Children Need to Know That People Are Dying of COVID-19

Children cope better when exposed to ugly truths.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Is it any wonder that young people are now one of the demographics with the fastest-growing rates of COVID-19 infection? The trend suggests that we have done too good a job of both sheltering children from emotionally difficult experiences (the consequence of overprotective parenting and nanny-like schools) and not giving children enough responsibilities for themselves and others. We shouldn’t be surprised that young people act irresponsibly when we have hidden them from the uglier parts of life.

It wasn’t always like this. Fairy tales used to be gory affairs. In the original bedtime version of Cinderella, the step-sisters' toes are chopped off to help them squeeze into the glass slipper. Even nursery rhymes have been children’s way of processing the death and mayhem they see around them. A short piece by James Fitzgerald in the Londonist argues that ‘Ring-a-round the Rosie’ was originally children’s playful way of describing the Black Death in England during the 1600s.

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

The ring likely refers to the red circular rash common to the plague; the rosie, the flowers believed to ward off disease; and the falling down, death. Long before we were obsessing about our children’s happiness, young people were adapting and learning to cope with loss. One wonders if those Elizabethan children were more resilient as a consequence — and more responsible. If our young people today saw the fields of freshly-dug graves that are becoming common around the world, would they be so reckless and endanger their parents, grandparents, and communities (not to mention themselves) with bar-hopping and unmasked gatherings?

Exposing our children to the consequences of their actions is part of making them emotionally resilient. It does not traumatize them. In fact, children are more resilient than we think, and desperate for opportunities to show they can be grown-up and solve problems.

When it's time for the news, we need to take away their games and have them sit with us and get informed. Don’t overwhelm them, but use this time in history to help children broaden their understanding of the world. Even a 5-year-old can be taught about the need for vaccinations and the real consequences of racism. The trick is not to lecture children but to ask them what they think. As their parents, we can certainly offer our opinions. too, but be sure to model for children how to think critically. Children also respond well when they can personalize the experience of others. Ask them about a time when they felt treated unfairly and what that was like for them. Then have them imagine what it is like for others.

The more children feel free to ask questions, and the more age-appropriate information they have, the less helpless and hopeless they will feel. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales that describe death and violence, unsanitized by Disney, are partly children’s ways of integrating life’s harsher lessons.

If that seems uncaring, then balance the truth with opportunities for children to do something to make a bad situation better. Help them write a letter to the president. Donate money. Attend a peaceful daytime demonstration in your neighborhood (while social distancing and wearing a mask). The more children feel they can contribute, the more situations feel real and the more they will feel a sense of personal and social efficacy. In fact, children’s sense of empathy and willingness to act philanthropically towards others builds on real experiences. If you are going to make a donation, be sure to donate to something that the child can see, hear, or otherwise experience. The more they can see the results of their actions, the more powerful they will feel and the more they will understand the impact of their decisions.

Children want their worlds to be orderly, at least with regard to how others behave. They like the idea of justice and fair treatment. When we shelter them from the truth, we leave them vulnerable and free to act recklessly with little sense of the consequences. When we expose them to the harsher realities of life, we make them stronger.