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It was only a matter of time before our 13-year-old son asked about the novel coronavirus.

"Is the coronavirus really that bad?" he asked last Sunday night.

This was right after he'd asked whether he could go on an ocean cruise with his aunt this summer.

"Well, son, we have been talking about that, and the family doesn't think it's the best idea to be planning a cruise right now," I said. "Nobody knows what things are going to be like with the coronavirus this summer."

"Is it worse than the flu?" our son asked.

"We don't know for sure, but it might be," I said. "Better to be safe."

"I agree," said his mom.

This conversation came after days of generally avoiding news channels in the family room. Adults are freaked out enough about the virus; no need to frighten the children, too.

That doesn't mean that there won't come a time when frank talk with children will be necessary. My advice as a journalist and father is to stick to the numbers when talking about the virus to children who have a rudimentary understanding of math.

And by that I mean tell them the actual percentages: mortality rates, transmission rates, percentage of people in the population who have contracted the virus.

By sticking to the numbers, you avoid the spin of pundits and politicians.

Here's an example: Let's say the mortality rate for the seasonal flu is about 1/10th of 1%. If the novel coronavirus turns out to have a mortality rate of around 3%, which is the most recent estimate of the World Health Organization, news organizations could present this fact in two ways.

Headline No. 1: "97% of people with coronavirus will survive"

Headline No. 2: "Coronavirus 30 times more deadly than the flu"

Both headlines are technically true, but they send entirely different messages. If you just stick to the facts and let people come to their own conclusions, the truth is better served.

My second line of defense will be to give our son a history lesson about how people react to fear. Someone in the newsroom reminded me the other day that sections of Walden's Ridge were settled as a response to 19th-century contagions.

I found this passage in a history of Walden's Ridge on the National Register of Historic Places website:

"When cholera struck Chattanooga in 1873, several wealthy families headed for the open spaces of Walden's Ridge. They found relief in the clear air and pure water and were soothed by the health-giving waters of Mabbitt Springs. Summertown, now part of the Town of Walden, grew from the cabins these families built."

I would tell my son that people have been nervous about the spread of diseases for centuries, but things work out. People adapt. They act. By world standards, we live in a wealthy country with lots of smart people. If things get bad, we will fight back fiercely.

I will also tell him that Scriptures say a lot about fear. "Fear not" is one of the most durable, and often-repeated, phrases in the Bible.

In Sunday School last week, we talked about Jesus healing the lepers. The Bible says he healed 10 with the contagious skin disease, but only one, a Samaritan, came back and thanked him.

The moral of the Bible lesson is the importance of gratitude, a trait some of us struggle with in our safe, comfortable 21st-century world.

So, if you want to reduce fear and replace it with a new emotion, try gratitude instead.

Living in fear is a choice.

My action plan as a dad boils down to this: Seek the truth in facts, take action when required, and otherwise let gratefulness uproot fear.

Oh, and pray.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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