We all know about the power of media to influence our perspective on reality. Even so, sometimes I see that lesson illustrated in ways that catch me off guard and remind me just how important our vigilance really is—especially when it comes to the youngest among us.
A couple of nights ago, I was praying with my two oldest children, Henry (who’s nearly 5) and Annabeth (who’s two-and-a-half), before bed. We generally pray for our extended family and our kids’ closest friends before going to sleep. That night, though, we’d seen a report on the news about the tornado in Joplin, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to help them look beyond our family and friends to have compassion for others in need.
What I thought was a good teachable moment, however, ended up teaching me an important lesson.
After we prayed, I noticed that Annabeth seemed pretty agitated. She kept asking about the tornado and repeating things like, “God, protect us from the tornado.” I thought she was really taking things to heart at first. And she was. But not in the way I’d hoped. Instead, she was really scared. As was Henry.
Fifteen minutes later, I was finally able to allay their anxiety about tornadoes and convince them that they were going to be OK.
I realized after the fact that the news report they’d seen had really gotten to them. Especially Annabeth. Even though we typically mute commercials and stories involving violence or death, my wife and I had watched that story about the tornado while they were in the room—and they had been paying much closer attention than I realized.
Turns out I’m not the only one learning this lesson of late. In the wake of Harold Camping’s failed judgment day prediction, ABC reported on how young children aren’t equipped to parse and process all the news they hear, especially when it comes to images of destruction. Dr. Wend Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, suggested that kids watching the news could easily conflate stories like the one about Camping’s doomsday warnings with a story about tornadoes:
If they're plunked down in front of the TV hearing 'the end of the world' a bunch of times and then seeing photos of the Missouri tornadoes, it may come together in their minds as something real and scary. Kids of preschool age have a hard time determining reality from non-reality and their imaginations are on fire.
That sounds a lot like what I experienced. My kids weren’t worried about the end of the world, as far as I can tell. But they were scared that a tornado might get them in the night.
Their response served as a sobering reminder of how images and ideas—even those on the news—shape the way we view the world. And that’s especially true when it comes to little eyes … and what they see.