“They smiled at the good. They frowned at the bad. And sometimes they were very sad.” – from Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
Millions of people have viewed the poignant video, showing a grief-stricken father in France talking to his son about the horrific attacks in Paris. It’s gone wildly viral—a clear sign that people everywhere are wondering, “How do we talk to our children about this tragedy?”
As I think about how hard it is for parents in the U.S. to explain and reassure our children, I can only imagine how hard it is for the French. Let’s hope that the smallest Parisians are as strong and brave as the little French girl featured in the famous children’s book, Madeline. Madeline fears nothing—not mice, not heights, not the tiger in the zoo. She’s spirited and courageous, that one. And these turbulent times require spirit and courage.
But back to the question. What do we say? Certainly, we can’t avoid the conversation. Unless our children are very young, we have to respond to their concerns intentionally and thoughtfully. We can’t pretend they aren’t paying attention to what’s happening, because they are most certainly aware. They may catch it on the news, discuss it with peers, or talk about it with no one, carrying around personal, secret burdens of fear or distress.
And while no two kids will ever respond exactly alike to disturbing events, anxious children do have some universal needs. They need to feel heard. They need stability. They need hope.
For 70 years now, Highlights for Children has been corresponding with children. Over the decades, we’ve learned a few things about how to talk to kids when tragedy occurs. Here are a few of our tips to keep in mind when talking to your children:
- Listen first. This is the most important thing we can do when kids are feeling sad or anxious. Allow them time to express their feelings, and actively listen, which means finding a time when neither of you are distracted. It means listening without assuming you know what will be said, and it means repeating to the child what you think you’ve heard. Listening like this will allow you to understand their needs. Does she just want to better understand what happened? Is he worried that what happened in Paris might happen on U.S. soil? How much information children can handle depends upon both their developmental level and temperament, but parents usually have a good feel for what’s right and an ability to hear their cues.
- Share your own feelings. Like adults, kids are often reassured to know that their feelings are shared by others. Although kids can be very good at intuiting how we feel, it can be helpful to hear you talk about your own feelings of sadness and how you cope, whether it is exercising, meditating, journaling, or attending religious services.
- Encourage kids who are less verbal to express their feelings creatively. Some children, particularly younger ones, may be more comfortable sharing their feelings through art or creative writing. After a high-profile death, crime, or other tragic event, we here at Highlights look extra carefully at every poem, story, and drawing kids send to us, recognizing that some kids reach out for reassurance more indirectly and need a thoughtful letter in response.
- Help kids find ways to help. You may find that your kids are helped by doing something as simple as baking cookies for the first responders in your neighborhood, in the name of first responders in Paris. Or your kids may have their own good ideas for other “random acts of kindness.” Regardless of what you actually do, know that the conversations alone help kids develop empathy. Just make sure your children understand that it’s not their responsibility to fix the situation. That’s the responsibility of adults.
- Focus on the good. Put the emphasis on what happened after the horrific attacks. Point out, for example, the outpouring of support and sympathy to France—from people from countries everywhere, from all walks of life. Talk about how Parisians opened their doors to offer shelter that night to people who needed it. Talk about how many governments of the world are vowing to work together to address the situation. You don’t have to know all the facts. The important thing is to help your children feel that progress is being made, and that will help them find their inner Madeline—brave, confident, and optimistic.
More posts by Christine French Cully
“But Mom, everybody else has one!“ What parent hasn’t heard that line a trillion times? But no mind, even after much begging and pleading, I stuck to my guns and said no.
The item in question was a smartphone—and my 10-year-old son wanted one, desperately. Most of his friends had one, but I didn’t think he was ready. This was the boy who often left sweatshirts, jackets, and hats behind. But he begged, he pleaded. Almost daily. I didn’t know it at the time, but his actions were just like many of the kids who responded to Highlights 2015 State of the Kid (SOTK) survey. When asked how they get their parents to give them something they want, 32% responded they beg or plead.
