When Do You Tell Kids About "Bad Stuff?"

I recently got in some trouble thanks to a photo that appeared on the front page of The Times. It showed a baby in Zimbabwe with casts on both feet, and the caption said his legs were broken by some Robert Mugabe strongmen who’d been looking for the baby’s father, an opposition supporter.

I was reading the paper in the kitchen that morning, quite early, when my kids woke up, came in, and immediately asked about the picture. (They are 7 and 6.) So I told them. I said that Zimbabwe isn’t like the U.S., where you can vote for anyone you want; and from what I could gather, the bad guys who supported the president wanted to beat up this baby’s father but they couldn’t find him so they beat up the baby instead.

Later in the day, one of my kids ratted me out, telling my wife what they’d learned about the baby in the paper. She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind: Why on earth would I tell the truth about something that’s so plainly scary to a kid?

My excuses were pretty lame: it was about 6:10 a.m. and I was still groggy; one of the kids is a good reader and might have read it for himself; and I had couched the brutality in a little civics lesson about voting. But for the most part, I had to agree with my wife: this story would have been better left untold.

The worst part was that the story didn’t even turn out to be true: several days later, The Times ran an Editors’ Note explaining that the baby didn’t seem to have been beaten by Mugabe strongmen after all — that he wore the casts because he had club feet, and the mother lied in order to get the photographer to help her son.

A noble lie perhaps, but a lie nonetheless. Whereas I told what may have seemed like a noble truth when I would have been better off lying. Or would I?

This set me to thinking about when (and how) to tell your kids about all the “bad stuff” that’s happening in the world. We’ve only just begun to talk about Sept. 11 in our home, and in careful terms, in large part because the World Trade Center attack occurred just a few miles from where we live. We’ve dealt with Hitler a bit but we came to him through a back door: some books about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics, which easily allow a parent to cast Hitler as a bad, bad man without confronting the greatest horrors. We’ve also covered World War II to some degree, since both the kids’ grandfathers fought in it, but we’ve so far avoided the Holocaust for the most part — because, again, it’s closer to home since we’re Jewish.

But is avoidance a good strategy? And if so, until what age? What happens when a kid starts to learn about all this stuff on his own: does he feel betrayed by his parents, or perhaps buffeted by the reality more than if he’d been given it straight?

Articles like this one and this one advocate talking to kids at about age 7 or 8 because that’s when they can start to understand that the images they see (war, crime, etc.) are real and can impact their own lives:

Reports on natural disasters, child abductions, homicides, terrorist attacks, and school violence can teach kids to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place. How can you deal with these disturbing stories and images? Talking to your kids about what they watch or hear will help them put frightening information into a reasonable context.

There’s also the understanding of death — which, while child psychiatrists seem to think comes about in predictable developmental stages, like physical developments, I have seen come about much more haphazardly in my own kids and others. (My favorite line on the subject comes from my daughter, Anya, who, when she was about 4, declared that she wanted to be God for Halloween. Why? “Because he never dies.”) Whatever the case, kids certainly do come to understand that death is both inevitable and irreversible:

Children react to death and loss in a wide variety of ways. They may feel shock and numbness, sadness, anger, guilt, or transient unhappiness, the experts agreed. They might keep concerns inside, become increasingly clingy with their caregivers, or exhibit disobedience, lack of interest in school, sleep disturbance, physical complaints, decreased appetite, or regression. Children who witness violence often have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, noted Jane F. Knapp, M.D., FAAP, director of the division of emergency medical services, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.

From the literature I’ve looked at, emotional disorders are a real and prevalent concern whenever kids are exposed to a tragedy, even indirectly. Consider the following, from an article by Paramjit Joshi and Shulamit Lewin in Psychiatric Annals:

“Children growing up exposed to sustained trauma and violence are at increased risk for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse … Even 2 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, 16 percent of children living 100 miles away from Oklahoma City were still experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms … Three phenomena have been identified in children exposed to persistent and extreme violence: fear, aggression, and desensitization.”

And consider the following, from an article by M.W. Otto et al. in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders:

[In] a longitudinal investigation of psychiatric sequelae of armed hostage-taking in a grade school, Vila et al., found a 50 percent rate of PTSD in directly exposed children (directly held hostage; Vila, Porche, & Mouren-Simeoni, 1999), as compared to a 15 percent rate among indirectly exposed children (children from the same school who were not taken hostage). Similar results were reported by Nader, Pynoos, Fairbanks, and Frederick (1990), who found that 14 months after a sniper attack on a Los Angeles school playground, 79 percent of children who were at the playground during the attack reported PTSD symptoms, as compared to 19 percent of children who were not at the playground. Similar evidence of the effects of indirect exposure on children were documented following the Oklahoma City bombing (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999), and the Challenger space shuttle explosion (Terr et al., 1999).

