Protecting your kids from conspiracies

“But I want to protect my child!”

One of the core facets of my work is that contrary to popular opinion, in early teen years, the brains of adolescents are constantly changing. This explains why the young teen boy regularly changes what he wants to be when he grows up, who he thinks is important, and what person means the most to him. I consistently point out, in my teaching and in my writing, that at this time of their young lives, peers – and specifically same-sex peers – are the most influential individuals in a teenage boy’s life. For a 14-year-old boy, connection to others is the most important thing to him, and being involved with others is the best protection against depression, which is common in the young adolescent.

A recent article in Scientific American, “Schoolkids Are Falling Victim to Disinformation and Conspiracy Fantasies,” pointed out that this same brain development is leading that 14-year-old brain to be very susceptible to conspiracy theories. According to the piece, it’s this thinking that leads adolescents to believe that the Holocaust never happened, and that more people are dying of vaccines than are dying of COVID. This thinking also leads adolescents to be bad at understanding the difference between advertisements and news stories on the Internet. That kind of thinking will lead children to believe what they are told, especially when the source is electronic.

What can we do?

The first step is to make sure that we teach our children good problem-solving skills. You do that by not doing everything for your child. You start by saying to your 4-year-old that “it’s time for you to put your toys away now that you are finished with them.” Point out that you don’t leave your things strewn about the house and he needs to be respectful of everyone in the house by keeping his things put away when he’s not using them. Remind him to put things away, and if he has trouble doing that, put one or two items on a very tall shelf where he can see them, but not get to them. Every time he cleans up after himself, he can have a toy back. Consequences, based on his ability to solve his own problems.

Don’t do his homework for him. Make sure he has a place to work and all the materials he needs, but if he fails to get his work completed, that’s between him and his teacher. You can help him figure out how to plan his free time to get his work done, but you’re not doing it. We’ve talked about this before.

Talk with your child about what he sees and hears in the world. Help him learn what’s true, and what’s meant to mislead him. He needs you to be totally honest with him, and he also needs to know that there are people who are not going to be honest with him, including media outlets. If you’re not sure about what you’re seeing or hearing, do research together to find out the facts. As I tell my students, you may not make a statement unless you know where that information came from, and whether or not you can trust your source. You need evidence

The second step is to make sure that your son’s school does the same thing. They shouldn’t frame schoolwork so that all students do exactly the same work, they should design curricula that encourages students to work independently. While that’s hard for a class with lots of students in it, it’s not impossible. Students need to be exposed to lots of different ideas and approaches to life. That’s what education is all about. School isn’t about children memorizing information and parroting it back word for word. School is about helping children discover the world, and understanding that everyone’s experience of the world is different.

Encourage the school your child attends to provide a wide variety of opinions and experiences. I once taught at a boarding school that once a month invited a leader of a different religious group or sect to speak at the weekly chapel service. The school was founded on a Protestant faith, but we were all exposed to a variety of ways to worship. Students who were members of the faith of the visiting religious leader were encouraged to share their experiences and beliefs in classes over the next several days. While I had studied world religions when I was in high school, that experience really helped me understand the differences that underlie cultures around the world.

At the moment, many parents are frightened of having their children exposed to beliefs that they either do not share, or think are harmful, so they’re advocating for the removal of books from schools, and limiting curricula so that children are only taught what the parents agree with. At some level, this is based on the understanding that young adolescents are easily lead and will only believe what others tell them. The problem with this approach is that you raise a nation of children who have no understanding of the past and how we got to the present. As George Santayana said so penetratingly, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Fear underlies most of what motivates us. Think about why you do what you do – a lot of it is based on not wanting to fail at something, or being afraid that others will recognize that we are not as competent as we let on. Most anger is actually a cover for fear. If we live with fear, young children will grow up to be afraid of the world, convinced that someone or something is out to get them. Understanding how people differ gives us the strength to share what we have to offer with others, and sharing helps us all by making the fear disappear. Once you know someone, you are less likely to be afraid of them.

Be strong for your children, help them learn that the world is not full of conspiracies and treacheries, that others have a lot to share and to add to their experiences. If you are afraid that if your children are going to be corrupted by being exposed to others who do not share your beliefs, that is exactly what will happen. Children are attracted to the very things their parents want to shield them from. You must know that banning anything only makes it more attractive; banned books are being widely shared among adolescents on the Internet. If you are with them as they experience the world in all its differentness, you can help them become understanding, and empathetic, and strong.