Family of 7 kidnapped: When news is bad, how to talk to your kids

Recent headlines – like "Family of 7 kidnapped," "Six-year-old Maced," and "Women hid boy for 8 years" – portray a scary world, especially for kids without experience to place the facts in context. How one mom puts it together for her four boys.

Associated Press
Meteors falling from a the sky, a family of 7 kidnapped -- these headlines may not scare an adult, but for a child without the proper experience and information to put them into context, they could be terrifying.

The sky is falling! Really it is, over Russia and Florida. The question is should we tell the kids about it? What do our kids take away from news like: a family of seven kidnapped, a child of six maced in a Laundromat, a boy kidnapped and held for eight years, the Chuck E Cheese killer, and fireballs falling from the sky because in many cases, no news is good news for kids. 

Keeping a filter on the news is actually harder than limiting video games and other violent, scary things because even our supermarket, Harris Teeter, has big-screen TVs all around the store, all tuned to CNN with closed captioning. Same thing in the bagel shop, Jersey Mike’s subs, and other places we dine. Once a child can read the news, it is twice as hard to avoid because they love to practice with those words on the screen. “M-a-c-e-d? What’s that mean mommy?” It means most businesses feel that the safest channel to stay on is CNN and so the kids are bathed in the news images and words nearly everywhere we go.

Of course our kids will have to deal with the “real world” and we do need to make them aware of certain dangers that are out there. But on days like today I tell my Quin, my youngest, age nine, “Umm, please don’t read over Mommy’s shoulder right now,” as I scan the Yahoo News stream online. After the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting my 13- and 17-year-olds both vetoed the Batman movie (that was playing at that theater) saying, “We just can’t because it feels too creepy, like we’re there enjoying a movie that got so many people killed.” The movie wasn’t the killer, but it felt like that after a while to my kids. 

I realized about 10 years ago, with my older sons, that what we read and see in the news is not the same as what our kids take away from the experience. We have years of knowledge and experience on which to gauge our reactions. For example, I stopped Quin this morning from reading over my shoulder as I looked at the Associated Press story about the French family of seven – including four children – kidnapped on Feb. 19 in northern Cameroon by what officials believe may be the work of one of Nigeria's Islamic extremist sects.  

As an adult I read it and think, “How horrible, but it’s in Cameroon and this is not something that’s likely to happen in Norfolk, Virg. today.” I grade it as non-threatening and I am down at DEFCON 5. A child, particularly one with Aspergers, reads the same story and comes away counting how many people are in our family and wondering “Is Cameroon over by the supermarket or the school?” Child is at DEFCON 2.

I read the news online in The Pueblo Chieftain about Nathan Dunlap being sentenced to death for killing four people in an Aurora, Colo. Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993. This has been almost 20 years of waiting for Colorado’s longest-serving death-row inmate when the Colorado Supreme Court rang the death toll for him this week.

As a parent I felt my guilt ease a bit over traditionally saying no to environments such as the Chuck E. Cheese franchised fun scenario.

Sadly, when my back was turned, Quin saw the newspaper and said, “No wonder you never want to go to Chuck E. Cheese if people get killed there!”

If I let my children read all the news I often feel that all the time I spent nixing violent TV and video games was a waste of time because it’s all out there in the news: car chases, shootings, kids under attack, and fire falling from the skies.

The stories are often less of a danger than the headlines, such as “2 Texas women convicted of hiding boy for 8 years” in the AP today. An adult reads the AP story and learns it’s about Krystle Tanner and her mother, Gloria Walker, found guilty of kidnapping in the 2004 disappearance of Miguel Morin, who was a baby then and is now eight. Quin would envision a child near his age being imprisoned for eight years.

The story about the man who attacked and beat a father and maced his six-year-old daughter in a Laundromat in the Bronx is one incident caught on a surveillance camera (and now all over the web) that my child is not going to see, or he will spend the rest of his life in dirty clothes. I had a hard time watching as Fernando Gonzales entered a laundromat on Saturday and brutally beat the father as the child tried to intervene to save her dad and was maced by Gonzales.

However, I let Quin read the one about the meteors hitting Russia and what appeared to be a “fireball” spotted falling from the sky over Coco Beach, Fla. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Florida sighting joins another sighting off the West Coast on Friday night and, of course, the huge meteor that flashed over Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday, creating a shock wave that broke windows and injured hundreds.”

To which Quin said, “Awesome! Can I stay up late tonight in case something falls on us? Pleeeeeeease?”

That’s my child, a science geek to the bone, other parents must judge for themselves whether the news will educate, inform, and empower a child to act, or make them into Chicken Little. 

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