Wouldn’t this seem to suggest that avoidance, if possible, is a pretty good strategy? A recent paper by Richard Williams et al. published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry shows that avoidance indeed has its benefits, even for adolescents:

Although the adolescents in the survey were indirectly exposed to the [Sept. 11] incidents, half of them felt threatened, and their own post-traumatic stress symptoms were associated with, for example, the distress, availability, and coping advice of their parents. In particular, it was also found that discussion about these events was unhelpful. Positive reframing, emotional expression, and acceptance were associated with lower distress levels. Possibly, these efforts enhanced adolescents’ feelings of safety.

By contrast, adolescents reported more distress if their parents encouraged them to seek help and advice from others. Adolescents who did not talk to their parents about the attacks due to concerns about upsetting them also reported high levels of post-traumatic symptoms and distress, but this finding was specific to young people who reported having highly supportive parents. The authors conjecture that their parents’ recommendations for them to seek help might have been interpreted by their children as signs that the threat was greater than they had assessed. Also, recommendations to seek help and advice might have been viewed by adolescents as a sign of parental inability to keep them safe.

A couple days ago, my family returned home from a long weekend. Someone in our building had posted an article from a local newspaper about a mugger who’s been striking our neighborhood. My wife was reading intently when I came up behind her and involuntarily said something along the lines of “Yikes.” This prompted my son to rush over and look at the clipping. “Daddy, what’s a mugger?” he asked. Unable once more to lie properly, I told him a gentle version of the truth. Even so, he was scared that night going to bed and afterward, and I couldn’t say I blamed him. Avoidance was looking better and better.

But obviously young people need to learn about the realities of the world, and I would submit that parents are the best people to teach them. These guidelines for “talking with kids about tough issues” strike me as pretty sensible. For instance:

A child’s concern: Children may be worried about mommy or daddy going to work. Children may be thinking, Will Dad’s or Mom’s office blow up? Or if their parents fly, children may be thinking: Will the plane be hijacked?

Response: Assure children that this kind of violent act almost never happens in the U.S. It is shocking to all of us, but most people are safe and will continue to be safe.

More substantially, here’s what Joshi and Lewin have to say about what characteristics resilient children usually possess:

Resilient children seek out positive people and situations, have an optimistic outlook, are motivated, have dreams and goals for the future, and show good self-esteem and cognitive abilities.

Which sounds like nothing more than a middle-of-the-road argument for well-rounded, well-loved, well-educated children. There’s a bit more on the subject:

Families that foster resilient children include those with parents who show an interest in their children’s lives, are stable, stay involved in their children’s activities, maintain consistent home routines, encourage open family communication, and emphasize the importance of doing well in school.

I realize that this entire discussion is, in a way, a luxury. Any family who is having a conversation about how to protect their children from the secondary effect of tragedy is plainly not in the midst of tragedy themselves. That baby in Zimbabwe is in a lot of trouble, whether he’s suffering from club feet or from a beating. I do not mean to lose sight of this reality.

I also realize I have provided almost no worthwhile answers to the questions I raised; but as a parent I’m muddling through. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts, strategies, and experiences on the subject.

[Note: I recently discussed this subject on the public-radio program The Takeaway.]

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 50


  1. Mike says:

    What benefits are you seeking to confer upon your kids when you withhold from them the reality of certain things? Freedom from “distress” (a word used frequently above)?

    I guess that’s valuable, but I refuse to go so far as to assume that zero distress is the optimal level. It appears assumed in the Williams, et al. excerpt that more distress is necessarily a bad thing. I disagree, and it seems the essence of your dilemma: how much distress should your children withstand to attain optimal mental health? Surely it’s somewhere between 0% and 100%, but is it above what they are exposed to as a baseline without added exposure from you?

    Who knows? That’s a little like asking how hard you should try at a board game while still letting them win. You can only answer the question with your best judgment of the current situation. A rigid formula or strategy is certainly going to be sub-optimal in practice.

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  2. Katrina says:

    Funny you should bring this up. Last weekend, when I was visiting my brother’s family, my 9-year-old niece saw me reading the New York Times and asked what the pictures were on the front page – they were the skeletons of massacre victims. Like your kids, my niece is an excellent reader. I’m glad she’s curious about the world, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain it to her. At first I said “you don’t want to see these”, but when she persisted, I told her the truth, in about one sentence, and she did not ask anything more. About a year ago, she asked, What is terrorism? when she saw another picture of an explosion on the front page the Times. As far as I know, she hasn’t had nightmares about it, but I do remember being haunted by graphic images of death when I was a child.

