How much of the news should you tell your young children? It's a line all responsible parents walk with extreme care.
Sometimes, when some awful child-specific story fills the bulletins, broadcasters will bring on a Tanya Byron to guide us through the minefield. But what about the everyday horror of war, violence, climate change, redundancies? What do you say to your child, scared by the word "recession", when they ask if your job is safe? I can tell you from experience that breezily replying "Mummy's an actress, darling, so she never has regular work anyway" is clearly the wrong way to go.
It used to be so easy, when the children were little enough to be carried out of the room if anything scarier than Chucklevision came on TV. But as soon as they could wander in unannounced, it became difficult to control what they saw. The first problem we encountered came on Boxing Day 2004, when all the adults in our family were gathered round the TV watching footage of the devastating Asian tsunami. My daughter, then aged three, came in and asked us why we looked upset.
"There's been a horrible flood," I explained, "and a lot of people were hurt."
"Was it near here?" she asked.
"No. A long way away," I said, and mumbled something about Thailand. Later, we heard her talking to her cousin in a tone identically grave to the one she'd learnt from me. "There's been a big flood in Toyland," she intoned. "I really hope Noddy's OK."
I may have improved my diction since then, but I still maintain that it's better to explain things to kids – preferably in a measured, non-alarmist way – than to leave them to fill in the gaps for themselves. I usually start with the reassurance that, whatever it is, it will probably not affect them. True or not, that's what I would have wanted to know at their age. But with that said, I try to give them, as simply as possible, the situation as it is and a little bit of context, so that the world doesn't yet seem to them the crucible of random horrors we adults know it to be.
But now that my son is 10, and at that wonderful crossroads where his comprehension is almost adult but his experience still gloriously childlike, he has taken to explaining things back to me in his own terms.
The first time it happened was a few weeks ago, when his attention was caught by a story about the third runway at Heathrow. Some Green campaigners, including Alistair McGowan and Emma Thompson, had bought a plot of land near the airport in order to block the expansion, and my daughter wanted to know how they thought this would help. I began a long-winded exposition of the history of non-violent protest, and hadn't even got as far as Gandhi when my son took over, saying: "It's basically Monopoly." I was puzzled, so he kindly elaborated. "You know when Dad's got Leicester Square and Coventry Street, and the rest of us agree that whoever lands on Piccadilly will buy it to stop him buying any hotels?"
It happened again over the Gaza crisis. I tried to give as even-handed a précis as possible of a situation we were all struggling to understand. I explained that most wars, even the ones that seemed to be about religion, were actually about land, and that when two people felt they had a claim over some territory, things could – to put it mildly – get very nasty. Eventually, to help me out, my son explained to my daughter that it was just the same as Hotdog. Hotdog is a ball game they play at school in which the playground is marked into squares, but you gain an advantage, apparently, if you happen to start in a particular one. Ownership of that square is consequently, my son said, hotly contested. While he was reassuring that no rockets had yet been fired on the Hotdog pitch, he went on to elaborate admirably on how calling for a UN resolution was a bit like telling a teacher, and even when there was an end to hostilities, animosity often remained.
Final proof of my son's growing comprehension of current affairs came in a school debate last week. Having spoken out against school uniform, he was asked if other children agreed with him. With a self-confidence that would flummox Paxman, he claimed to have "done extensive research on the question". "We found that 98 per cent of pupils agreed with us," he said, "and the other 2 per cent were off that day."Reuse content