The Awful Truth

The world is a terrible place. Your kids already know it. There’s no point in lying to them.

mother daughter talk.
Two people of different ages who know that the world is a dark place where horrible things happen.

Photo by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

Last week, as an armed shooter raced through Ottawa’s Parliament buildings, my 14-year-old nephew found himself locked down in his Ottawa high school. School lockdowns have been a mercifully rare occurrence in most Canadian cities, and normally sleepy Ottawa is no exception. But as the active shooter situation played out in Canada’s capital, schools across the city were locked down. The problem, as my nephew later explained it, was that some of the school staff attempted to persuade their anxious students that there was “nothing going on”—even as the children were on their smartphones, receiving frantic email messages and photos from their parents who were themselves trapped in locked-down offices and government buildings, relaying the progress of police and SWAT teams sweeping the streets for gunmen.

As my frustrated brother later expressed it, “Our kids are tuned in to the world. Treat them like idiots, and it’s inevitable that teenagers will come to resent authority figures.”

Kids are connected 24/7—even young kids. When we lock them down, they have their pipeline and are going to turn to it, if for no other reason than to call their moms. Schools and parents need to think about that as they formulate strategies for giving students information during a crisis. If the school is giving out limited or false information as frantic parents text different information to their kids, we are teaching our young people that their teachers and schools lie. And if parents aren’t telling their kids anything, but their kids have iPhones, then we’re also teaching them that their parents lie.

At a dinner party recently, pondering the tsunami of bad and worse news this summer, a group of parents I know wondered whether the world is just a much more terrible place than it used to be (ISIS, Ebola, Hannah Graham, Ray Rice, Ferguson, Ottawa) or whether our parents just did a better job of lying to us as kids (Watergate, the Challenger crash, the Easter Bunny, Iran-Contra). The consensus seemed to be that lots of awful stuff happened when we were children too, but access to information was limited and slow, and schools and parents managed crises in such a way as to shelter us from the gruesome details.

Those times are decidedly over. My kids are now 11 and 9. Between them they have learned details we would never have willingly shared about a murdered parent of a schoolmate, a teacher arrested for possession of pornography, the most lurid details of the Hannah Graham investigation, and every last thing Ray Rice did in that elevator. My kids don’t yet have phones by the way. But their friends do. And in the midst of just one of the events described above, as my husband and I tried to formulate what information we needed to share about why people might want images of naked children, it quickly became clear that even if their classmates don’t have phones, their classmates’ siblings do, and that our decisions about what to impart and how to impart it were already too late. By the time we sat down to debrief them, they had too much information and we hadn’t considered how to make sense of any of it. “How can it be a sickness and a crime, Mommy?” Yeah. I dunno.

We are no longer the gatekeepers of our children’s nightmares, nor are their schools. They are now, instantly and irrevocably, as well-informed as their most connected classmate and neighbor. (Or they are that classmate/neighbor.) As we make decisions about how we are going to protect them from the dangerous world in which they reside, we should understand that we can’t manage the information they receive. Different people may feel differently about how much information you need to convey to a child about an ongoing crisis. But we no longer have the luxury of being the first responders when it comes to breaking down complicated and frightening ideas for our kids. By the time they get home from school it’s already too late. They already know more than we would have ever shared.

I am not certain what the normative answer is to this problem, but I am fairly certain that lying to our kids is not it. If anything, our kids need the stability of and trust in institutions such as their schools and families to help them deal with crises. Schools shouldn’t downplay the seriousness of a situation, and parents should accept that we are just not going to be there to filter most news events for our children, even our very young ones. Technology has transformed parenting and education in ways we have failed to reckon with. Even if we want it to be our job to filter the world for our kids, it no longer is. But I’ll confess that I’m not sure how to tell them the truth either.