12 Ways to Raise Joyful Children When the Headlines Are Full of Fear
by Lorna Ann Knox
Chapter OneA Child's View
Understand how much negative and harmful emotional influences permeate our daily life.
Some may think that disturbing events are taking place with greater frequency now than at other times in our history, but I'm not convinced. Pick a time and a place and look in the history books. Plagues and war, political upheaval, economic collapse, natural disasters, murders, kidnappings, bigotry and racism, drought and floods, crop failures and famine, accidents and disease, poverty and rebellion appear throughout the history of every continent and nation. I think what is true is that bad news travels faster than ever before, and there are so many ways scary news can attack our daily lives that it can be a tremendous challenge to keep joy alive under the onslaught.
Ask yourself this question: What is the speed of dark?
The Speed of Dark
The speed of dark is how long it takes to turn on the news, find the talk radio station, drive past a billboard, pick up the newspaper, read the headlines while in the checkout line, flip open a magazine at the doctor's office, greet the neighbor in the driveway, chat with a coworker at the coffee machine. Bad news travels at the speed of dark, and it is very fast. Bad news for an adult is disturbing or saddening, upsetting or alarming. For children, bad news is often simply scary.
In the primitive days of human history, communication was primarily by word of mouth. Urgent news was communicated only as fast and as far as feet could run. Then came signal fires, drums, and horses or other animal transportation as people around the world came up with creative ways to carry news more quickly and over longer distances than a runner could manage. The printing press gave us a big leap forward and was followed by the invention of the telegraph and the telephone. By the early nineteenth century a postal system was in place and the world continued to shrink.
It was in the 1930s, when radio had found its way into almost every U.S. living room that the speed of dark increased beyond anything dreamed of. Radio was the first true mass broadcast media and brought information and entertainment to millions. In 1938 it also was the instrument that brought mass hysteria and unprecedented fear to countless listeners. Orson Welles's dramatic fictional broadcast, "War of the Worlds," testifies to the power of scary news and the speed of dark.
Less than twenty years later, television had replaced radio as the most common source of information and the most popular form of home entertainment. Now scary news was seen live, with all the fear and fascination of experiencing it firsthand.
In only one generation after radio, modern-day communication includes satellites, mobile phones, pagers, fax machines, video, palm-size computers, digital technology, and the Internet. Television is no longer just in living rooms; it's turned on in doctors' offices, restaurants, department stores, hair salons, airports, schools, and even automobiles (and not just limousines!). The Internet can be accessed at home, work, cafes, libraries, classrooms, and even through cellular phones. Electronic mail provides instantaneous access to friends and strangers around the world. You can't avoid the electronic billboards lining streets, radios playing in stores and offices, headlines glaring at you in every checkout aisle, and piles of unsolicited mail filling your mailbox.
Unless you live in extreme isolation, information bombards you constantly. The ability to communicate has changed so dramatically that we no longer have to go out of our way to obtain information; we have to protect our children and ourselves from its constant onslaught.
Many joys and advantages are gleaned from our modern communication that I wouldn't want to change. We can access information so easily; if you want to know about the weather in China, the rules for a game of cricket, or the words to an song, you can find the answer almost immediately. When my father told me to "Look it up!" I headed for the set of Encyclopedia Britannica or the huge Webster's dictionary kept out for those occasions. It is different now. Have you seen your children freeze in the middle of the room, uncertain which way to turn because they have a dozen possible "look it up" options at their fingertips? I have.
Who would want to give back the warm thrill of hearing a loved one's voice from across the world? I know what it looks like to gaze down on our planet from an orbiting space station, thanks to communication technology. My children's best friends moved across the country and they write to one another regularly. But instead of becoming distant pen pals, their friendship has flourished with the help of cell phones, digital video, and e-mail. I homeschool my children with deep gratitude every day for the abundance of resources available to us.
There is another side, however. If we are able to send pictures from a space station, we are able to send pictures from a battlefield; if we use cameras to record birthday parties, we can also use them to record the devastation caused by a tornado or a bomb. News events draw us in and tug at our emotions until they feel personal. Millions felt included in the excitement of Princess Diana's spectacular royal wedding, and millions felt grief and loss as the news of her death flashed around the world.
Emotions and Information
The emotions we experience are the key here: Every day we are exposed to countless messages every day that evoke emotional responses. During a few hours we may be hit with media messages designed to elicit fear, revulsion, frustration, anger, helplessness, sympathy, concern, sadness, pride, relief. There is humor, too; however, the laughs are often cold and the humor mean spirited.
We are assimilating more than the information that adds to our knowledge and stimulates our intellect. We are also faced with sorting through the startling flood of emotional messages. Our brains react and process constantly, with only a tiny fraction of the deluge having significance to our survival. The bizarre truth is that usually headlines and billboards and talk show topics have no relevance to who we are or how we conduct our lives.
Think of your life•¿½your work, marriage, children, friendships, business, physical health, finances, home environment, education, and creative and spiritual activities and interests that are challenging and rewarding. These activities require your attention and fill your heart with more than enough to keep you occupied. Emotion permeates every moment. But the outside world gives you so much more.
