Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

What do your kids hear when you listen to the news?

For the last few days, my radio has been off. 

This is unusual for us. 

We don’t have a television, but National Public Radio, with its hours of news, analysis, and call in discussion, is a constant background in our lives.  Right after school, from 4:00-7:00, the voices of the Robert Seigel, Michele Norris, and All Things Considered are part of the ritual of my cooking and settling in after work.

But not this week.  This week, story after story about Haiti flood the airways.  Horrific stories of injured children lying among corpses, waiting for bandages and water.  A son talking about reaching his dying mother by cell phone, buried, unreachable, and impossible to help.  Joyful stories of wives reunited with children, husbands, mothers, or neighbors.  Millions of people helping.  Agonizing waits for food and water and a place to land planes of aid. 

I know these stories are on because I listen to them with headphones after my children are in bed.  Because even though my kids seem oblivious to the news, I know they hear it.  I learned that the hard way.

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My oldest son had just turned four when we moved from New York to Philadelphia in January 1991.  On January 17th, the US invaded Iraq for the first time.  We had just moved to a new city, my husband was convinced that there would be a draft, everyone was home for weeks at a time, and the radio had 24 hour war coverage.

I never thought about my son.  What does a 4 year old know about bombings or tanks?  And there were no visuals to tell him what they were.  I would have known to turn off the television.

My illusion of safety was shattered as I was driving down a country road.  The radio story on was routine.  The Baghdad Zoo was a casualty of war.  With the invasion, the zoo was bombed.  Iraqi soldiers occupied the zoo and began shooting the animals.  The ones not hurt or maimed had no food.  Two zookeepers had been holding out, caring for the animals they could and treating the injured.

All of a sudden, I realized my son was sobbing.  As I pulled off to the side of the road, I saw him huddled in his car seat, shaking.  Then it all came out.  The camels being shot.  What was happening to the lions?  Where were all the dogs and cats living when their houses fell down and their families ran away?

Just because he hadn’t said anything, didn’t mean that he hadn’t heard. 

The clinginess and quiet that I had attributed to our move wasn’t just that.  It was the news.  As adults, we can use our minds to process the information.  We can put things in context.  We can choose to tune it out or turn it off. 

Kids can’t. 

They hear the stories and, if we’ve raised them right, they can feel the emotions and empathize with the pain.   They haven’t built the calluses on their souls. 

As adults, we need to listen to the environments we create for our kids and not believe the words are going over their heads.

That’s true with Haiti.

It’s true with the economy.

It’s true when we talk about our ex-husband and wives, about their teachers, about their brothers and sisters, and about themselves. 

I saw it with my own kids during the first Gulf War. During 9/11.  And now again during Haiti.

They need to know.  They need to care.  They might even need to think about how they can help.  But they don’t need to hear the news all the time from strangers.

What does stress and upset look like for kids?  It can be different from adults.

  • Sleeplessness
  • Crying
  • Yelling
  • Acting out
  • Sensitivity
  • Agitation
  • Listlessness           
  • Aggression in play, towards friends and siblings, or towards you or themselves
  • Disobedience
  • Drinking or drugs

They can also just look like they’re a like a little sick

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Lack of appetite

In other words, when you look at them, you know something is wrong.  Maybe it’s the news.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

 

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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