Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
A couple of months ago, we sat down as a family to watch the five o’clock news. We never do this, but my 11-year-old had been interviewed and we wanted to watch it together. We were told it would be on in the five o’clock hour, but of course it didn’t come on until 5:55. In those 55 minutes, my 6-year-old watched news about:
- A shooting at a school
- A suicide bomb in Afghanistan that killed civilians
- A policeman shooting another policeman and then shooting himself
- A video of teen girls fighting in a high school
- A man who escaped from a mental hospital, prompting the community to tell all children to stay inside
- A child molester on the loose, including a picture of him
- A trial of two men accused of killing four people, including a toddler.
We didn’t want to turn it off because we had no idea when Natasha would be on. We muted it and distracted him and we won’t be watching the news with him again anytime soon, but it did get me thinking that it was time for The Talk. Not the Birds and the Bees one—we still have time before that—but The World Isn’t Always A Good Place one.
Sadly, it’s just plain old true that bad things happen, and people do bad things. We can shelter our children for only so long. As the reality of the world around them begins to sink in, they need the perspective and skills to be ready—and not terrified.
There are three main points of The Talk:
1. Most people are good.
Yes, there are people out there who do bad, even unspeakable things. But they are a miniscule percentage of all the people in the world—and that’s an important message to get across to children. People are mostly good—but some have problems, or have had bad things happen to them, and so they do bad things. Because of those people we need to be careful, but the vast majority of the people they ever meet will be good, not bad.
2. There are lots of people who can help.
There are parents and friends and teachers. There are policemen and firemen and EMT’s. There are the neighbors across the street. These are the people to consistently point out to your children, both to keep them optimistic and let them know who to go to in an emergency. This echoes and reinforces #1—not only are most of the people in the world good, but there are people who can and do keep kids safe all the time.
3. Children can do things to help themselves.
There are simple things you can do with your kids that can make a real difference, such as:
- Teaching them to be sure that you or their caretaker always knows where they are (this goes from not wandering away at the park to checking in by cell phone regularly when they are older)
- Teaching them what to do if they get lost
- Making sure they know that adults should always ask other adults for help, not kids
- Teaching them the names of their “private parts”, and talking about good and bad touches
- Telling them that it’s not okay for grownups to ask them to keep a secret (unless it’s Daddy asking them to not spill the beans about Mommy’s birthday present!)
- Reinforcing that if a grownup ever makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, they should get away as quickly as possible and tell a trusted adult (you’ll need to talk about who the trusted adults are).
Obviously you can’t do this all at once—they wouldn’t remember everything and it would be too overwhelming. The Talk isn’t a one-shot deal—it’s an ongoing conversation that you work into daily life in small ways. If you give directions to someone, use that as an opportunity to talk about grownups asking grownups and not kids for help. Each time you go somewhere like a museum or fair, talk about what to do if someone gets lost. Talk about private parts in the bathtub. Be brief, matter-of-fact, and positive.
It’s that positive part that’s crucial. Think empowerment. Because that’s what you ultimately want: a child who understands that there is danger out there, but is optimistic—and empowered to keep himself safe.