028: Reading TRUE to Kids

In This Episode: Not having children myself, this is a topic I find fascinating, so I asked the experts: readers who do have children! The question: should you consider reading This is True to your kids? Lots of parents do — or let the kids read it themselves. Here’s why.

028: Reading TRUE to Kids

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Show Notes

  • To help support Uncommon Sense, see the Patron’s Page, or the form in the sidebar.
  • For those new to the concept (which probably means listeners who aren’t readers), the concept of Zero Tolerance is introduced here, and there is a ridiculously long section of ZT stories in this blog.


Not having children myself, this is a topic I find fascinating, so I asked the experts: readers who do have children! The question: should you consider reading This is True to your kids? Lots of parents do — or let the kids read it themselves. Here’s why.

Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham

One of the topics I promised we’d cover in the podcast is reading This is True stories to kids, and we did that early on. But when I took the first season offline, this is one of the episodes readers said I needed to reissue, so here it is in a tighter exploration that more closely follows the new podcast format.

I believe This is True stories are really instructive for kids. I found out — just by talking about this in the newsletter — that there are a lot of readers who get This is True that either read the stories to their kids, or let their children read the issues themselves and ask questions, or even lead discussions. I asked for parents to send me stories about it, and got too many to feature, but here are a few. Let’s dive right in.

Elizabeth in Detroit writes, “I’ve been reading all of the Zero Tolerance stories to our 10-year-old for a couple of years. I want to highlight the fact that, too often, educators seem incapable of rational behavior and decisions. This unfortunate tendency is also illuminated by our recent readings of the Free Range Kids blog. It’s one of the reasons she attends a small, private, parent-cooperative, multi-age-classroom school where we say that we teach children how to think, not what to think. You might say that being anti-ZT is one of our family values. And sometimes the dumb criminal stories, if they’re age appropriate and if they end in death, sometimes if it’s not too graphic and is a good illustration of a Darwin Award-type example. You know, they’re funny enough that Scholastic publishes tamer ones for school kids. Naturally, I skip stories that detail more sordid circumstances. We’ve gradually been increasing our daughter’s exposure to and awareness of the world, but since we don’t watch network television, except for some sports, where we pointedly discuss commercials that aren’t always family-friendly, we can monitor her Internet news consumption. For the moment, we’ll stick with teenagers behaving badly resulting in unintended pregnancies, rather than soldiers behaving badly or creepy Austrian dad pedophile kidnappers or whatever. Thanks for being a voice of reason.”

I looked and didn’t find any Austrian dad pedophile kidnaper stories, so I assume Elizabeth was speaking figuratively, or stories that weren’t in This is True. After all, being aware of these stories by reading TRUE gives you an eye for them in other media.

One thing that I was intrigued by is she wants to skip stories that detail “more sordid circumstances”, but “We’ll stick with teenagers behaving badly, resulting in unintended pregnancies.” So she’s not fully shielding her kid. That’s a proactive mom, I think, that’s telling her 10-year-old, “This is how you get pregnant when you don’t mean to.” That’s a valuable lesson not just for young girls, but the boys too, because they are in fact involved!

You don’t have to wait for your kid to be 13, 14, 18 to tell them what the real world is like, and give them some examples of people acting stupidly. You can show them what the real-file consequences are, very often in a pretty entertaining way. The stories are usually light and often funny, even if they have very serious topics about them like, say, teen pregnancy or death. But when the stories are real, and they get the idea very quickly that they’re entertaining in their own way, kids will actually listen to the stories. And you know what? You’re sneaking in significant lessons, too.

Sure, they won’t understand everything, but that’s OK: it gives them the chance to think about things, and then ask questions. You just have to be willing to answer them. And you should: even if you’re really careful to, say, set up your home WiFi router to block every known porn site in the world, they’re still going to see it, and at a younger age than you think: your kids have friends whose parents aren’t as tech savvy as you might be. And after all, how old were you when you first saw porn — in an era where there wasn’t online access?

Next is Greg in New South Wales, Australia, who put a comment on his order for a Premium subscription that it was a gift renewal for his daughter. I popped him a note to ask about his daughter. He replied, “Catherine is currently 13. I think this is her second renewal, so two years of Premium and a couple of years of the free edition before that. She must have started reading them herself at nine years old. Before that, I would use True stories for dinner conversation, but now Catherine is the one who does that.”

Got that? She’s leading the conversation! He continues:

“She is also at a fiercely independent school and your articles definitely mesh well with her education. There is a clear message of ‘Think for yourself’ in what she learns. It has been quite satisfying to pass This is True onto Catherine and see her joy when a new edition appears each week.”

I did check, and Catherine started Premium on Christmas 2015, and is still getting it.