In the sensational language of the modern media, every need is a crisis and every concern a threat. Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, explains that stress exists when we perceive a threat and attempt to defend against it. To defend against every contrived crisis as if it were a real threat would result in stress at a debilitating level, so we must sort through all the crises and pick our battles. Fortunately, most adults have the experience and cognitive maturity to figure out what is media hype and what is of serious concern that requires thought and action.
Typical parents coming home from work may see several billboards depicting the dangers of drugs, the violence of domestic abuse, and perhaps a political ad urging a vote to "Save Our Schools!" The radio news tells of all the latest scandals and terrorist alerts. The headlines tell of war news and another natural disaster. They see it all while processing the day's events at work and are still able to interpret the information, decide if any of it is a real threat that needs an immediate response, and walk in the door ready to prepare dinner.
Children are bombarded with the same frightening news, emotional messages, and violent realities. But they don't have the experience, the maturity, the knowledge, or the perspective to understand them and deal with them. Their brains are still developing; they don't have a worldview that puts information into a useful context. They are in the process of creating their worldview based on their experience.
As our culture has become media rich and media saturated, the lines between fact and fantasy, advertising and propaganda, information and entertainment have become so blurred that they are indistinguishable. Coping with the onslaught of information, emotional manipulation, and grim realities of human behavior in a healthy manner takes a complex array of skills that challenges an intelligent, confident adult. How is a child supposed to discriminate between scary events that are a personal threat and scary events that aren't?
Living with joy and optimism is a daily struggle in a world where conscious and persistent effort is needed to keep a balanced view of life. The rates of depression and suicide at younger and younger ages would seem to point out that cultivating and keeping a balanced view is a difficult task. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that the age of depression onset is occurring earlier in individuals born in recent decades *(1) and that in 2001 suicide was the third leading cause of death in youths age 15-24. *(2)
We must understand and accept the fact that technology will continue to advance, bringing advantages and experiences we cannot foresee. But technology does not automatically provide greater understanding; it will always have a negative side. The harsher realities of life will continue to invade our personal space, and media influence will become even more pervasive.
To keep a balanced view of life we must be aware of the positive as well as the negative side and understand that the conditions we are trying to balance will constantly be in motion, requiring continual adjustments. Our children will look to us to give them the skills they need to balance the scary realities with the joys that are just as real.
You may have found yourself crawling around on the floor and looking at the environment from your toddler's height, as suggested by safety experts, to clearly see hazards and make your home child friendly. Now try taking a mental look at your children's environment and note how many negative, emotional, and potentially scary messages they may encounter regularly. Write your observations down.
If you want to take a detailed inventory of media influences, Dr Dave's Cyberhood; Making Media Choices that Create a Healthy Electronic Environment for Your Kids, by David Walsh, Ph.D. *(3) , has many useful suggestions and even provides forms to fill in. Here are some general ideas:
How many television or computer screens does your child encounter in a typical day?
This question is different from asking how many hours of TV your child watches. Take note of where the screens are, such as waiting rooms, the mall, the barbershop, friends' homes, restaurants, and the library.
How many magazine covers and newspaper pictures does your child see?
Think about the checkout lane at the grocery store, waiting rooms, restaurants, your coffee table, and the pile of mail. If your child can read the headlines, count that as a double experience.
Pay close attention to what your children listen to every day.
Take note of when you play the radio in the car or at home. If the TV is on and your children are not watching, can they hear it? How often are your children within hearing of adult or older sibling conversations? What can they hear as they go to sleep? What can they hear at the grocery store, the orthodontist, while riding the bus?
How many billboards, signs, bumper stickers, and advertisements do you notice with content that could be scary or confusing to a child?
Think about the emotional impact of the pictures and the words you pass by on the way to school and in your neighborhood.
Look around your children's schools and make special note of the messages they are exposed to.
If they attend schools with multiple grade levels, there may be information intended for older children that never is explained or introduced to younger students directly but has an impact nonetheless. Even in preschool and kindergarten classrooms, for some children information intended to educate and prepare may cause anxiety.
* * * * *
Just a few minutes' reflection will reveal that there are multiple and varied sources of scary news and information that could have emotional impact for children. Much of it exists in the background of our routines, and we adults tune it out. While eating at a pizza parlor one afternoon, my son turned to me and asked if he could turn off the TV that was over the table. I hadn't noticed it was there! We turned it off and ate in peace.
Unfortunately, many sources of scary news cannot simply be turned off. But looking at the environment with heightened awareness and sensitivity to your children's viewpoint will help you better understand what they have to deal with daily. Understanding this much will take you closer to seeing how to protect your children and how to help them see the world from a more balanced point of view. Your efforts to keep joy in your children's lives will be so much more effective and rewarding if you understand more clearly the forces at work against you.
*(1) National Institute of Mental Health, Depression in Children and Adolescents, A Fact sheet for Physicians publication no 00-4744, September 2000 http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depchildresfact.cfm
*(2) National Institute of Mental Health, Suicide Facts, December 2003 http://www.nimh.nih.gov/research/suifact.cfm
*(3) Simon and Schuster, 2001