Care and Feeding

Comfort Isn’t Enough. Be a Helper.

How do you talk a child through their fear of the future? You work to make it better.

A mom comforting her teen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m looking for advice about how to help kids navigate what they read in the news. My 13-year-old son has recently seen a headline reading, “World War 3: How Helsinki Is Preparing for War With Russia.” And then there were the tweets from Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatening each other with annihilation. As he’s coming to understand just what a terrible thing war is, these two things hit him like a ton of bricks. He really felt like the world as he knows it could come to an end, and it really scared him. How can I be reassuring without overloading him?

—Terrified Mom

Dear TM,

This is a completely awful time to raise kids, for the reasons you’ve just laid out. To be a child in 2018 is to know that the adults have completely abdicated our collective responsibility to make a decent world for our kids. Children live with the fear of nuclear annihilation, planetary destruction, flood, famine, fire, mass shootings, and civil war. It is, to put it plainly, fucking awful.

So what do we do as parents? I believe the very first decision is not what to tell the kids but what to tell ourselves. Parents must answer for themselves the question of how they will be a force for good in a world that appears to be crumbling under forces for bad. Not a week ago, my daughter woke to the news that a black teenager had been executed in what appears to be a racially motivated action at the very same train station where she has to transfer in order to go to her middle school. She was understandably terrified, afraid to open the windows of her bedroom for fear that someone may try to kill her simply for being black. In a life filled with difficult parenting moments, it was one of the most rattling and heartbreaking experiences I’ve had.

The world has been a terrible place since the beginning of human history. But now my daughter was aware of the cruel and unfair nature of suffering. She was now aware that no person could guarantee her safety, and it was a terrifying truth to wake up to smack dab in the middle of what was supposed to be summer vacation.

Fred Rogers, in my opinion as close to a bodhisattva as American culture has ever seen, once famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’ ” That is wonderful advice, but Mr. Rogers was a children’s personality and this is advice for children. The takeaway for adults is not to look for the helpers but to be the helpers. That is so deeply needed. Our children need to see helpers. So we need to be helpers.

Are you, personally, a helper, or are you not? That is the question you must answer for yourself. What work do you do to fight against our chances for nuclear annihilation? What work do you do to fight, like actively fight, against the forces in this world that you know are bad? Not liking them is not enough. Telling your son they’re bad is not enough. At 13 years old, he is old enough to see the disconnect between what we say and what we do. So what are we doing?

After spending the afternoon holding my daughter while she cried, talking with her about what I believed, letting her vent all of her fears and frustrations, I told her that I was going to take to the streets along with the rest of the people in my community. I let her know that we were taking action to protect her and make sure that violent white supremacy did not take root in her home. I could not guarantee her that we would win. But I could guarantee her that we would fight.

Our kids are growing out of childhood rapidly. And it will soon be time for them to become helpers. This is the second way we reassure them. We let them know that they don’t just have to sit powerlessly and helplessly while idiots threaten the safety of all of us. We show them that they can resist. They can take action. They can work for what they believe in. They may not be ready to do it today, and that’s OK. But eventually it will be their time. And we will have modeled for them what they can do. We must become helpers. And we must raise helpers. That is how we face this world.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Help! My 8-year-old daughter has asked several times if she can download Musical.ly. I know very little about any social media other than Facebook and Instagram, but I told her no because I’d read an article about the dangers of this app. Today, I found out that she’s used the app with a friend. I’m not too happy about it and we will be discussing it shortly. But should I allow her to use the app? Her friend is the same age. I’m running into all this “My friend has this social media and that. Why can’t I?” crap and I’m not a fan.

—Too Much Too Soon?

Dear TMTS,

This is in a sense the most fundamental of parenting questions: How do I deal with stuff that all the other kids are doing? Putting aside, for a moment, the question of this app in particular, I want to acknowledge how hard it is to tell your child no. You love her. You want her to be happy. You look for ways she can be happy. And yet that often means being the literal reason she is not happy. It’s terrible.

But we do it. The answer to your underlying question—How do I tell my kid no when other kids have been told yes?—is simply this: You do. You say no. “You can’t have that. You can have it when you’re 12. I don’t care that other kids have it. I know that makes you mad, but I’m very clear on this. If I find you’ve downloaded anything without my permission, then you will lose your device altogether.” You can also childproof your iTunes account so that you can approve anything they might download. I would assume the same is true for other platforms.

Now to the question of Musical.ly. This Common Sense Media guide does an excellent job of sorting out the details of the app in question. The rules of all social media apply to Musical.ly, but this app in particular is even more worrisome because so many of the users are under the age of 12, making it an especially terrible place for all the reasons you can think of—sexual content, child predators—and for many reasons you can’t and don’t want to. Eight years old is way too young for unfettered social media use by children. Period.

If your child is going to be on social media, you have to be able to talk to her about sexual assault. You have to be able to talk to your child about suicide, violent fantasies, and self-harm. You have to be able to talk to your child about hypersexualization and the objectification of women and girls. And until you are sure that she can understand these heavy ideas, and knows how to talk with you about them, then she is too young for social media. It’s hard to explain all that right now, but the good news is you’re a parent, so you don’t have to. This is a great use of Because I said so.

But it is time to begin these discussions, albeit slowly and at your own pace. Because she’s going to see it all at her friend’s house, anyway.

Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is starting kindergarten this year, and this will be the first time he’s really been away from us. Should I get him one of those watch phones for little kids? I don’t know if I’m going overboard wanting to get one of these things for him.

—Digital Leash

Dear DL,

You are most assuredly going overboard. I cannot even begin to explain how far overboard you are going. The upcoming film remake Overboard just called me to say they’re preparing a cease-and-desist order because you’re so way the hell overboard.

You can get a watch phone for your kid because they are fun. You can get a watch phone for your kid because kids love gadgets and they’re relatively cheap. But you most certainly do not need to get one because your kid is in kindergarten and therefore away from you. He can be away from you. He should be away from you because it is developmentally appropriate for him to be away from you.

Unless he is attending class in a remote cave, under the tutelage of a 300-year-old hermit who has never heard of a mobile device, you most certainly do not need to buy your kid a watch phone. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

—Carvell