    As you suggest, the best thing you can do is provide a stable, loving home. Each child is different, however, and I think that parents do need to be reasonably honest without “oversharing” – let the child lead the discussion rather than offering too much information at once. Thanks for this timely post.

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  3. Nina says:

    I think, as it has been exposed by some theories, that it is possible for a child to grow up ‘aware’ that violence exists but not ‘intimidated’ or scared by it in a paralyzing manner.

    There are ways to talk to your children without alienating them and still letting them know a softer version of the truth. I think you took the best possible route from the first question (baby in Zimbabwe), with a little bit of politics involved and awareness of the world’s differences. You might have escaped the second ‘drilling’ if you had had the time to hide the paper and explain what a mugger was, but not specify that there was one in your neighborhood.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where children will be confronted with violence at some point or another – directly or indirectly – but I think the parents’ honesty is irreplaceable and much appreciated (speaking from the point of view of a kid whose father used to hide the truth and whose mother – the much appreciated parent – took the liberty and time and care to explain to us what the hell was going on with the world).

    If they don’t learn from you, they’ll learn at school, which is always worse and greatly exaggerated by peers. If they are conscious of the facts, they might even be able to enter an argument better prepared for the lies that kids make up involving violence, racism, war and the likes.

    You never said if you told them afterwards that the story behind the picture was a fake. You should. :)

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  4. Mickey says:

    I would imagine there are no easy, and certainly no cookie-cutter answers to these questions. It depends on the maturity of the child. I personally remember learning of several concepts which led to sleepless nights, and others which I believe I understood, but dealt with and continued living.

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  5. Mike says:

    I’m 27, and in some instances I am still learning to understand that these images are real. Beyond simply waiting until a child is old enough to not get nightmares from learning about these things (maybe that is 7 or 8), I think it’s never to soon to help someone begin to learn empathy.

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  6. Sam Carter says:

    Great essay on this topic from the other side (examining the lies your parents told you to try to make sure you understand the world accurately):

    http://paulgraham.com/lies.html

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  7. Rick says:

    There’s an interesting implied commentary here. It seems that teaching, or at least discussing, how to deal with emotional stress and/or confusion isn’t on the menu. It’s a question of exposure and non-exposure, one of explanation and context of the events and interpreting their meaning. Though I admittedly skimmed a fair bit, I did not see mention of teaching kids how to process information.

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  8. Jason Morris says:

    I can’t help but think that if you try to hide these sorts of things, they will be discovered eventually, and you will have taught your kids that denial is how grown-ups deal with these sorts of things. That it’s not OK for these things to be true, so we pretend they’re not.

    There’s a difference, I think, between being the victim of a violent event, and having a loving parent tell you about a violent event in a place you feel safe.

    Hearing a story about something is a form of practice experiencing it. Maybe honesty with kids will equip them to better handle trauma in the future. I’d be interested to know if there was any difference in the rates of post-trauma disorders in those children whose parents were open with them about violence before violence happened to them, and those whose parents weren’t.

    Obviously, I don’t have any answers. But I just wanted to say that I think even here, honesty may be the best policy.

    My son asked me recently “Why did the baby come out?” He was referring to the birth of his new baby brother. I answered, “Because he had been in Mommy long enough already.” I expected more questions to follow, but they didn’t. I think the best piece of advice is to let the child lead the conversation, and give small pieces of information. They may not need the details. They may just need to feel like there’s nothing they can’t ask you about.

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  9. AaronS says:

    As a doting father, I trust I have found some truths that may be of help to you….

    First, I seek to protect the childhood of my child, for he will have only this one, fleeting chance to enjoy the world without significant worry, concern, or tainting. And so, I don’t have a single problem with blocking shows that have profanity (what good does it do my son to know there is an “f-word,” even if he will one day hear it in abundance?). I don’t have a problem with NOT sharing with him the world’s concerns or even the concerns within our own home (e.g., financial, career, etc.).

    No, I try to ensure that his childhood is protected from unnecessary knowledge. Perhaps there is something to that whole concept of there being a “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”?

    Second, I DO seek to teach my child about things that would hurt him. I don’t want him worrying about electric outlets, but it’s better he do that than play with one and get electrocuted. Or to not learn the great importance of looking both ways first, and never crossing the road without mom or dad. Or the great danger of playing with fire or “manacine” (medicine).

    Very simply, some knowledge serves no purpose (at least at an early age). It would just worry him. But some knowledge DOES serve a purpose, by protecting him from something worse than worry or concern.

