Father’s Day is right around the corner and typical, well-intentioned dad-friendly tips are populating the Internet: “Are Timeouts Effective?” “When Should Kids Start Dating?” “How to Say No to Your Kids.” But for many of us, “typical” doesn’t always help with raising kids in an increasingly chaotic, divided and dangerous world. Layers of difficulty have been added to parenting so, for what it’s worth, I’m adding my own advice to the mix. And while it may seem counterintuitive, it has helped me create some semblance of belief that I have things under control.
As a D.C.-based public relations professional, I handle a daily mix of public affairs and crisis situations. It’s my job to provide counsel to clients based on an assessment and analysis of a wide range of news events, divisive issues and disturbing content. I imagine I am not alone in sometimes forgetting that my kids are exposed to and keenly aware of those same issues and events. My 15-year old daughter and 11-year old son live in a “surround sound” environment, bombarded constantly by information, images and news stories – both fake and real – coming at them from classmates, teachers, friends and, of course, their ever-present (I would argue surgically attached) mobile devices. While I am proud of how intelligent and intensely curious they are, I worry constantly about Camille and Cyril’s ability to process and understand the non-stop reverberations of the daily information echo chamber.
Our fatherly hands have been forced to have earlier and deeper real-world conversations with our sons and daughters than certainly my own parents ever did with my brothers and me – conversations about diversity and inclusion, gender and sexuality, cyberbullying and terrorism and, most recently, suicide thanks to the popularity of the Netflix hit “13 Reasons Why.” My advice: Embrace those conversations and lean into them fully.
It’s advice that springs from, of all places, a tradition declared dead years ago, with the advent of the “always on” news cycle and the myriad digital platforms that allow us to watch what we want when we want it – appointment television!
My wife and I recognized early that at the end of the day – conveniently around 6:30pm or 7:00pm – our kids felt the need to unload, often in patience-testing and mind-numbing detail, about everything (and I mean everything) that had happened to them throughout the day. As they grew older that venting took on increasingly ominous and disturbing undertones, sometimes manifested in questions like “Can that happen to us too, Daddy?” or “Why would someone do that, Daddy” or the particularly heart-wrenching “Am I safe in my school, Daddy?”
Faced with sugarcoating or a head-on response, we chose the latter. For the last six years, almost like clockwork, we gather each evening as a family before dinner – sometimes during dinner – to watch one of the nightly network news broadcasts. There, together on the couch, my wife and I take on the roles of news chaperones, sounding boards, explainers and yes, more often than we would care to, comforters and assurers that the world, despite all indications to the contrary, is not coming to an end.
And it doesn’t stop there. The conversations continue, long after the thankfully light-hearted, “Inspiring America,” “On the Road” or “Person of the Week” pieces have wrapped the broadcast (See kids, there is some good news today!). Clearing the table and loading the dishwasher time provides opportunities for further unwrapping and question-answering mixed in with the occasional reminder: “Don’t discuss that story with your friends tomorrow, because it may be too upsetting to them.”
While I won’t pretend that news of the day doesn’t occasionally make its way into their sleep, providing fodder for nightmarish narratives, I at least feel confident that my kids are developing the tools that will serve them well in making sense of their waking world.
So, beginning this Sunday, give it a try. As my Dad did years ago with Mr. Cronkite, pull up a chair with your sons and daughters and invite Lester Holt, David Muir or Scott Pelley into your living rooms.
Uncle Walter’s signature sign off seems particularly relevant today in describing the very pragmatic approach we’ve been forced to adopt as fathers – “And that’s the way it is.”
Keith Blackman is a Senior Director and Media Strategist at Burson-Marsteller who specializes in media training, story pitching, messaging and crisis communications.