It was impossible to avoid Irene. Not impossible to avoid the rain, or the wind, or the delays on mass transit that stalled the city in her aftermath. No, those things you could avoid. Impossible to avoid were the headlines on every newspaper, the ticker scrolling across the bottom of every news network, the ads that changed on every website trying to sell us something to protect our house, our car, our pets.
Preparations to send our children back to school were replaced by preparations for the storm. Trips to the store loaded our carts not with pencils or protractors but rather batteries, bottled water, and canned goods. As adults, we have the experience to plan for these events and the thick skin to deal with the emotional upheaval of near-disaster. It is the children in tow who look upon our near disasters with less life armor to protect them from disturbing images. The media hurricane was pervasive and it dominated the lives of millions of adults for three days. What did it do to our children?
Evidence would suggest nothing good.
Studies have shown that our children are deeply impacted by the visual intensity conveyed by the media that surrounds national and international catastrophe (imminent, actual, or otherwise). According to a study conducted by the New York City Board of Education, "tens of thousands of public school children in New York City experienced chronic nightmares, fear of public places, and other indicators of post-traumatic stress syndrome several months after the World Trade Center attack". The study also found that this anxiety was exacerbated by the "media blitz, which frequently showed funerals of firefighters and pictures of destruction taking place throughout the world."
Another recent study of elementary school students in a hurricane prone region found that seventy-five percent of the students shown disaster media cues displayed an elevated state of anxiety, compared to twenty-five percent who experienced more anxiety as a result of a neutral weather film. Media images permeate and dominate. As we now get back to the business of preparing our children for school, what can we consider and what action can we take to be sure those images are not damaging?
Consider this: according to a recent Kaiser Foundation study, children ages 8-18 spend approximately 7.5 hours using entertainment media, 4.5 hours watching TV, 1.5 hours on the computer, and an hour playing video games daily, compared to an average of 25 minutes per day reading. Yet research has shown that children who are interested in literacy-related activities are far more likely to show positive, adaptive behavior overall.
If children receive words via the literacy experience for even two minutes daily, they will have heard 180,000 words a year, and with five minutes that becomes over 350,000 words in a year. Instead of words filtering through the media, the words are all the more powerful when parents choose, explain, and discuss face to face with their children without intermediaries. Even by talking about a picture book, discussing the big ideas and reflecting on the themes, the child has a better chance at academic success once in school. The benefits of reading aloud are not only about improving reading and writing skills, they are also about helping the child navigate an often confusing world.
We cannot fully protect our children from the harsh realities of the world. But children's literature can soften the blows. It's amazing how the travails of a bunny at bedtime (Goodnight, Moon), or a badger afraid of the dark (Bedtime for Frances) or a mouse afraid to try something new (Shy Charles) can inspire courage and determination in our own young children. Children deserve to be prepared for the world not by watching media images out of their control, but by becoming literate in the full definition of the word: as readers, writers, speakers and listeners.
A child who comes from a home with 25 books will complete two more years of school than would a child from a home without any books at all. The child who is read to at home or who talks about books or life stories with family members at home is absorbing thousands if not millions more words than the child who is preoccupied with media interaction. Best of all, the great children's books guide our children in navigating danger, anxiety and problems. As you prepare your child for school, you may be searching the aisles for the perfect pencils, the right size ruler, the colorful pack of sticky notes. But the best protection and preparation of all is a great read aloud and your own time, a stack of books with themes that comfort and inspire and the time you give by sharing those stories together.