I see a recurring theme here in that these parents have their kids in schools that are teaching thinking as opposed to teaching to the test. These are students who are really getting a head start: not only by being taught how to think at school (what a concept!), but they have parents who are giving them real-world examples of things to think about. What a contrast to teaching kids what to think or, worse, to just memorize a bunch of useless crap that they won’t need to know when they’re adults.

It’s actually kind of humbling to me that parents would think so much of This is True stories; that these are real-world lessons that kids can tune into because they’re entertaining, and actually learn something about the world and how it really works. In other words, they’re letting their children think for themselves, and see what they figure out after reading the story.

So many parents kind of hold their breath and they’re afraid that kids are going to ask questions or bring up topics that might be a little bit uncomfortable to talk about. Yet these parents are giving the kids examples of things that are worthy of thinking about. Things that they are encouraged to bring up and talk about. With Greg and his daughter Catherine, who’s a teen, they’re talking about these stories at the dinner table. Now there’s some amazing dinnertime conversation I’d love to sit in on!

One more letter, from Sarah in Oregon. She says, “I’ve been a subscriber since 1999, sometimes paid and sometimes not, [which was] my freshman year of college. My daughters are seven and four, and I read True to them sometimes. I pick and choose the articles to find the ones they would think were funny, like funny names or someone getting caught doing something ridiculous, and some of the ridiculous stories I think they will understand, the Zero Tolerance stories especially. My seven-year-old likes to offer suggestions of what would have been the smart thing to do. She is seven so she knows everything, of course, but she usually has a good point. When she misses the point, we talk about other ways to look at the situation.”

I love that! A seven-year-old offers suggestions on what would have been the smart thing to do, which means she knows that what’s happening in the story is far from the smart thing to do. So I think what that is clearly showing is kids easily grasp the difference between smart and dumb. When I watched TV cartoons when I was a kid, I knew that the coyote couldn’t really survive falling off a 10,000-foot cliff and landing in a crater at the bottom. I think kids have more common sense than we think, though, sadly, we kind of beat it out of them as they grow up. This is a chance to reinforce that common sense to develop Uncommon Sense.

Yes, sometimes they ask questions that make adults feel a bit uncomfortable, but you need to answer them so that they aren’t uncomfortable when their own kids ask them questions! If you’re not sure how to answer it, tell them that: “Let me read a bit on that so I can answer your question better” is a fine answer, and then add: “Ask me about it again in a couple of days.” And when they ask again, you do need to be ready. They want, and deserve, real answers. And if they forget to ask, and they probably will, ask them if they still want the answer. If they say no, then that gives you the opportunity to see what they know now, and you can correct misinformation. You can give them age-appropriate details. But it’s better to hear things from you than from other 10-year-olds who probably don’t quite have the details right!

You want them to come to you with their questions, because if you avoid them, they’ll ask their friends — or look them up themselves online: they live in a world that has broadband WiFi available for any electronic devices they have, and they’ll find some answer to any question they have. Wouldn’t you like the opportunity to add some cautionary details, or put things in perspective? “Yes, that’s how you can make a bomb in a soda bottle, but what do you think will happen when someone calls the police when they hear it explode? And did you think about that explosions can cause real injuries? You could lose some fingers, or even your whole hand, so you really need to think about whether this is a good idea.”

Seriously: wouldn’t you want them to have those details when they find out how easy it is to make a bomb in a plastic bottle with some vinegar and baking soda, or just dry ice? They’re surprisingly powerful, and yes, the police do actually consider them real bombs because they can be destructive.

This just isn’t your opportunity as a parent, it’s your responsibility. Kids today have resources we never had, but they’re not always in good context or age-appropriate: that’s where you come in. Letting them read the stories in This is True and, very importantly, ask you questions and get answers, is a great way to help them develop Uncommon Sense.

You can comment on this episode on its Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast28, and I really want to see your lessons learned after reading True’s stories to your kids — or your grandchildren.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

Comments Note

Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.

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3 Comments on “028: Reading TRUE to Kids

  1. In truth (a concept you appreciate), two of the most notorious such cases occurred in Austria. The most bizarre case was Josef Fritzl, and then the second case was Natascha Kampusch.

    For Fritzl, check out John Glatt’s “Secrets in the Cellar: A True Story of the Austrian Incest Case that Shocked the World.” For Natascha Kampusch’s ordeal check out her own book, “3,096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape.”

  2. I would love to, at some point, see a followup podcast of this. Perhaps delve deeper into what is blocks from kids at what age and differing opinions around what and when is “age appropriate”?

    I do have more letters on the subject, and will be revisiting the topic in at least one upcoming episode. -rc


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