Albert Bandura confirmed that children imitate aggressive actions with his experiments in the early days of television. Likewise children’s interpretations of what they saw on television were observed by parents and other caregivers in the days and weeks after airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001. Young news watchers believed multiple planes were being overtaken by numerous hostile enemies and crashing into more and more buildings every time they saw a photo or video on tv. Not having an adult’s perspective of how news programs are produced, children could imagine the buildings in which they lived and in which their parents worked could be the next targets.

Parents must balance their own need to be informed against shielding children from violent images and information. Children are harmed by seeing models of using violence in any form to resolve conflict. Images of violence also cause children to feel that they and the people they love are vulnerable to violent actions.

Process and File

For any potentially charged topics, including a threatened overthrow of the federal government, try to process your own thoughts and feelings before trying to help your children with theirs. Away from your children’s eyes and ears, gather details to reinforce your take on the election process as it has unfolded to the present moment. Was it a free and fair election? Get comfortable with vocabulary needed to explain things; insurrection is a violent uprising; sedition is two or more people conspiring to use force to overthrow the government or to hinder the execution of a federal law.

Be clear about where you draw the line between civil disobedience and an armed disruption to the democratic process of a presidential election. Keep up with the unfolding proceedings for impeachment (expected by today, January 12) and legal consequences to all involved in the violent behavior toward security staff and federal legislators and the riotous desecration of the Capitol building.

Are you disturbed by the racism underlying the motives of the perpetrators? Do you want to address the stark contrast between the response to Black Lives Matter protestors last summer and the level of response to protecting members of Congress from last week’s hostilities? Fill in gaps in your knowledge so you can answer your children’s questions about what has happened and what needs to be done regarding systemic racism in this country.

Your children will benefit from your confidence as you relay the particulars that back up your trustworthy presentation.

Age Appropriateness

Children under the age of five do not have the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. They are extremely literal in their view of the world. People are good or bad. The three little pigs and the big bad wolf are just as real to them as heroes and villains in the news. If you choose to relay anything about last week’s events, give very simple explanations emphasizing the things that the people you’d like your children to emulate are doing.

School age children are ready for a more worldly perspective, but keep your explanations of events relevant to their lives. They want to know how you, and maybe other people they know, choose among candidates for office. Use this opportunity to justify your choices based on issues important to your family. Children at this age may want to understand the Electoral College and why it’s January before the citizens’ vote back in November is official. If you haven’t yet, discuss the repeated vote tallies that reaffirmed the result of the presidential election, but that continue to be disputed despite judicial investigations.

Children in middle school and older, including college students living at home, have likely had enough life experience to be aware of inequities based on skin color. Did they notice that the mob at the Capitol was monochromatic? Teens may appreciate conversations with you about issues of injustice and the differing consequences for aggressive acts based on race. Teens question the actions of authority figures, including parents and national leaders, as a normal part of their stage of development. Help them understand decision-making as they prepare for adulthood. Help them assess elected representatives as responsible citizens do.

Follow Up

Positive action can be taken as a family. Continue your conversations about the role of citizens in government. Write a family letter or email to express gratitude for your representatives’ role in carrying out the final process of the presidential election. Members of Congress may appreciate a kind word after having had their personal safety threatened at the Capitol.

Pursue anti-racism through books, intentional family activities, and regional Social Justice news and events.

Continue to absorb the news before appropriately sharing it with your children as we move toward a much-anticipated transition of power. Make plans to participate as a family in the historic Virtual Inauguration on January 20.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Register for parenting workshops on Zoom starting Tuesday, January 19.

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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