Helping Our Big Kids Separate Fact From Fiction In Today's World

by Jennifer Rosen-Heinz
alternative facts
PeopleImages / iStock

We teach kids not to lie, but how do we teach them to tell when they’re being lied to?

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about fake news and “alternative facts.” Most of us moms grew up in a pre-digital or just-burgeoning digital age. We didn’t have to contend with the sheer number and variety of sources of information coming at us in a near constant stream. Heck, when I was a kid, we still had rotary phones!

Honestly, even as an adult, this stuff can get overwhelming, especially with much of our media coming through social avenues like Facebook and Twitter. If we as adults are having a hard time, imagine how hard it is for kids to know what to believe and what not to believe. What is truth, and what is “truth-y.”

Don’t jump to conclusions. Walk.

A lot of false media out there banks on the fact that we are conditioned to react quickly. The news cycle is never ending, the flow of information quick and (often) erroneous. One of the stranger things that I do (and maybe you do it too), is that I talk back to media. I don’t mean writing emails or calling them. I actually TALK BACK to the radio when I am hearing something and my kids are in the car.

I say things like “Oh, really?” or “How are you going to prove that?” or “What about x?” (True confession: I don’t just do this when my kids are in the car. I do it when I’m absolutely by myself as well. But other drivers probably think I’m on my phone. Little do they know, I’m actually crazy!)

Part of what this questioning does is insert a little wedge into the information. It says “Hey! This might not be complete!” If you and your kids get used to the idea of SLOWING THE FLOW OF INFORMATION. Not accepting upon first hearing. Questioning.

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck

Doesn’t mean it’s actually a duck. In a time when anyone with a smart phone and a graphics app can easily do a halfway decent job at photoshopping things, we actually need to teach children that when it comes to media, they can’t trust their eyes.

A great way to teach kids about this is to show them things that have been photoshopped. Memes are a great example of something that objectively is one thing, but can be interpreted in many different ways.

Consider the source

My son, one day in second grade, came home and told me that another kid told HIM that men made women pregnant by coughing. After trying to stifle my laughter, I said, “I’m glad you told me. You know, we had talked a little bit about this before, and I promised you that I would always tell you the truth about these things.” And then we talked about the fact that peers were not necessarily the best source of information on bodies and medicine.

One way to assess critical information is by asking: what is the source? Is it a trustworthy source? Are other trustworthy sources independently corroborating this information? Has the source spoken the truth in the past? That one kid who has told you lies before— are they really the ones you want to listen to when it comes to important information?

For kids who are a little older, have them do some comparisons between different media. Have them pick a topic that they know a bit about, and read articles about it on different outlets— some of them mainstream, some of them to the left or right, some very speculative or “way out there” and talk about what differences they see: did they use biased language? Did they have things they agreed on? What were the points of disagreement? Why might that be?

For littler kids, there are lots of fun games to play that can set them up to be good questioners and critical thinkers. Playing 20 questions is a great way for kids to see how their minds can jump to conclusions based on limited information. (Magic 8 balls are a pretty fun way to probe this as well). My kids love riddles, and there are lots of books or online resources for those. Start off by having the kid work on the riddle with you, and move up to trying to solve it themselves.

In the end, there’s no one foolproof way to be a good consumer of information. But luckily, there are lots of pretty good ones. They all involve curiosity, questioning, and being able to think more critically. There’s lots that we, as parents, can do to model this behavior, and hopefully spark important conversations with our kids.