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November 15, 2019

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In a difficult world, why kids need to know the truth

Many parents struggle with how to set limits for their kids, to cultivate discipline and appropriate behavior. But what happens when it’s the world that appears unruly, and it’s up to parents to explain why? Author Karen Russell shares her humble opinion on how to tell children difficult truths to encourage them to make positive change.

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  • William Brangham:

    Parents often struggle what the right way to set limits for their kids. How much TV is OK? How about online video games? How late can they stay out with their friends?

    It can also be tough to know how to answer the children's pointed questions about the world.

    Tonight, also part of our Canvas series, author Karen Russell shares her Humble Opinion my children need to hear the truth.

  • Karen Russell:

    The first morning I took my 2-year-old to day care, I arrived with a box of carefully labeled blankets and extra clothes, enough diapers, I felt, to last him until college.

    I was so anxious, I almost didn't notice the older man lying on the snowy ground beside us. Shards of glass haloed his bare head. My son looked up to me, the satellite tower, waiting to receive my signal. What did I make of this grandfather sleeping in rags on concrete? Was this normal? Was I concerned? Should he be?

    How do we tell the story of suffering to our children? Some people might advise, don't say a word, lady. It's way too early.

    A parenting Web site told me to shift the focus from the stranger's pain to my son's security. First and foremost, you must reassure your child that they are safe.

    That reassurance is getting harder to give in Oregon, where homelessness is on the rise and the Department of Education reported a record number of homeless students.

    I understand the impulse to reassure our kids that nothing is wrong, to say, it's very sad that some people don't have homes, but you are safe.

    This is a ghost town of a sentence. Who is the subject? Even the feeling of sadness is floating there unclaimed. Children hear the passive voice. Unless we give ourselves an active role to play in these unfolding crises, kids will absorb our quiet acceptance of the status quo.

    They won't know that we can be agents for change, or even that change is possible. When I was growing up, my parents drove my friends and I to volunteer at a shelter five minutes by car and worlds removed from our Miami home.

    I can't recall a word they said to me now, but I do remember my father sharing a cigarette and laughing with a homeless veteran. I remember my mom helping another woman with her groceries. My parents reassured me that I wasn't crazy to feel disturbed that there were kids my age who had no permanent home. Something was wrong.

    But there was also something to be done. The world our children inherit is deeply unjust. And they know it. We need to show them that we have the power to revise it.

    Somewhere tonight, a mother is explaining to her children why they have to leave their home for a shelter, why they are sleeping in their car, why they no longer have a bed to dream on. She doesn't have the luxury of curating her words or shielding them from the most painful truths.

    I wonder how she is answering their questions.

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