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5 Insights on Writing About Challenging Topics With Children in Age-Friendly Ways (and Why It’s Important To Do So)

Children are often the ones most effected by both major policy changes and personal family changes, making engaging with them on tough topics critical. Here, public health specialist and writer Patty Mechael shares 5 insights on writing about challenging topics with children in age-friendly ways.

There has never been a more complex time to be a child in the world than now. From the climate crisis to the unchecked negative effects of technology and social media to (in the U.S.) mass shootings in schools. In addition, the global COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the lives of children in unprecedented ways from direct illness to the death of loved ones to disruptions to education to household food insecurity and greater incidence of domestic violence.

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All of these situations are or were preventable at one point in time. On top of this, growing up—especially adolescence and navigating challenging family dynamics like divorce has never been easy. And for most kids the middle grades are the worst.

Kids can’t vote, and yet they are the most dramatically impacted by policy decisions on big issues like climate change, gun violence, pandemic control, technology regulation (or the lack thereof), etc. They are also impacted personally by family circumstances like the loss of a parent and/or divorce. Kids need to know that there are things that they can do and people that they can engage with to support them as they find ways not only to survive the middle grades but to thrive despite all the complexity of life.

5 Insights on Writing About Challenging Topics With Children in Age-Friendly Ways (and Why It’s Important To Do So)

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In The Antidotes: Pollution Solution, a writing collaboration with my now 10-year-old son, the two main narrators, Gir and Izi, each struggle with some combination of common middle-grade challenges. These include divorce, loss of a parent, coming back to school after the pandemic, and girls in science individually and as a group with other members of their Science Club. It was important for me to expose kids to life issues that they are facing as part of growing up and illustrate pathways to address them along with the greater focus of the book on kids applying basic public health principles related to clean water and plastic waste reduction to stop a pandemic before it starts.

The five main insights that I came away from writing about challenging topics, which served as my writing lens for peer-to-peer interaction and dialogue among The Antidotes with adult characters, is that:

1. Challenging topics make grownups more uncomfortable than they do kids. Kids love to talk about their challenges and controversial topics and share their opinions and experiences.

2. Kids do not like it when grownups sugarcoat or downplay challenges. As difficult as it is for grownups to talk about controversial topics, kids want us to do so in a way that is respectful and honest with more listening than talking.

3. One of the greatest resources that kids have is each other. They can navigate difficult situations through peer-to-peer encouragement and teamwork toward shared goals—including surviving the middle grades.

5 Insights on Writing About Challenging Topics With Children in Age-Friendly Ways (and Why It’s Important To Do So)

4. If they can see it, they can do it and be it. Adults need to model the behaviors they want to encourage in the children in their lives, including greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is especially true in the sciences where girls often begin to pull away from the sciences in the middle grades.

5. Negative actions and activities by grownups and kids need to be identified and addressed as they happen. There is a great deal of unchecked bad behavior that begins in middle grades, including bullying that needs to be dealt with as it happens before it leads to much more complicated situations later in life.

I love Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on character development, “Each character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Most children today want to feel safe, healthy, and supported. They want to belong and have a sense of purpose. They want to be part of the solution to both global crises, the struggles of their peers, and their own individual challenges. As grownups, we owe it to them to provide the space and the support to do that in the fictional characters and worlds we create as well as in real life.

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