Talking to Your Kids About the News: Science and Health
Even if your child doesn't sit down and watch TV news programs or read the newspaper, chances are that he hears about innovations in science and technology, as well as news about health and disease, from teasers for the news and word of mouth. Science can quickly turn to science fiction and health warnings into deadly epidemics in the mouths and minds of children. It's important to ensure your child doesn't start thinking every bee is a killer bee and every cold the West Nile virus. Try to find out what he knows and thinks about such issues simply by asking about them.
Younger children (under age 8) have trouble distinguishing make-believe from reality, especially when they see both on TV. Mad scientists in the movies can become all scientists in a young kid's mind. Try to show your child the positive side of science by highlighting inventions and showing how science helps us understand the world around us, even in explaining why the sky is blue. When talk of Anthrax or other scary health news erupts, reassure her that it is highly unlikely that she will be affected. Answer any questions she may have honestly, calmly, and clearly, but don't go into unnecessary detail.
- For older children (grades 3–8), use the following tips to help guide you:
Watch the News With Your Child
The easiest way to know and monitor what your child is exposed to is to sit down and watch the news together. Find a program that isn't overly sensational (try local news and weekend shows), and talk about what you see. It doesn't have to be a formal talk about the science or health — that will probably just bore your child anyway. Instead, simply ask what he thinks about images and stories as they appear. Discussing the news together will also allow you to gauge his reactions and decide whether he seems overwhelmed, bored, or if he wants and is ready to find out more about medicine, technology, or science. If your child seems upset or uncomfortable, try reading the newspaper together as an alternative. It's also a great way to build reading skills and can be done anywhere, anytime.
Find the Answers Together and Explore More
The news usually only covers the very basics of science and health issues: what's been discovered or invented or what the name and effects of a disease are, without discussing much of "how" or "why." After hearing such news, your child may have questions you don't know the answer to. Instead of making something up or simply saying you don't know, tell her, "That's an interesting question. Let's find the answer together." Then open the encyclopedia or search the Internet to explore and research the answer. While you're investigating, give your opinions but don't state them as absolutes, so your child feels comfortable expressing her own feelings, even if they seem to contradict yours.
Keep Up With the News at School
Find out what science and health topics are being discussed in class by asking your child or her teacher. Talk of science news may just be interwoven with peer gossip or rumors of the latest terrible disease may be spreading like "cooties." Invite your child to tell you what schoolmates think and feel about science and health issues. Has he learned how different diseases are spread? It's also great to try to apply the things your child is learning to what is on the news. For example, if he's learning about marine life and there is a story about an oil spill, ask him how he thinks the spill will affect ocean life.
Keep an Open Ear and Mind
Be open to listening and answering your child's concerns about science and health at all times. Especially with health issues, it is important to create an open atmosphere that will grow with your child. You may not be able to engage her in discussion or make her watch the news with you, but she may ask a question about AIDS while you're doing your shopping; a kid's mind doesn't always make the most linear connections. Inquire why she is worried and if it isn't a convenient time to talk, tell her that you want to talk more about it later. Set a time so you make sure you remember and your child understands that it's important to you to talk with her. Also respect her wishes if she doesn't want to talk at a certain time and revisit the discussion later.