Talking to Our Children

These days I find myself thinking of Neil Postman, the late author, educator and cultural critic who wrote, “The Disappearance of Childhood.” He pointed out that our concept of childhood is a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy. In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that the print culture made it essential that children learn how to read and write. Childhood was an outgrowth of an environment in which information controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be ways they could assimilate psychologically. “The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”

Postman’s point was that the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience. He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process. New development in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further. They are exposed to the sights and sounds of natural disasters, such as fires and floods. They are surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events here and around the world. But more than that, they are exposed to adult responses and controversies that dominate the environment in ways that may seem equally dangerous or at best incomprehensible.

For example, what are children to make of the raging controversy about sexual harassment? “Me too,” can almost sound like a children’s game. What is it that women are mad about, and is it that men do bad things? In a similar vein what are young children to make of various comments relating to immigration, or the idea that certain groups don’t like other groups? Even political discussions and commentary can take on an angry or ominous tone.

Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be. Yet sometimes, our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling. In thinking about the issues that are currently dominating the environment we may need to confront our own ideas and attitudes that influence what our responses may be to our children’s ideas or questions. Questions are being raised about which we ourselves may be conflicted.

The issues currently generating much heat require that we think through our own values in determining how we want to talk about them to our children. To what degree do we wish to impart a point of view or to what degree do we want to encourage children to think through some of the questions themselves?

The way we talk to a child about disturbing events or questions depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child. The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond to him, is to listen to his questions and what he says. In that way you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about the issues or facts involved. The story needs to match the child’s age and developmental level but can be straightforward.

We can’t protect children from life’s painful events or confusing experiences. We can listen and respond to their concerns and in that way help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront life’s questions.