"The conversation with my kids I did everything to avoid."

Mia Freedman


I spent the weekend doing a lot of diving. Diving for the remote control. Diving to turn off the radio. Diving to intercept horrible news from reaching the ears and eyes of my youngest children.

And I did it.

Despite three days of saturation media coverage, I managed to prevent them knowing anything about MH17 being shot out of the sky. On Friday afternoon, before dinner with my extended family, I texted all the adults to ask we not discuss the plane. “The kids are already nervous fliers and there is no easy way to explain this that won’t leave them feeling scared and distressed.” I said.

They appreciated the heads up. My nephews are all babies and my in-laws hadn’t thought about it from the point of view of slightly older kids, old enough to understand but not yet old enough to properly process it.

Whenever there is a tragedy somewhere in the news – bush fires, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes – and my kids hear about it, they get anxious. I always try to reassure them that it’s very, very far away and could never happen here.  This is not always technically true but they are so young, they need simple and emphatic reassurance. The random nature of tragedy is a terrifying prospect for a child and an impossible thing to explain let alone reassure them about.

How do you convey that a plane full of men, women and children has been randomly blown out of the sky? How will they ever feel safe about flying again? How can their young minds comprehend or rationalise that?

Throughout the weekend, I kept them away from commercial TV too, wanting to avoid news breaks and it worked well until Sunday night when we sat down to watch The Voice Kids. Between regular news updates about the plane and promos for 60 Minutes’ Gerard Baden-Clay story, I did a lot of remote control diving. But I managed it.

So we got through the weekend in blissful ignorance. Not everyone took the same approach, however. On Friday morning as the news was breaking and regular broadcasts were being interrupted, I posted something short on social media about how parents of small kids might want to keep them away from the TV.

A few commenters objected to the idea, insisting they would not be hiding news of the tragedy from their children. “They need to know what a dangerous place the world is” wrote one. “I watch the news every night with my kids and I answer all their questions” said another.

Maybe their kids are older than mine. I wasn’t prepared to go there.

“I was thrown. How could I not have foreseen this? School.”

Yesterday, I picked both kids up after school and almost immediately they had questions. First up was my daughter, 8. “Mrs K said in assembly that we all felt sad for the people on the plane that crashed. She said ‘I’m sure you all know about the plane crash’ and I was like, ‘Um, no? I don’t know?'”

My son, 5, piped up. “Yeah, my teacher talked about it too. What happened? Did the pilot lose control?”

I was thrown. How could I not have foreseen this? School. Momentarily lost for words, I grasped for a strategy I learned a few years ago when facing difficult kid questions: stall for time.


“Yeah, it’s really sad.” I said without elaborating.

“But what happened?” They both wanted to know.

“Guys, I’m not exactly sure. I will find out and get back to you.”

They were perfectly happy with that answer (as kids almost always are) and began chattering about something else, immediately distracted.

As soon as we got home I posted a Facebook question to my friends, “What should I tell my kids about the plane?”

The responses were really interesting. Some parents were very matter-of-fact. “We just told our son that bad guys shot the plane down and he seemed satisfied with that.” Others had tried to do the same thing as me – keep the news from their kids. If their kids were older than about eight, this was futile. ” The boys got into the car on Friday after school and started quizzing me about the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.”

The best advice came from those with similar aged kids who said I should stress how far away it was, that the plane was flying over a war zone, how lots of other planes had gone different ways to avoid that particular path, and that no planes will fly over that country any more.

“Everyone had a story about how a major event – Port Arthur, Tienanmen Square, 9/11, the Bali bombing, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Black Saturday bushfires…”

So that’s what I did. My kids seemed content with that explanation although they had some very specific questions about why the passengers didn’t just use the escape plans. Whenever we fly, they listen intently to the safety demonstration and study the images on the safety cards as most kids do. “What about the exits and the life vests?” they asked me. “Why couldn’t they escape through the windows?”

“It all happened too quickly and the plane was too high,” I said simply, watching them take it in and wishing I could protect them from imagining such horror and knowing such evil exists.

Today, I’ve been thinking about the role schools play in helping kids process these kinds of tragedies. When we talked about it in an editorial meeting this morning, everyone had a story about how a major event – Port Arthur, Tienanmen Square, 9/11, the Bali bombing, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Black Saturday bush fires – had been handled, or deliberately glossed over when they were at school.

I’m not angry with my kids’ schools for mentioning the plane crash. Kids talk. It’s important to acknowledge world events and local tragedies. Whether it’s the loss of a student’s parent or an act of global terrorism.

And education is about more than reading, writing and maths. Education about empathy and resilience and making sense of senseless acts… there’s a place for all of it.

I only wish there was no need.

Did your school ever talk to you about news and current affairs? Did any of the above events occur while you were at school and if so, how were they handled?

00:00 / ???