On a beautiful, crisp afternoon earlier this week, I had NPR on the radio while making lunch, with Felix building LEGOs near my feet. As I smeared peanut butter on a slice of bread, I kept an ear tuned to the interview on the air — Samantha Geimer telling about how director Roman Polanski sexually victimized her in 1977, when she was thirteen. Familiar with the story, I was interested to hear her speak, but I also listened for anything that might be too explicit for Felix’s four-year-old ears.
But while the r-word kept coming up, and the story was certainly unsettling, Ms. Geimer spoke in a calm tone, and I didn’t think that Felix would really understand what she was talking about. That is, until he said, “I don’t like this, Daddy. The radio is making me feel crazy. I want you to turn it off.”
And that was the end of that.
Yesterday, I wrote about my directness in discussing the human body and reproduction with my son, but that doesn’t mean anything goes — I shield him from descriptions of violence and overly explicit references. And so, for the foreseeable future, the news is off limits.
The other morning, the first thing I heard when I flipped on the radio was a man describing the shooting at the DC navy yards: “and then he turned the gun on….” A few days before that it was talk of the many children killed in chemical attacks in Damascus. Most news is bad news, violent reports about how people hurt one another. This is nothing I want my son to know about until he absolutely has to, when, hopefully, he’ll be able to manage his fear. Because these stories are scary ones. They make me fearful; I can’t imagine how they might affect a four-year-old.
In the past, I assumed that with their unfamiliar vocabulary and the rapid pace of delivery, Felix ignored the news. Now I imagine his mind doing something like that old Gary Larson comic from The Far Side, where a man is talking to his dog and all the canine hears is “blah blah blah Rover… blah blah blah Rover.” Only Felix is picking up the negative words: “kids died,” “killed,” “gun,” “deaths,” “weapon,” “strikes,” “mass destruction.”
He’s building a puzzle of what the world is like, putting the pieces together to form an understanding of himself and humanity as a whole. These words don’t belong in it yet.
Besides, newscasters — hungry for our eyes, ears, and attention spans — write tragedies large, in language meant to captivate. Felix doesn’t understand hyperbole. And like many kids, he craves certainty. A report says that there’s a 25% chance of an afternoon thunderstorm and he walks around all day asking, “When will it start raining?” I don’t want him to hear of potential problems — like possible military action in Syria, say — and think them prognoses of doom.
This doesn’t mean that he’s entirely sheltered from the world’s horrors. Stories — fairytales and Grecian myths, movies like Monsters Inc., even those inane Woody Woodpecker cartoons he insists on watching — reference safety and security, life and death, in ways that can frighten a child, but are ultimately controlled. These tales end with order restored from chaos, and the righteous conquer the unjust. They help prepare him for understanding real world narratives, where good and evil are far from clear, and stories don’t always play out with happy endings.
Honestly? I don’t miss listening to the news. I’ve been much happier starting my day with music and conversation. This makes for a better emotional diet than the despair on the radio and TV.