Talking with Young Children About AIDS

AIDS is scary. Around it swirl a host of associations tapping the deepest fears that we experienced as children and were taught by society--different for each one of us, depending on where we feel most vulnerable: disfigurement, pain and disability, homosexuality, prostitution and unbridled sex, death and loss of loved ones, rejection, isolation and condemnation, drug addiction, poverty and despair.

As parents, these fears can easily affect us in our relationship with our children. WE have a powerful, overwhelming impulse to protect our children, and here’s a prime place where protection appears vital.

The way the AIDS epidemic has been presented to us--by our leaders and the media--has fanned the flames of those fears. Despite the fact that information on how the disease spreads has been well-established for years, we hear that whole groups of people are at risk, that AIDS is spreading like wildfire, that anybody can get it.

I don’t like sensationalism or fear-mongering. And, not engaging in at-risk behavior or having children with AIDS at school, or other such close contact, I’ve managed--until recently--to view it as a non-issue for my family. Then I attended a workshop on AIDS where I was challenged on this. Our children, they said, deserve information that will enable them to protect themselves against real dangers in the environment. I agreed. But how to give protective information without instilling new fears?

I began to consider what I could say to the children, what I should warn them of. “Don’t touch strangers’ blood,” was the first formulation that came to mind. But what an odd-sounding prohibition! And even that wouldn’t be a complete safeguard. As with child abuse, it’s rarely strangers from whom you get AIDS. So who should I warm them against? The other little children at school? Their parents? Myself? There seemed no logical place to draw the line. OK: Don’t touch anybody’s blood.” But what about other body fluids? And what about being touched? OK, how about this: “Don’t touch anything, and don’t let anything touch you!” I’d finally gotten to the prohibition that seemed inclusive enough--and it was patently ridiculous.

As I mulled it over during the next couple of days, the issue seemed to get clearer. The children didn’t need protective prohibitions; they needed good information. And it needed to come in a relaxed, unafraid way and in some kind of context that made sense to them. So I bided my time and waited for the opportunity.

It came while I was reading a story to the six-year-old in which a band of adventurers became blood-brothers by pricking fingers and mixing blood. After I’d come to a stopping place I said, “You know, they could do that back then and have it just be fun, but it isn’t really safe to mix blood these days. There’s a new disease that people haven’t figured out a cure for yet that gets spread from one person’s blood to another’s. So until we’ve got a way to cure it, we need to be careful not to get our blood mixed up with other people’s.” I paused for moment, then went on reading the book.

He didn’t comment, so I couldn’t tell exactly how he had processed that bit of information. But I knew that I’d made a start--and a good one. I’d avoided fanning the flames of prejudice or fear and had offered a solid piece of information--the best protection he can get.