Like many parents, I want to give my son things, and that sometimes includes indulging him with the latest gadget or toy. But generally I’m the type of parent who would rather reward my child with something he wants, especially if it’s something substantial, rather than simply give it for the asking. Apparently many parents behave similarly, as 44% of survey respondents said their parents told them they had to earn what they wanted.
Putting cost aside, I wanted my son to understand the responsibility of having this phone. I wanted him to earn it, not simply get it because he asked or because he did a particular chore or because everyone else had one.
One morning in the shower, I had an idea. If he wanted this phone so badly, I would challenge him to articulate why he wanted it. My son is not a writer. He struggles with anything he has to write, whether a school report or a thank-you note. But if he could put words on a page to convince me, I could be persuaded. According to the kids in our survey, a number of parents feel the same way. Explaining to parents why they wanted something was cited by 13% of the SOTK survey respondents when asked how they get their parents to buy them something. So, I thought, why not try?
When I first approached my son with this idea, he didn’t take to it well at all. But two days later, I had a paper in my hand. It wasn’t good (okay, since I’m an editor, I may have been more critical than most parents), so I gave it back to him with lots of comments. He tried a second time. It wasn’t much better. As I appreciated his effort, we began a dialogue about persuasion. Then he came back to me, this time with a very cleverly written “Top 10 List”—certainly not an essay, but I applauded his creativity and persistence. And, he was able to articulate his reasons for having a phone, in a way all his own. It made me proud.
Am I an indulgent parent? I could argue either way, as he was going to get a smartphone at some point. Instead, I would prefer to think of myself as an approachable parent—one who is willing to listen to my child to a point (60% of kids who responded to our survey said their parents were easygoing; I would put myself in that camp). More importantly, I think (or hope) that I taught my child a life lesson—that if you want something badly enough, you need to work for it. As in life, no one hands you something just because you want it.
Sylvia Barsotti, mom to Luke, Juliana, and David, is the Director of Parenting Editorial for Highlights.
More posts by Sylvia Barsotti
Yep. On occasion, I yelled at my kids. Sometimes I let them talk me into buying them things that they really didn't need because in the moment, it was simpler than any other kind of negotiation. (Hey, I was a tired, working, single mom!) I doled out allowances--but not consistently (and sometimes my kids forgot to remind me, so it clearly wasn't that important to them). And I have a boxful of participation trophies in the basement that may or may not have been meaningful to my kids at the time--and certainly mean very little now that they're young adults.
Miraculously, my two seem to have grown up all right. They finished college. They successfully hold down jobs in their chosen fields, and they pay their bills on time. They talk to me often. They have friends and seem happy.
So would I have done anything differently if I'd had the benefit of knowing the results of the 2015 State of the Kid™ (SOTK) survey conducted by Highlights® magazine? I think so.
If, for example, I'd known that nearly 8 out of 10 kids think discipline helps them behave better, I might have dispensed more of it--or talked more about why I was doing it. At the very least, I wouldn't have worried so much about being a "mean" mom. If I'd known that kids were so adept at interpreting "the look" parents give when their kids misbehave, I might have used my facial expressions more and my vocal cords less to teach them appropriate behavior. (Sixty-five percent of kids say their parents yell or use other verbal cues when they're in trouble--but who likes to be yelled at? And, for that matter, who likes to yell to be taken seriously?)
I also might have been a little less indulgent. Fewer than half the kids who took our poll said they receive an allowance, and ten percent of them said they don't do chores to earn it. A whopping 32 percent admitted that if they want to convince their parents to buy them something, they beg for it, presumably successfully. Having been on the receiving end of that, I can safely say it's no fun. And experts say it's not good for kids, either. A T. Rowe Price 2015 study of 1,000 parents and 881 children suggests that kids who get an allowance are more money-savvy than those who do not. Experts say kids benefit from having experience with their own money--having it, and learning how to both spend and save it.
