Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
Your interview with Professor Chiara about media literacy really hit home with me. I know I handled a situation with my family poorly, but even now I am not sure what I should have done.
Back in 2016, during the presidential campaign, I supported Hillary Clinton; my son-in-law Buck was a strong Donald Trump supporter, and my daughter Patricia pretty much follows whatever Buck says or does.
One day, my grandson Chad, who was 11 at the time, said to me, “Did you know that Hillary Clinton is selling children from a pizza shop?”
I was shocked, and without thinking I yelled, “Where did you hear such a stupid and sick thing?!” Chad screamed that his father told him and that his father wasn’t stupid. Buck and Patricia were in the next room and heard the commotion. When they came in, Chad said, “Grandma says you’re stupid, Dad.”
Buck asked me to leave. I apologized by email and phone several times, but for several months they didn’t respond to my apology. I did get one email from Buck after the 2016 presidential election saying, “So, who’s the stupid one now?” Finally, Patricia called and invited me to dinner. To this day, years later, things remain cool between us.
When we’re together, everyone is polite to each other. Buck goes on and on about what a great job Trump is doing, and I keep quiet. Worst of all, I am not allowed to be alone with Chad.
If I had it to do over again, how should I have handled my grandson’s lie about Hillary Clinton?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I am so sorry this happened to you. Your initial emotional reaction to the misinformation your grandson was repeating is understandable, and alas, you certainly have been punished for it. Although my advice cannot help you with the specific situation with your grandson that happened four years ago, perhaps it can help you and others in future interactions with youngsters, adolescents, and teens when they are spreading misinformation.
Suppress an Emotional Reaction
My first bit of advice is to resist an emotional reaction. Yes, I know, easier said than done, and you learned this lesson the hard way, but any conversation is over before it’s begun if the person repeating the lie feels judged and demeaned. And, as your grandson did, kids typically will be very protective of their parents, regardless of what they’ve done.
Shift the Conversation
A more productive step is to shift the conversation away from the specific content and focus on a process of validation. In the situation you describe as an example, you might respond by saying, “Wow. I never heard that. That is a horrible crime! If those are the facts, then anyone who’s done that, Hillary Clinton included, should be in jail.”
This type of response accomplishes two things: it sets up a shared acknowledgment that such behavior is horrible, and it lays the groundwork for checking out the facts. Now you can work in tandem: “Let’s figure out how we can get the details and the facts, right?” This is an ideal time to talk about search engines, e.g., what they do, which are the most common ones (Google, Bing, Baidu, Yahoo!, Yandex, etc.).
Taking the lead, you might suggest searching the topic in this case, “Hillary Clinton accused of selling children out of a pizza shop.” This yields about 1.8 million results on Google, including an article in The New York Times, “Fake News Onslaught Targets Pizzeria as Nest of Child-Trafficking,” and a detailed entry in Wikipedia, “Pizzagate Conspiracy Theory.”
Reading an article or two together and discussing them can shed some light on “facts versus fiction” in an unemotional way. With older kids, discussions might include the difference between misinformation (shared by those who believe it is true) and disinformation (shared by those who know they are spreading lies and they mean harm), and possible reasons why people would intentionally spread disinformation. These are examples of applied critical thinking.
Teach Fact Checking
When there is reason to believe inaccurate information is being accepted and shared, then parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, can make the statement “Let’s fact check that” a common practice. There are many fact-checking sites available, but I favor these five because they strive to be objective and non-partisan, and their search functions are straightforward and are easier for kids to use. Ease of use is important because we want to teach kids to use them independently.
- https://www.npr.org/search = NPR
- https://www.snopes.com/search/ = Snopes
- https://www.theguardian.com/news/reality-check = The Guardian
- https://www.bbc.com/news/reality_check = BBC
- https://www.mediamatters.org/archives = Media Matters for America
In summary, these are three basics steps I suggest we follow when kids, for example, our grandchildren, are passing off what we believe to be misinformation:
- Suppress an emotional reaction.
- Shift the conversation to verification.
- Teach fact checking.
If grandparents adhere to these steps with calmness and good intentions – that is, taking advantage of a teaching moment – I don’t think many parents will be upset with this type of grandparent involvement.
To be on the safe side, grandparents can discuss in advance with the parents their desires to do fact checking with the grandchildren when the occasion arises. The grandparents can invite the parents to be part of it so that fact checking becomes an ongoing and unthreatening family activity.
Of course, there are no guarantees, but an approach such as I am suggesting might work its way into the comfort zone of many, perhaps even Buck.
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