How I Talked to My Son About Penn State, the Aurora Killer — and Bad Guys in General
When should we shield our kids from the news and when should we help them understand it? I asked the mom friends. And then I sought out an expert opinion.
"Why are they carrying away Joe Paterno's statue? He's the greatest coach in all of college football!"
That was the incredulous, albeit naive, exclamation of my almost-10-year-old son as we sat in a crowded Rochester Hills restaurant for dinner on Sunday night. On an overhead television, the channel was tuned to ESPN. In previewing Monday's NCAA ruling against Penn State, the newscasters were showing, over and over again, footage of the statue being removed.
To my son, they were removing the symbol of a hero.
Right then and there, it was too chaotic to talk to him about it. Besides, his tacos came a minute later.
That was good, because I needed time to consult the experts.
What the girlfriends have to say
I sent an email to a few mama friends the next day.
"What are you telling your sons about Joe Paterno?"
They likely weren't surprised to hear from me: I'm often leaning on the girlfriends for parenting advice.
I received many words of wisdom in response.
"I typically try to be honest," one friend replied. "All my kids know what's going on at Penn State, just a lighter version of it, meaning Joe knew that someone was abusing children and he didn't do anything about it."
That made sense to me.
"Our philosophy lately is that we are honest and want them to hear the facts from us because eventually they may find out anyway and we want the info to be correct," another friend answered.
But, still, a part of me wanted to shield him from the news altogether.
'Random bad things happen'
The next friend I called was truly a professional. Joelle Kekhoua is co-owner of Mental Fitness Center in Rochester. She has a master's degree in psychology, and counseling children and families are her specialties.
She's also the mom of three.
Joelle told me, first and foremost, not to avoid the topic.
"There's a line between sheltering them and teaching them about how the world is," said Joelle. "The world is full of immoral people — athletes who do drugs or get in trouble for other things, for example. You will have to address it eventually."
Joelle provided a few tips that I thought made sense to share. Of course, all of this depends on the maturity of your children. But in general, she said:
- For young children (ages 6 or 7) it's OK to relate it to their own punishments — or to getting a time-out. Don't tell them a coach was abusing children. Tell them the coaches were involved in making bad decisions and are facing the consequences.
- When kids that young press you for details ("what bad choices did they make, mom?") it's all right to be a little vague. "Tell them it's a long story and there's some adult stuff that's not really appropriate for them to know right now," Joelle suggested.
- For older kids, the conversation will need to be tailored to what they can handle. A 15-year-old, for instance, can probably handle the whole truth. My 9-year-old could handle hearing that kids were abused by a coach and scared into keeping the abuse a secret.
- The same guidelines of tailoring the conversation can be applied to discussions about the Colorado movie theater shooting — and any tragedy, in fact. For younger kids, for example, you can tell them that just like in the movies, bad guys really do exist.
- In the end, make sure to explain to kids that sometimes bad things happen that can't be predicted, so it's best to live your lives careful and cautious and safe.
"The key component is to make sure that you have a lot of time when you decide to talk to them about it," Joelle said. "Be patient. Wait for their questions. You need to have an opportunity to give them some reassurance after you talk.
"Kids need to understand that random bad things do happen. But they need you to be able give them some reassurance that you'll help keep them safe."
They also need to know, Joelle concluded our conversation, that you can't let the possibility that something bad might happen stop you from living.
Time to talk
I used all of these tips when I talked to my own son about both events. His reaction was much as expected: he was inquisitive, then thoughtful and quiet. He seemed, for at least a moment, scared, sad and angry all at once.
He seemed to know, inherently, that bad guys are out there.
But it didn't seem to stop him from living. After all, there were things to do.
"Do you have any more questions?" I asked him.
"What's for dinner?" he responded in all seriousness.
Kristin Bull is the editor of Rochester Patch.
How do you talk to your kids about "bad guys" or tragic headlines that hit home?