As parents, we cannot control when bad news will strike close to our family’s doorstep. Nor can we control how our children will react. But we do have some say in how the hardships of life are explained, not to mention how our family will respond to those who are affected.
My three-year-old son is preoccupied by injuries. As I tuck him into bed each night, he begs for another story of “a time when daddy got hurt.” When experiencing his own “owie” (most recently a scraped knee and imaginary swallowed puzzle piece), he asks me to perform pretend surgery and then covers himself with band-aids. He decided months ago that he wants to be a doctor for Halloween.
But accompanying the cuteness of his curiosity about all things medical is real emotional sensitivity. Whether my wife and I are discussing sadness close to home (like a neighbor’s puppy being hit by a car or a close friend’s recent cancer diagnosis) or the media is blaring about national and global tragedies (like the most recent U.S. shootings or violence in Syria), my son can pick up on both words and tone that hint at hardship. The sound of sadness in someone’s voice, like the sound of sirens on our street, triggers fear in him that someone might be suffering. When he inquires, I am tempted to sugar-coat the details or distract him with some more upbeat topic. I find myself trying to protect him from news of the biggest “owies” of our community and the world because he seems so shaken by bad news.
Ironically, I break bad news to young people for a living. One aspect of my profession as a Social Justice teacher is to present boldly and unabashedly about global hardships to my students, hoping to lift the blinders that might keep them ignorant of the world’s injustices and our connection to them. But the feeling is different when I consider my own young children.
How can parents raise their children’s awareness of, without overwhelming them with, the reality of suffering in the world? How do we nurture sensitivity, without allowing our children to be desensitized?
A recent conversation with a developmental psychologist at a nearby Jesuit college (who happens to have two toddlers of her own) stirred up some helpful insights to consider when discussing bad news with our children:
- We should never be afraid to answer a child’s question. Kids’ minds process information in less complex ways than adults’ minds do, so often simple honesty will suffice.
- There is a big difference between consuming tragic news out of sheer curiosity, and prayerfully processing it as a compassionate friend or concerned global citizen.
- The tone of our reaction is often more important than the details we discuss. And the actions that we as a family perform for people affected by bad news are more important than what or how we speak.
- While hoping that our children will someday help make the world safer, more compassionate, and more just, in the meantime we can work to ensure that they experience safety, compassion, and justice in their own homes and families.
Perhaps in the childhood sensitivity to others’ suffering is the seed of our human capacity for compassion. And this capacity for compassion deserves cultivation and care, even as childhood innocence deserves protection. So in this tension between sharing the bad news with my children, and shielding them from it, I tenderly tend to their wounds, real or imagined, and their questions.
Michael Downs serves as director of justice and kinship at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. He is also a member of the California Catholic Conference’s Environmental Stewardship Committee and the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform Working Group.