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Get the Facts: Ebola

Earlier this week, my third-grade son asked for help with his homework. He held out Time for Kids (a Time magazine mini-digest of current events and interesting factoids written for a grammar school audience) and a set of related questions he was meant to answer.

“Have you read the articles?” I asked.

“No.” He just stared at me for a moment and then said, “I need help.”

This comment caught me off guard because he’s a pretty good reader and Time for Kids is one of his favorites. “Really?” I asked him, almost mockingly.

“Really” he answered, completely straight-faced. And that’s when I saw him pointing to the cover story about Ebola. Milliseconds later, the questions began: What is Ebola? Where does it exist? Do people die? Do kids die? How do you get it? How do you know if you have it?

I started to answer his questions slowly and thoughtfully, being as honest as I could without alarming him. I was patting myself on the back as I stealthfully answered each and every one. If I do say so myself, I was doing a great job. Ebola is a virus, I explained, like the common cold virus or the flu virus. Right now, it is infecting people in West Africa (and for bonus mom-points, I showed him how far West Africa is from the U.S. on a map). Yes, unfortunately, people are dying from it and, very unfortunately, they are people of all ages, including kids. People in West Africa know they have it when they have symptoms like a fever, throwing up and diarrhea. But it’s happening to people in West Africa, which is far, far away from here.

This barrage was tough to manage, but I had it under control. Well, until his fifth-grade sister wandered into the room that is.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Ebola,” he said.

“Ebola? Mom, isn’t it true that someone has Ebola in the U.S. right now? And he just died? Do I need to worry that I will catch it?!” Her brother went from happily bumbling through his homework to looking worried. And she didn’t stop there. She went down multiple roads, asking about quarantines and isolation precautions. She wanted information about airport screening and transmissibility (“Does someone have to throw up on you in order to get it?”). And, not to leave a stone unturned, she started to worry aloud that because both of her parents are doctors, we will be among the first exposed, putting ourselves—and our children—directly in harm’s way.

As a general rule, I advise parents to answer the questions you are asked, and you will rarely go wrong.

At first, I wanted to duct tape her mouth shut. This was not helpful. Five minutes earlier, I had been asked to help with a Time for Kids magazine article and now look where I was.

But this is the beauty of parenting: You never know where it will lead you and oftentimes your kids are your best guides. My son wanted simple answers that weren’t about his own perceived risk—that was totally appropriate for his age and stage.

My daughter needed more, though, and she inserted herself into the Ebola equation. Again, totally appropriate. As soon as she started asking her slate of questions, I let go of my need to sterilize my answers. I loved that my daughter forced the conversation that needed to be had, posing questions that my son wasn’t ready to formulate.

As a general rule, I advise parents to answer the questions you are asked, and you will rarely go wrong. Most people do this instinctively because of our inclination to shelter first, and parse out information only in safe little droplets. If I had followed my own advice, I would have had one conversation with my son and a totally separate one with my daughter. But in this case, I chose to have my son listen to the answers to questions he never asked because his sister was brining up topics that he would inevitably face in the next few days.

If either of my kids were to glance at a newspaper or news media website or listen to the radio, Ebola talk would be there. I broke my own golden rule because it doesn’t always work in the here and now, at least when it comes to major news stories.

RELATED: How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy

Ebola is a particularly tricky topic because we don’t have all of the answers. We don’t know exactly where it will spread or how many people it will infect. But there are facts out there, as well as fear-mongers, so make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources and tune out the people who are looking for a spotlight and will say anything to get it. It’s also OK to tell your kids that you don’t have all of the answers. As with anything in life, honesty is best. Admitting when you don’t know something will build your street cred—it means that the answers you do give are certain, and when you don’t know something you are willing to acknowledge that and then go look up the information.

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