The first-degree murder trial of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez in the 2013 shooting death of Odin L. Lloyd is set to begin this January.
The trial will most likely involve a media frenzy of non-stop coverage. While this could be interesting for adults, murder trials can often seem confusing and scary to children.
How should you discuss the trial with your kids?
We spoke with Dr. Michael Rich, the founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, and he provided some tips for parents.
Rich said that the way you discuss the murder trial depends on the age and temperament of the child. While younger children are most likely scared by the information, older children may get caught up in the call for revenge and punishment.
“The first thing to do is to be aware of and open with the child about what he or she knows and ask what they know about it first,’’ Rich said. “We forget that most kids who are going to be aware of Aaron Hernandez probably don’t remember when he was an active player anymore.’’
Once you’ve established what information your child already knows, Rich said there are quite a few valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the murder trial:
1. “You are safe.’’
Particularly for young children, Rich said murder trials are a good time to remind children that they are safe. Though the media may focus on the shooting deaths and the gorier details of murder, parents can talk more about the US legal system and how it protects our rights as citizens.
“We have a system put in place to determine in a transparent way whether they have done harm to someone and exert societal punishment,’’ Rich said. If someone accused of murder is found guilty, their punishment should fit the crime.
Parents can relate this to kids getting grounded for bad behavior.
Rich said parents should talk seriously about how evidence is presented to the jury, and then discuss how it is reviewed and analyzed.
“There is a strong tendency — and because of their stage in nerve development, it’s even more pronounced in children – to rush to judgment and have a mob mentality,’’ Rich said. This can be circumvented if parents explain that even those accused of murder are guaranteed a fair trial by law.
2. “Be a good citizen.’’
Once your kids know that the law protects their rights, it’s a good time to remind them that if they’re upstanding citizens, hopefully they will never be in a position like Aaron Hernandez.
“We must remember what kind of society we want to live in,’’ Rich said. Remove the murder trial from the context of sensational scare tactics or heated revenge talk, and into the bigger context of what kind of world your kids would like to live in, and how they can contribute to it.
While this may sound philosophical, Rich said the lesson could be related to how a young child behaves on a daily basis.
“You might talk about how interacting with people makes a difference,’’ Rich said. “Wrestling or teasing on the playground can end up as a pitfall for adults.’’
Rich said he urges parents not to frame it as “here’s where Hernandez went wrong,’’ but rather, “here’s where you can go right.’’
3. “Be media literate.’’
Between broadcast, online, print, and radio news, you and your children will probably see Hernandez coverage from every angle. But that doesn’t mean you should take it all at face value.
This advice is more for a 14-year-old rather than, say, a 4-year-old, but Rich said helping your child be media literate at any age is always a good idea.
“It’s important they get it in a format where they get as many facts as possible,’’ Rich said. And broadcast news probably isn’t the best mode of gleaning those facts, Rich said. “If it bleeds it leads.’’
Rich said challenge your children to read articles from a few different news sources, or at least have them watch how different broadcast news stations cover the murder trial. Ask them to point out differences.
This way, kids can better understand that all media material is framed in some manner. No article or news segment could possibly contain all the facts.
“The most important thing is to be available to read and watch with them,’’ Rich said. “Discuss and synthesize the information in ways that are thoughtful and balanced. Help them to become literate consumers of information.’’
4. “Celebrities are flawed, too.’’
It’s easy to put professional athletes and movie stars on pedestals, Rich said. But children should know that at the end of the day, they’re flawed.
“The hero on the football field is very different from the hero on the battlefield,’’ Rich said. “A brilliant surgeon who saves many lives may beat his wife.’’ Heroes should only be considered heroes in the context of what they are known for being good at.
It doesn’t matter on your child’s developmental stage, Rich said. It’s important for kids to understand our common humanity. Anyone can make a grave mistake.
But some are perhaps more likely to mess up than others.
“In Hernandez’s case, he was paid millions of dollars for doing violence, and there are the components of structure and discipline of sports contests,’’ Rich said. “That, plus money and fame can make a lot of people feel beyond the law, beyond the reach of justice.’’
The bottom line: Rich said the Aaron Hernandez murder trial should provide many teachable moments. Parents should embrace the opportunity – but that means they have to be good listeners.
“Be aware that they [children] are conscious of more than you think,’’ Rich said. “Don’t assume they are oblivious. Keep the door open and let them know you are available to talk it through.’’