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It’s My Job to Report the News to the World. Here’s How I Explain It To My Kids

It’s My Job to Report the News to the World. Here’s How I Explain It To My Kids

By Tom Llamas
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The phone call never comes at the same time. It can happen in the middle of the night, in the middle of drop-off, and sometimes in the middle of another story. The calls are right to the point and usually come from a news executive or assignment desk manager. “We need you to go to…” they say. From there, a brief description of the breaking news. It can be the death of a world leader, a natural disaster, a man-made disaster, or the threat of war.  “Here are the flight options…. what do you think you can make?”  The most recent news events where I have been launched (news lingo for being sent out on assignment) include the wars in Ukraine and Israel, the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse, and the Maui wildfires.          

At this point in my career, I almost never say “no” to an assignment. I know if I’m getting that call, it’s because there is a major news event that will require days of coverage and on-location anchoring. As soon as I hang up the phone confirming I’ll be headed out on assignment, I’ll call my wife and break the news to her.

This is the point where being a journalist and having a family collide. 

“Hey, I have to head out…” I tell my wife, then share the little I know at that point.  With breaking news text alerts, she sometimes knows more than I do. Thankfully, she is a former long-time news producer and executive producer, so she’s always very supportive even though the reality of dealing with our three kids, their schedules, and their worries about their dad being away all by herself for an unknown stretch of time slowly creep in. I always ask what the kids have in the coming days, what I will miss, and if there is any reason why I shouldn’t go. This is one of the tougher parts of the conversation because I’ll start to visualize not being at my daughter’s gymnastics meet, being unable to put my son to bed, and not being in the audience for my eldest daughter’s play. I am also fully aware of how fortunate I am to have these types of concerns. I’m usually about to head into an area where people have lost everything, their loved ones have likely died, and where life will never be the same. 

As I’m grabbing my “to go” bag or re-packing it because the assignment will call for different gear (the Queen’s funeral versus Hurricane Idalia), I’m thinking about the conversations I will have with my kids.  I try to get to them first, before someone mentions something at school or on their sports teams. I’m not always successful, but my wife and I work together to figure it out.  It’s a routine that is never identical but one I continually try to improve. And the toughest conversations are not at the beginning of a new assignment—they are at the end.  Once the world has digested the news, once I’ve seen it up close, and once my kids have lots of questions.

I’ve learned a lot about having difficult conversations with my children. Trying to explain to them how the world works and that it is not always fair, just as they are learning to navigate their own little worlds. Here are some tips that I find useful: 

Tell Them Yourself. 

When I left for Israel to cover the war, I drove first to my daughter’s school because I wanted to tell them in person before heading to the airport.  My kids were 10, 7, and 5 at the time. We had been discussing as a family the possibility that I may be sent to Israel, so my daughters, who are older than my son, were aware of the news.  I wanted them to hear it from me, to know that it was going to be okay and to get one last hug in before I left.  I also wanted them to know that they had to help their mom out and be good sisters to each other and their brother. My wife was going to be under enough stress worrying about me, so any bickering or misbehaving would amplify the burden on her.  

For my son, it was a little tougher. We would have to re-schedule his Back to the Future-themed birthday party, which he was looking forward to celebrating.  I wanted him to hear from me why we had to move the party, but also that I would promise to celebrate it when I came back.  He is too young to understand what was happening in Israel, so he kept asking me, “Why.” I had to explain that my job requires me to go to places right away and that the viewers who watch every night rely on us to guide them through important events. I made sure to call home every day and FaceTime when possible. If my children had questions about the war or my safety, I answered them in a way they could understand.  

Be Present.

When I’m on assignment, I’m immersed in the story unfolding in front of me. Except for the few minutes that I call or FaceTime home, my mind is on the job at hand. But when I return home, I am home with my family, and I am not thinking about work.  Being present where you are is the way to help manage stressful environments.  If I’m covering a natural disaster and thinking about home, I will not be giving my all. Just like if I’m home thinking about work, no one benefits from that. If I’m home, I’m home. If I’m on the road, I’m on the road. That doesn’t mean I’m not checking in and praying for my family at night; it just means I will be present where I am.

Years ago, one of the top news anchors in our business told me about his meditation practices and how it has helped him balance the stress of the job.  For the last 10 years, I’ve been meditating in the mornings, and during extremely stressful times, I’ll find some time to sit and clear my mind.  It’s a great tool to reset and get yourself in a present state.  

Share the Positive.

Mr. Rogers had that great quote his mother told him: “Look for the helpers” when seeing scary things on the news.  There are always people who are trying to help. When I come back from assignment my kids will pepper me with questions.  Sometimes, they’ve seen some of my reports —my wife always vets them to ensure they’re not too graphic or intense for our kids. I always try to focus on the positive. I’ll answer their questions truthfully, but I’ll pivot to the inspiring or uplifting acts I experienced.  In Ukraine, it was the mothers.  I told my family about these brave women who traveled cross country, some walking for endless miles with babies in their hands or kids in their strollers seeking safety.  They did this by themselves without the help of their husbands, who had to stay back and fight.  They would wait for days for trains and would never raise their voice or fight with each other.  They waited patiently.  They all knew they were in this together, that everyone was trying to escape the Russian assault.  “I will never forget those women,” I told my kids.  “Mothers are truly the toughest people in this world.”

When I returned from Maui wildfires, I told them about the “aloha” spirit. They had seen the devastation caused by the wildfires.  They had a lot of questions about how it happened and why people couldn’t evacuate. We talked about some of the reasons why it happened, but then I pivoted into talking about all the Maui residents who were housing families from Lahaina who had lost everything. We talked about how people say “aloha” as a greeting, but it has a much deeper meaning for Hawaiians.   It’s also a life force of love and, in this case, caring for your neighbors. 

I’m always trying to learn from each of these experiences, and I know talking about the news at home will become more difficult as my kids get older and wiser. I understand the process will evolve, but the most important part is communicating. It is about hearing their thoughts and concerns and making sure they also hear from me. 

Tom Llamas is an NBC News NOW anchor and senior national correspondent. You can watch Llamas weekdays on NBC News NOW’s Top Story with Tom Llamas at 7 p.m. ET and follow him at @llamasnbc.

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