Sometimes, when the news is unsettling, we don’t know how to start talking about it with our kids. Or we simply avoid talking about it at all.
The day after Russia invaded Ukraine, I sat down with my 8-year-old and a globe and started a conversation. I shared that conversation with PBS SoCal in hopes that it would give other parents an entry point. Here’s an excerpt:
There’s an insight from Fred Rogers that touches all aspects of my parenting: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
Our job is to provide our kids with accurate, age-appropriate information—while reminding them that they are safe and they are loved. So how do we do that?
Yesterday, my 8-year-old and I spent a chunk of time talking about the invasion of Ukraine. He understood more—contextually and empathetically—than I expected.
Here are a few things that helped:
1. A map: I pulled out the globe and asked him to put his finger on Ukraine and Russia and the Black Sea. We touched other countries and talked a bit about the formation & breakup of the Soviet Union. Just simple history/geography.
2. We talked about some of the reasons wars start—and how this was a “war of choice,” because Russia’s leader wants “more.” This is simply wrong—like it would be wrong for someone to break into his room and say “All of this is mine.”
3. I explained sanctions in simple terms & named some of the other countries imposing sanctions. I also showed a picture of Russians protesting—because I DON’T want him conflating the actions of a tyrant with an entire country of people.
4. We talked about refugees. I reminded him about the drive we did to collect items for Afghan refugees last fall. I showed him a picture of Ukrainians in a train station, trying to leave. Let’s be on the lookout for ways to help, I said.
5. It was helpful that we’ve talked a lot about refugees in age-appropriate ways for years. He knows his grandfather fled Austria with Germany invaded. That’s part of his family history. We connected those dots. Finally, I told him that we’d keep talking about it and that he can ask questions anytime.
Since publishing that article—and reading the reactions and speaking about it on TV and radio shows—I have a few more thoughts I want to share with parents.
First, we have a responsibility to help kids make the distinction between the actions of Putin and the Russian people at large. We have to be explicit about this. Kids generalize. It’s how their brains work. They take a piece of information about a group and apply it to a whole group. When kids hear that “Russia invaded,” they will easily conflate that with All Things Russian. I have already heard about Russian families in the U.S. who are worried right now about how their children will be treated by classmates. We can make this distinction in simple but concrete ways. For example, my eight-year-old loves sports, so I’ve been showing him pictures of Russian sports stars who have spoken out against the invasion.
Second, please don’t assume that you can shield children from the news entirely. In online postings, I’ve seen several parents of elementary-aged kids have commented that they will not be talking with their children about the invasion because it’s a parent’s job to protect childhood. As one mother implored, “Please let kids be kids.” A TV anchor I spoke with noted that she hadn’t shared anything with her five-year-old and that this wasn’t something his classmates were talking about—after all, they are only in Kindergarten.
If that’s where you are landing, I absolutely understand this impulse. That said, I think you have to assume even young children are hearing about it—on the bus, on the playground, in the headlines they read over our shoulder, and in the adult conversations they overhear. Let them know you are their best source to go with their questions and worries. If you don’t know where else to start, here’s a phrase you can try: “Have you heard any of your classmates talking about Russia or Ukraine? What have you heard?” This will give you insights into what your child is taking in and give you an opportunity to clear up misinformation or to clarify their questions.
Third, this isn’t a one-and-done conversation. Because I laid that ground-work in the initial conversation, we’ve had many, many follow-up discussions. Each day, I look for a a piece of news I can share with my kids, and I also look for stories that highlight someone’s bravery or generosity: anti-war protests in other countries, a restaurant owner in Kyiv who is feeding his neighbors, Polish mothers leaving their strollers at the train station for parents arriving in their country, the outpouring of support for refugees.
Finally, as this war continues, we can help our kids move from “looking for the helpers” to “becoming the helpers.” Action is empowering. Be on the lookout for organizations your family can support to provide relief to those affected by the war. As parents, we can use these difficult times to purposefully build kids’ understanding of their world, while doing it in a way that fosters their empathy, courage and compassion.
Keep talking to your kids.