Kids soak up information like sponges. It's their job.
I've written before about how that phrase 'little pitchers have big ears' is much more true than we'd like it to be. When disaster strikes, adults' first instinct is often to gather more information by gluing themselves to tv and radio. We talk about it incessantly on the phone, to friends, and to loved ones.
Kids hear. They listen. They learn. They stress.
They also process that information - sometimes correctly and sometimes in way we can't predict and surely didn't intend. I've been thinking about this for the last few weeks as my radio has talked on and on about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, about the trial of a local high school student who shot and killed several classmates last year, about the initial court appearances of the Batman gunman, and about in the lead up to Congress's legislative initiatives on gun control.
Of Parakeets and Sugar Water
Let me start with a story I read probaby 25 years ago while writing a lecture on children's understanding of language. It comes from Omega, the journal of death and dying.
A father describes how his pre-school daughter woke up screaming in the middle of the night, begging for sugar water.
After giving his daughter her sugar water, soothing her, and getting a good night's sleep, here's what he pieced together. .
What did this smart little girl conclude?
The little girl really was terrified. Without sugar water, she was going to die.
The point of the original journal article was to discuss the complexity of the word 'die' and how children come to understand it's meaning. It really is complicated. People are alive until they die. Rocks aren't alive, but they can't die. Dinosaurs are no longer around and have died, but dragons aren't around, but haven't. George Washington isn't around but is dead in a different sense than dinosaurs are (all dinosaurs are dead, but all humans are not). People die and can't come back, but engines die and can come back to life.
What are YOUR kids hearing?
That is all very interesting, but not my point. My point is that kids listen to the words that are said around them and try to make sense of those words to the best of their ability given their limited knowledge of the world.
What have your children been hearing about death in the wake of all the recent school shootings? Some snatched phrases that have come out of my radio . . .
And hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other random phrases and concepts muddled together. Some correct. Some incorrect.
How will children process this information? What stories will they come to tell themselves about why kids in schools are killed?
I don't know. But I do know that they will use the information they are exposed to to build a picture and an understanding. And I also know that we, as parents, should monitor both what they hear (and maybe turn off that tv and radio) and also check in with our kids to see what they understand. And maybe help them, to the best of our limited ability, to understand a little better. If not to understand why mass shootings happen, to at least help them sort through what is true and what is not.
Building an understanding of the world around them is the whole job of childhood. Kids need all the help they can get.