How to Teach Your Kids the Importance of Truth in the Age of Fake News

dad and son reading newspaperGeorgeRudy/istockI have a confession. Despite the fact that I was a teacher for a decade, have a PhD in policy and development, taught research methods courses to graduate students, and was a reporter for a newspaper, I'm one of the nearly quarter of Americans who admit to sharing -- knowingly or unknowingly -- a fake news story.


During the presidential campaign, I shared a quote from Michelle Obama that was a funny, sharp takedown of Donald Trump. The only problem? A few of my Facebook friends pointed out that this was not a real quote. I took the post down and thought hard about why I shared it without checking to see whether it was real. 

To our current president, "fake news" -- whether it's a news article with multiple sources or an unfavorable poll -- is any news that he does not like. In reality, though, fake news refers to stories that are complete fabrications, hoaxes, and intentionally deceptive news stories. It's increasingly common, in part, because we are an increasingly polarized society, and more and more, we are reading and sharing news that aligns with our own political orientation, whether this "news" is factually accurate or not. I wanted that quote from Michelle Obama to be true, because it fit with my own political viewpoint.

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This disturbs me as a writer who has been trained in journalistic ethics and practices, as an educational researcher who understands how the process of confirming or rejecting data works, and as an educator who wants all students to be prepared to become well-informed citizens. But I'm also terrified as a parent. I don't want my two kids to think that lying is okay, whether by themselves, by me, or by the president of the United States.

The good news is that this fake news trend should push us as parents to confront our own political biases and to have conversations with our kids about why people lie (in politics or everyday life) and how failing to be truthful is damaging to ourselves and to our society.

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How do we begin those discussions with our kids?

First, know that lying is developmentally normal in young children. For little kids (3- or 4-year-olds, for example), lying is actually a positive developmental sign. They're experimenting with their newfound ability to try on others' perspectives. So, don't panic when your 5-year-old gives you "fake news" about his day!

Start having conversations about tough topics early. Research shows that when kids have conversations and debates with adults about "big" subjects, like politics and religion, they get better at complex thinking and at distinguishing between good and poor information.

Don't be a liar yourself. Don't lie around your kids, because even little fibs -- like asking your kids to tell a relative on the phone that you're not home -- can undermine the message that honesty is best. Also, when you talk about political issues, make sure that you don't speak in political exaggerations, such as referring to a politician that you don't like as a "criminal."

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Teach your kids that it's not enough to read "the news." It's also necessary to confirm it. Discuss the purpose of independent, fact-checking organizations -- like Politifact or FactCheck -- and explain to older kids how they can use these sites to determine whether a story (even one told by a powerful person, like the president) or a political meme is accurate.

Be a role model in sharing news stories responsibly. Don't share stories that are not from reputable media organizations. Here's a list of 25 "fake news" sites -- ones that continuously and purposefully publish false information. You can also install one of these three Chrome extensions that will help you identify false stories. Talk to your kids about the importance of these smart social media habits.

Teach your kids about the importance of a free press and the heroic work of journalists. The role of the press as the public's independent watchdog on government is so important to the foundation of our democracy that it is included in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Even little kids can be taught that one of the things that makes our country special is that we have newspapers that try to tell us when our leaders are doing a bad job.

In total, more than 2,200 journalists have been killed while doing their jobs since 1992, in war zones, or in efforts to expose political corruption. Thousands more put their lives on the line every day. The heroic, relentless work of journalists have, as a few examples, helped to bring to light a president's lying and corruption and bring down his presidency; saved countless children from abuse by revealing priest scandals around the world; and exposed the poisoning of water in a major American city (yes, Detroit).

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Support quality journalism as a family. Identify the sources that you trust and pay for a subscription. Particularly, look for media organizations that do courageous investigative journalism, such as ProPublica. Keep quality newspapers and magazines around your home and read them with your kids.

The media -- no matter how imperfect -- is how we get information to make informed decisions about our democracy and about issues that affect our families and our children. Our role as parents is to make sure that our kids understand the importance of journalism and how to get and share credible news and not to lie themselves. It's not an exaggeration to say that the future of our democracy depends on this. 

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