There is a fine line between traumatizing a kid for life by telling him at 3 that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus and raising him to be so trusting that he’s an easy mark for every con man who comes along. You don’t want your child to be completely lacking in empathy, but it’s your job to teach him not to be completely gullible, either. How do you train a child not to believe everything he hears, sees or reads without destroying his natural inclination to help people? One way is to share with him the sorting process you yourself use to separate the truth from the hype.
We are raising our children in a city, which means that nearly every day they are exposed to some form of scam. At almost every intersection downtown there is someone looking pitiful, holding a sign made from brown cardboard and a black Sharpie, panhandling the passers-by. I’m sure at some point in history this sight would have moved an onlooker to compassion, but these days it is so overdone that it could turn Mother Teresa into a Scrooge. There are “Vietnam vets” who weren’t even born until 1980 and people with $50 haircuts and new Nike Zooms who are “Homeless/Hungry/Thanks.” One year when we were driving the kids to school every day we became aware one particular street corner that always had a panhandler in the same spot, holding the same sign—but the identity of the panhandler changed every couple of hours. They were working in shifts.
There are people who are genuinely hungry, homeless and in need of help, so we don’t want to teach our children to be unsympathetic—merely discriminating. Since they don’t have much perspective yet on how the world works, kids have a tendency to internalize responsibility. They may feel vaguely that everything that’s wrong is somehow their fault, and that they should fix it or at least feel guilty because they have enough to eat, a warm bed and clean clothes. Many adults feel this way, too, which of course is why scams continue to work.
Educate your children. Teach them that television commercials exist to encourage the people who see them to spend money, and watch a few together so that you can point out the subtle messages the vendors are using: If you use their toothpaste you’ll be beautiful, if you wear their jeans you’ll be sexy, if you subscribe to their cell phone service you’ll have more friends than you know what to do with. Stating it plainly like that will defuse a commercial’s potency, because even a child has been around the block enough times to know that their choice of lunch meat won’t make anyone in the school cafeteria get up and dance.
Talk to them about how magazines and video distort the images they project (particularly those of women) and how the media attempts to make people dissatisfied with the way they look so that they will (you guessed it!) buy things to fix it. Show them the YouTube video of how a regular, pretty woman is transformed into a billboard model. Talk about common urban legends they may have heard (such as that eating carrots will improve eyesight) and show them Snopes.com, a site dedicated to debunking or authenticating such myths. If it is an election year and your kids are old enough to be interested, treat political commercials and even debates the same way: as advertisements designed to sell something to the public. We must teach our children to make important decisions by studying the facts and then making up their own minds.
Of course teaching them to be skeptical is not enough if you don’t also teach them to be kind. Even those people who ask you for money in the supermarket parking lot were children once; they’re human beings and should be treated with respect whether you believe their “line” or not. Let your children help when you are collecting groceries for the Food Bank in November; bring them with you when you’re working in the soup kitchen; encourage them to donate their good outgrown clothes and toys to children who are less fortunate than they. For every professional football player they hear about on TV, make sure they know about an unsung hero in their own lives like their local firefighters, clergymen or the quiet little woman who hands out blankets to the people sleeping under bridges in the winter.
The idea is not to kill their childish trust; the idea is to teach them to trust in what is true, in what is right and good. You, as a parent, have more influence over what your children believe than any other factor in their lives. Exercise your influence by teaching them the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and hype – because if you don’t, Madison Avenue will.