Helping Children Process Current Events

First, the best perspective…

“Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee.”
(Proverbs 2:11

During my childhood years, the evening news hour was seen every night on our 19 inch black and white television. I soon became very familiar with Walter Cronkite (“And that’s the way it is…”), along with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley with their dual host format. The first news story of which I have a clear memory was the death of President John F. Kennedy, including a very vague recollection of watching the funeral procession on live television. But as a young kindergartener, the full implications of this historic event were simply beyond my comprehension.

Walter Cronkite reports the death of President Kennedy

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I carefully listened each night as reports of the Vietnam War were given. Each Friday, Cronkite recounted the number of dead and wounded American soldiers, along with enemy casualties for the week. He sometimes stated the number of ‘gorillas’ that were killed and I always wondered why those animals had to die, not understanding the difference between a gorilla and a guerrilla.

In the spring of 1968, my family lived in Norfolk, Virginia and it was during this time that several news stories affected me deeply. I was only nine years old, but became very much aware of tragedy as reported on television. In a span of seven weeks, three terrible events took place which helped me begin to see and understand human nature. First, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4. Then Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5. Later that month (June 22), the USS Scorpion nuclear submarine was lost with 99 officers and crew members. The Scorpion was based in Norfolk, so in addition to national news coverage, local television and newspapers gave plenty of time to the story throughout the summer.

Like many children, I quietly processed events in my own mind and my thoughts during these days had much to do with inner questioning and attempting to understand how these events could happen. Why would someone want to murder such evidently good, famous, and important men? How could a military war ship like the Scorpion simply disappear? Why was there such evil in the world?

But just over a year later, my questioning turned to marvelous wonder and my imagination was thoroughly captivated by Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. These men actually went to the moon, landed, walked and worked, and then returned safely. I was inspired as a result of these exploits and there was plenty of news coverage to keep my interest at a high level. Of course later in the summer of 1969, the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders were in the news and again I pondered questions about the evil deeds of men.

Armstrong II
Neil Armstrong: First man walks on the Moon

As I entered the 1970s, my childhood was about to transition to adolescence, leading to the teenage years. I gained a deeper ability to understand and evaluate news stories. The Vietnam War was ongoing, the drug culture was growing, and the civil rights movement continued on as a powerful force. News, news, news…

I believe it was my own childhood experiences with network news reporting that influenced my thinking on what I allowed our son Brandon to see years later during his own childhood. After all, news reporting had changed significantly since the 1960s. By the time Brandon was in elementary school, it was the 1990s and network news was no longer filtered for family viewing during the dinner hour, as it had been when I was a child. I purposely and carefully shielded him from most graphic violence, such as news of the Columbine school shootings, feeling little value could be gained through him seeing the visual images of such an atrocity. Other stories also were carefully filtered by me as the family censor, especially events of horror and utter brutality. The first significant news story of a horrific nature we allowed Brandon to closely watch was the September 2001 terrorist attacks. He was twelve. Over-protection? Perhaps…

Twin Towers
September 2001 Terrorist Attack

However, when there were more innocuous stories in the news, I would have Brandon go and watch Peter Jennings after dinner. He was to watch the entire half hour ABC Evening News broadcast and then come and give me a brief report in his own words on three stories of his choice. I followed his recounting with a couple of questions to see if he could think through the issues he had observed. This was a good exercise for Brandon at a young age and often, I was pleasantly surprised at his ability to absorb and then recount some of the events that had taken place in our world on that particular day.

Here are a few principles to keep in mind related to helping your children evaluate news and current events:

1.  Shield your child from graphic or unpleasant news events as needed. Depending on their age and personal sensitivity, some current events are simply too much for them to handle emotionally. Mom and Dad – you are the best judge(s) of what is appropriate for your child.

2.  Talk with your child about news and current events to help them process what has taken place. Ask what he or she thinks and how they feel about what they have seen. Make sure they understand the meaning of the words they hear (i.e. gorilla or guerrilla), as well as the difficult concepts that are set forth.

3.  Teach your child to properly distinguish between actual news stories and the foolish fluff often presented as news. Help your child filter news events through foundational principles that are important to your family. As for this writer, that foundation is God’s Word, the Bible and the solid principles found within its pages.

4.  Build within your child an ability to think critically and help him or her develop the ability to thoughtfully analyze and evaluate current events. This will be a long process throughout childhood and will hopefully lead to deeper discussions in the teen years.

As your children grow older, help them understand that media sources are not necessarily bastions of truth. Walter Cronkite was once regarded as ‘the most trusted man in America’ but those days are long gone. Today, the mainstream media are no longer objective in the classical sense, nor do they consistently maintain the once highly regarded standards of journalistic integrity. Perhaps those days never existed. Indeed, Cronkite himself turned out to be something entirely different than what he was once thought to be…

We must raise our children to be aware of and understand the implications of current events, including the people whose political decisions impact our lives. Qualities of effective observation and listening, along with the ability to think critically helps prepare them to confidently engage adults in constructive conversation, as well as building the ability to confidently express themselves among their peers and in the classroom. As children grow in their understanding of news and current events, the inner qualities of character and good citizenship are built, hopefully lasting for a lifetime.

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© Jeffery J. Michaels / Plain English Publications 2015

(Quotations are allowed with attribution to this blog)