Fit words to child's age, but don't forget to talk

January 15, 1991

"WITH YOUNGER CHILDREN, FIND out what they know and what they want to know. Ask about their questions and vTC concerns, and answer those questions," advises Ernest Fleishman, Ph.D., director of education at Scholastics Inc., publisher of classroom magazines.

Young children don't have a good grasp of geography, he says. If they're worried about an attack on America, it's better to tell them that the Gulf is "a very far-off place" and that it takes a long time to get here from there, rather than to try to show them on a map.

"For young kids, the best thing a parent can do is reassure them; there's nothing to be gained by giving specifics about war and death," says James McGee, Ph.D., director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

That means reassuring them about their own safety. Adults might be concerned about the risk of terrorist attack, but they should be telling kids that the war is not going to happen here.

It also means not burdening them with what might happen to their own loved ones who happen to be serving in the Gulf, he says. "Rather than preparing them for the possible loss of a parent, you make them anxious and no more prepared than if it is a total surprise."

"The best thing parents can do is make communication an active process," says Col. Calvin Neptune, chief of social work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and consultant to the Army Surgeon General.

"Don't assume everybody is OK or on the same wavelength. Check it out. Ask: 'What do you think?' 'Have you heard anything on the news that bothers you?' In a time of crisis, we have to take time out from pretending we have our emotions under control. There's nothing wrong with talking about being sad, or being tearful and holding each other."

"How we, as parents, react has an effect," says Frederic Medway, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. "If we are down, pessimistic, talking about how horrible it is, it's not going to help our children. That doesn't mean we should be optimistic and upbeat if we go to war, but parents do have to be rational and matter-of-fact, without undue negativity."

At the same time, parents might make use of the war news to impart moral values. "Psychologists are often bad-mouthing TV, but one thing we say is that when a kid sees a violent cartoon or show, it provides an opportunity for parents to talk about it. This situation is going to provide the same chance for parents to use those images to educate children about war, violence, horrible outcomes."

"The country is so divided on this issue, and children are getting into the fray, being really mean to others who have alternate opinions," says Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York and co-author of "The Pre-School Years."

Both teachers and parents should tell children, "It's OK for people to feel differently; that's part of the American system, and we should be respectful of other people's beliefs."

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