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Answering Kids' Questions

September 01, 1993|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN

If children ask about news accounts of the accusations against Michael Jackson, parents may not need to get into an uncomfortably detailed conversation.

Karen Saywitz, an assistant professor of child psychology at UCLA, says it may be best to only give as much information as will satisfy the child; parents may not have to be specific.

"I guess the answer to some degree is, 'Somebody said Michael Jackson touched them/ in a way that they didn't like and in a way that made them uncomfortable. But he says he didn't do that and that's what they were talking about,' " Saywitz said. "I don't know that a parent is obligated to explain explicit details."

Parents also, she said, should not feel that they need to answer a child's questions immediately.

Especially with younger children, Saywitz said, there is nothing wrong with a parent explaining that the question is one parents need to talk about first, so that they can decide how best to explain the answer.

With older children, who have some knowledge of sexuality, the best way to explain a sensitive issue is matter-of-factly, Saywitz said. If a parent is uncomfortable, she added, chances are that the child will be as well.

"There is no magic age," Saywitz said. "It's your child, your family, your values, your environment and the parents' own comfort level."

But child psychologists and others say that a child's questions about Jackson might provide an opportunity for an important lesson about fairness.

"The obvious thing to say is that nobody knows that he has done anything bad yet," said Deanne Tilton Durfee, the executive director of the L.A. County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. "That everyone is assumed innocent until they are proven guilty and no one has proved anything about Michael Jackson."

John Weisz, a professor of child psychology at UCLA, said young children are at greater risk of being disillusioned by a hero or heroine because they tend to idolize one seemingly perfect person. As a child gets older, he said, he or she is better able to select particular characteristics from lots of different people and assemble those traits into a more abstract ideal. "There is a risk that children can be afraid that people they trust and admire may harm them," Weisz said. "The safest thing is to tell them to be as open as possible with family members about their worries and concerns."

Weisz said parents should not use questions about Jackson as an opportunity to explain the dangers of sexual abuse, which could scare them and cloud what should be the real lesson at hand: innocent until proven guilty.

"One of the things you can talk about is rumors, that people often say things about others and when we don't know, it's better not to assume that they're true," Weisz said. "Everybody deserves to be treated fairly and deserves to not be judged on the basis of rumors. This applies to things like friendships in school and big things like news stories."

Sue Roberts Sharp, a Mount Washington musician and a mother of a 5-year-old boy, said she agrees with the experts.

"If he asked, I would say that some people think that Michael Jackson has done a bad thing but that they need to research it and that he's innocent until they prove that he has done something wrong," Sharp said. "And I would say that I think we owe it to him."

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