And what about those participation trophies? It's no surprise that three in five kids think everyone deserves a trophy. More than half of older kids, 11- to-12-year-olds, say only winners deserve recognition. But the idea of recognizing all participants speaks to most children's understanding of "fairness"--and recognition for all has probably been their experience. Maybe we parents need to ask ourselves a question: do we make too much of these participation trophies and ribbons? A study by The Ohio State University suggests that overvaluing participation rewards may lead to narcissism in our children and may fail to contribute to healthy self-esteem. I think it's too late for me to do as Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison plans to do--return his sons' participation trophies--but I think I can safely toss that box of ribbons and trophies in my basement.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of the 2015 SOTK survey--and the previous 7 years of surveys--is the importance of actively listening to our kids. They're watching and thinking about--well, everything they see and hear, and when we listen to what they have to say, we are given another lens through which we can view and understand them. And understanding their perspectives is key to helping them become their best selves--curious, creative, confident, and caring.
You can read the full report on Highlights.com. It could spark some interesting dinner-table conversation with your kids tonight. Prepare to listen.
More posts by Christine French Cully
We have a new “baby” in our house—a puppy named Lily. Now, it’s been years since I had my three little ones at my feet, but when we brought her home, I thought, No sweat. I can handle a little bundle of joy in my life again, albeit a furry one.
And yes, those mama instincts did come roaring back, though I forgot how much attention little ones clamor for, how needy they can be. But it’s more than that—puppies and kids want you to listen at that moment.
Telling a child (or a puppy) to “give me a minute,” or “when I’m off the phone,” or trying to finish up what you were doing and giving them lip service just doesn’t cut it. They know when you’re listening and when you’re not—and one way or another, you pay the price for the latter. If I don’t listen to my puppy, I get a messy house. If I don’t listen to my kids, I miss making an emotional connection. Neither is a good option, and both have long-term consequences.
As parenting editor at Highlights, I get to work for a company that believes in listening (and responding) to children. Each year, we survey kids ages 6–12 on what it’s like to be a kid today, and we publish a report called State of the Kid. In the past, we’ve asked kids about issues such as bullying, kindness, honesty, and safety. This year, we asked kids about parental distraction. Now, most stories on parental distraction highlight either the safety issue (driving while texting or talking) or the selfishness angle.
But we felt we could offer two different perspectives: what kids actually see, hear, and experience in today’s fast-paced, multitasking world of family life; and what the experts suggest—that if we aren’t paying attention, we’re missing one huge opportunity to connect with our kids.
We heard from kids loud and clear (62 percent of survey respondents) who told us that yes, they feel their parents are sometimes distracted when they want to talk to them. And what was the number one distraction? Technology—particularly cell phones. Not a shocker really, as we’re all attached to our phones. But surprisingly, even the littlest ones (at age 6) knew when their parents were paying attention, and what’s more, when they weren’t.
So what does this mean for our family relationships? I think back to the Highlights mantra of leaning in and listening to kids. We parents have to pay attention. We need to be available when our kids want to talk, to set boundaries so they’ll learn when it’s okay to interrupt us, and to spend time with each child individually so he knows he has your undivided attention and can open up.
Michele Borba, an author and parenting expert who worked with us on the report, says that we parents need to realize that our kids are picking up on our distractedness. She advises us to push the pause button every once in a while to make sure we are connecting regularly with our kids, because the foundation of parenting is making that emotional connection. If we’re not paying attention, we will lose out. There are no take-backs.
How best to do this? Carve out sacred unplugged time each day, whenever it works for your family, to just enjoy each other without distraction. Technology certainly isn’t going away, but the key is striking a balance between doing what needs to get done while also being available and engaged with your kids.
And to do that, you may just need to lean in and listen.
Sylvia Barsotti, mom to Luke, Juliana, and David, is the Director of Parenting Editorial for Highlights.