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Should We Tell Our Kids About the BP Oil Spill?

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Bethany Sanders:For nearly nine weeks (and counting), thousands of gallons of oil have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It's a mess that will impact the Gulf for decades.

And my kids know nothing about it.

I have this personal parenting philosophy that adult problems belong to adults. Just like we don't fight in front of the kids or talk about money or health issues in front of them, we also don't subject them to the evening news (which places a heavy emphasis on the bad). Childhood responsibilities should be school, chores, extracurriculars and friends -- not worrying about disasters both natural and man-made.

After all, there is little that even we as adults can do about the oil gushing into the Gulf. We can send money to animal and aid organizations. We can boycott BP, or, even better, walk more and drive less so we use less oil overall. We can even, I guess, cut our hair and send it and our old nylons down there (activists are stuffing hair into pantyhose to craft homemade oil absorbers). But otherwise, watching and worrying is all we can do while BP struggles to stop the leak. And I don't want that for my kids.

But then I hear stories about kids like Olivia Bouler, an 11-year-old girl so hurt by the images of oil-drenched sea birds that she began drawing pictures. That artwork has now raised $70,000 for animal groups working in the Gulf, and I wonder to myself, "Am I doing the right thing by keeping my kids in the dark?" At 5 and 7, my kids are younger than Olivia, but they're old enough to understand that this disaster is hurting local folks, flora and fauna; old enough to know that the spill could still be affecting the area well into their adulthood. Should I be sitting down and talking to them about this in a kid-friendly way?

I broke my own rule after the earthquake in Haiti. The human need was so great that I felt like they should know. I chose websites for us to read together and previewed pictures before showing them to my girls. Their response made me proud: They both donated their allowance money to the Red Cross and Partners in Health and asked about donating their toys and clothes. They were genuinely concerned and wanted to help.

But questions quickly followed, easy ones first. "Are there earthquakes here? Could that happen to us?" And then came the tough ones: "Did kids die? What about their parents?  What happens to them now if there's no one to take care of them? If they are too poor to build good buildings, why didn't we build some for them?" I hope my kids grow up to be teens and adults who ask the hard questions, but these aren't things I want them worrying about when I tuck them in at night.

It's a touch decision, I think. How do you handle these big, sad stories? Do you discuss them with your kids or shield them until they're older?


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