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After the au pair trial, what to tell children?

November 12, 1997

A baby is dead, his killer set free. And parents around the country are left agonizing over the question: What do you tell the children?

How do you explain that an au pair was convicted of killing the baby she was hired to protect? How do you convince little ones it’s OK to keep loving the baby-sitter?

``Emphasize trust,″ says Roni Leiderman, director of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. ``You have to let your children know that Mommy and Daddy value their baby-sitter, that they spent a lot of time choosing this person.″

At the same time, she says, parents should tune in to any remarks youngsters make about the Louise Woodward case and pick up on clues that they might not be entirely comfortable with who’s taking care of them.

``If a child is saying, ‘I don’t like the baby-sitter,’ pay attention,″ Ms. Leiderman says. ``Especially now.″

Woodward, a 19-year-old English au pair, was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. She was freed Monday when a judge reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to the 279 days she had spent in prison since her arrest.

Experts are divided on whether parents should initiate conversations about the case or wait for their children to bring it up. But they are clear on one thing: Keep the talk simple.

``Explain that there are good and bad people in all walks of life and that while terrible things can happen, we can do a great deal to make sure they don’t happen to us,″ says Robert Bornstein, professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, who favors discussing the case only if children ask.

Ellen Diamond, a psychologist and mother of two from Carefree, Ariz., calls the case ``the nightmare exception, not the rule.″ It doesn’t need to be a dinner table discussion for every family in America, she says.

``I think parents must remind themselves that the vast majority of nannies and baby-sitters are in very good shape and that their children will be fine,″ Ms. Diamond says.

Others argue that children are so attuned to their parents’ fears _ and to the nightly news _ that the only solution is to talk about them.

``Kids hear what’s going on, no matter how much you shield them,″ says Ellen Galinsky, president of The Families and Work Institute, a New York-based research organization.

Ms. Galinsky says kids often keep their mouths shut because they don’t want to upset their parents. Families should examine the Woodward case together, she says, preferably with the baby-sitter present. Children should be persuaded to talk openly about what they have heard and what they know.

``Listen to what they say,″ she says. ``You need to find out what they think, not just what they say they think.″

Lisbet Nilson, who stays at home with her two children and their full-time baby-sitter in Portola Valley, Ca., sees a clear lesson for children in Matthew’s death.

She doesn’t plan to talk to her children about the case unless they ask, but is prepared if they do.

``I think it’s an opportunity to tell young children that you can really hurt a baby by shaking it,″ she says. ``I would make it very clear that it was accidental and that you have to be gentle and that no one really knows exactly what happened.″

The problem, argues Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth, is that ``the ones most at risk are the ones we can’t talk to.″

``We can’t sit down and talk to infants,″ he says. ``And a 2-year-old is going to forget as soon as he walks out of the room.″

Butterworth worries that the case will cause a backlash against nannies and au-pairs _ young people who live with U.S. families for a year and take care of children as part of a government-sponsored cultural exchange program _ and panic among parents.

``Obviously we must use this story to talk to kids about situations in which they get hurt,″ he says. ``But people shouldn’t get hysterical. We can’t have cameras monitoring every baby-sitter.″

Parents who rely on au pairs can, instead, talk to the young caregivers.

Christina Baker-Kline, a 33-year-old writer who works from home in New Jersey, watched the courtroom drama with her 19-year-old Norwegian au pair, Tone Halvorsen.

They have had long conversations about the case, partly because of the reaction from the rest of the world. If anything, Ms. Baker-Kline says, the tragedy has brought them closer.

``Tone has strangers warning her in the gym that she should be careful about being exploited,″ Ms. Baker-Kline says. ``I have people questioning the fact that I have an au pair.″

But Caroline Press, a 39-year-old mother of two in New York City, is troubled by the implications of her relationship with her South African au pair. They’ve talked about the details of the court case briefly. She would like to have a deeper discussion, but she just can’t find the words.

``I don’t want to put her on the defensive,″ Ms. Press says. ``It seems to me the lesson is implicit, so I haven’t really brought it up.″

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