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My Kids Don't Know About the BP Oil Spill, But Should They?

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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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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
chris June 21, 2010, 4:55 AM

I personally keep my kids informed about what is going on in the world but my kids are older than yours. I like to use situations like this to help build compassion and empathy in my kids. My 10 yr daughter is all about animals so it really hurts her to see the images of the animals engulfed in oil but it deepens her passion to want to help them. While I think only you know the limits of what your kids should know, I don’t think it beneficial to “hide” real life from them. In my house, we talk about everything and our kids will watch the news with us. I think it gives you a lot of talking material and I prefer to have a completely open attitude about every subject so I know my kids will feel that they can talk to me or my husband about any issue.

Anonymous June 21, 2010, 5:29 AM

I understand where you are coming from, I really do. We all want to shield our children from the terrors of adult reality. However, mistakes will be repeated if there is no understanding. As a child I lived on the beaches of Florida. Every day, we would scrub tar off of the bottoms of our feet. I just assummed tar came from the ocean and it was natural. I never put it together with the oil spill of the seventies. Perhaps if I and other kids like me knew what was all over our feet we would have become more proactive adults rallying for change before the inevitable. It’s just food for thought.

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JD in Van June 21, 2010, 6:39 AM

Personally, I don’t understand sheltering your kids to the point of ignorance. My daughter and I talk about the news. BBC has a wonderful news program for kids that talks about world events (but avoids subjects like murder and war) that I encourage her to watch.

The oil spill has been an opportunity for us to discuss things like the differance between man made and natural disasters. And why it’s important to protect our environment. We’ve talked about the animals in the oil spill. Those effected by the oil spill directly and in directly. I ask her ‘Well what are the fishermen going to do now?’ and let her think about that and then ask things like ‘well if the fishermen have no money what happens to the tackle shops?’ And we talk about interconnected relationships with out it being a depressing and heavy conversation but a thoughtful one.

michelle June 21, 2010, 9:18 AM

As I have commented on other discussions about issues like race, I think talking to kids (in age appropriate but HONEST ways) is so important and is the best way to help them go out into the world and actually change things, not just repeat the mistakes of their parents. Our generation is currently busy sticking our heads in the sand when it comes to our dependence on oil, but as I teach my children about this spill and what it means (for the economy and environment, which are related), I hope they will grow up to be smarter and more solution-oriented.

Black Iris June 21, 2010, 1:15 PM

It depends on the kids’ ages. I don’t think you need to tell your kids if they’re only 5 and 7. However, some kids will hear things at school or see something on TV and you have to be ready to answer their questions.

Anonymous June 21, 2010, 7:50 PM

My son is 5, and for the past year very much interested in science. I agree that parents should try to protect their kids from much of what happens in the media, but I decided last week to talk to him about the BP oil spill. We have had many wonderful conversations over the past week about why people drill for oil, how we can decrease our dependence as a family on oil, and I let him watch a video that I felt was age appropriate for him. He is very interested in creating solutions for the “spill”. He tells us all the time he’s going to be a scientist when he grows up and I think that having open conversations about world events can help our children become leaders in a changing world.

gb June 22, 2010, 6:03 AM

I think it’s critical that we involve children in some of these issues. It depends on their age and ability though, my daughters are both learning disabled and not capable of understanding abstract issues.

That said, the oil spill, in my opinion, is something that will greatly impact the world they will inherit. If I could find a way to make my kids understand, then maybe they have a chance to be the people that improve their world when they become productive, adult members of society.

andy mccracken June 27, 2010, 6:17 PM

My son has taken a very procative response. we live in louisiana and we spend most of our weekends on the coast. he has created a site to raise money to help save the animals that have been affected by the spill. i think that all kids should become involved.

Y gotta know May 6, 2011, 10:41 PM

What’s up everybody,

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