    And that’s the way I suppose we should go about it–on a “need to know” basis. Does a child NEED to know that children are dying in Africa? Not yet. There will be plenty of years when their hearts may break for those children…but not yet, not yet.

    So leave off the dark stuff until a child needs to know the dark stuff.

    Just my thoughts.

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  10. tanya m. says:

    Thanks for this.

    My biggest fear is that my young son, age 8, will only disassociate. We all do it; when things seem too big to fix, we emotionally shut down. What else can a kid do hearing about other children being hurt? Or species dying, or all the other things that are way beyond their power to do anything about.

    I think the trick is to let out the information in such a way that empathy CAN grow. Maybe it has to be coupled with a sense of agency, a way of seeing how you can affect things for the better. It may seem silly to us, but a lemonade stand for hurt babies, a crayon-written letter to a politician. . . small acts maybe, but they seem crucial in helping raise children who are not merely flattened by the pain of the world, or children who drift into mindless, consumering avoidance.

    I think this question requires great thoughtfulness on the part of parents. Its not just about our kids’ feelings. Its about how to raise brave, good people who will take on all these problems.

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  11. hildigunnur says:

    Hiding all bad things indefinitely is always an instinct with parents – but not always positive. Of course children need to learn about the bad, even evil, things that are out there. 7-8 years old sounds about right, the kids think for themselves, and read or listen to the news, you just can’t hide things much longer. It’s rather a question of how you present the realities, not when.

    My 8 year old is now reading the 7th Harry Potter book, having read the first 6 himself – in the series, as in the Grimms Brothers’ folk tales, kids get to be introduced to cruelty and evil, there’s a reason tales like those are popular, it’s a way to introduce the real world through bedtime stories and such. Banning books and stories with an exposure to evil is a horrible mistake, in my opinion, as it’s the best way to let children know that all isn’t necessarily always well in the world.

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  12. adora says:

    It is the same problem with Santa. Some parents are just more comfortable lying to their kids than others.

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  13. Mark says:

    I never weave any tangled webs. I do my parenting on instincts. My instincts are pretty much in line with what you did. They are so active when they’re young, they don’t dwell on sad things so much. One minute you’re telling them about dead babies and the next minute they’re screaming about an escaped beetle. (It hadn’t actually escaped by the way – it was clinging to the lid.)

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  14. Chris/Nashville says:

    You did the right thing. Tell the truth AS YOU KNOW IT… any time the kids ASK. Never lie to your kids. Never! That doesn’t mean that you have to disclose every bad thing in the world & bring-up, mention or go “hey son, have you heard about the holocaust yet?”. But if you get a direct question, answer it directly. Your kids will forgive you for being too honest. They won’t forgive you for lieing to them. And don’t get hung up on what momma says – her job as mother is to PROTECT them from the world… your job as father is to PREPARE them for the world. And it’s never too early.

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  15. misterb says:

    Let me follow on to 14 (Chris from Nashville). My kids are now grown, but when I ask them what mistakes I made as they were growing up, they mention two things:

    1) We didn’t take them to places they wanted to go.

    2) We lied to them.

    So, from their perspective, they wanted to get out in the world, not be protected from it, and they wanted us to be truthful with them – even if we still argue whether it was “lying” or “entertaining” (see Santa Claus). I should say that they grew up safe in an environment so protected that even it’s denizens call it “the bubble”. Children who grew up in trauma might have the opposite memories.

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  16. Justin Yost says:

    Thanks for writing about this and it’s certainly an interesting topic. Personally I would expose my kids to that kind of information. I am a big believer in the freedom of information, also I feel that if a kid is asking about something, they are old enough to handle the truth.

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  17. rubemode says:

    I’m with Chris (#14) on this one, maybe not with the same excitement, but I think his point still holds. Children need to be told the truth about the world. Children are sponges at this age and lies (regardless of intent) can leave kids with a skewed sense of things that don’t add up later. If the kids are curious enough to ask about things, you need to encourage that behavior by rewarding them with the truth.

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  18. adenacb says:

    I have an 8-almost-9-year old, and this piece rings very true. Scary stuff comes up, and you have to deal with it in some way. I often tell people I’d rather have my son watch almost anything on TV but the news. I don’t lie to him, but I do soften things quite a bit. He does get scared in a very concrete way (will that bad guy try to get into our house?) so it makes sense to explain why we are safe, even though there is lots of badness in the world. It’s not easy, and there are no easy answers. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

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  19. crquack says:

    1) Kids are tougher than you think.

    2) They can cope with knowledge of bad things and bad people with the understanding that you provide security.

    3) Their reality perception is different and any explanation must be appropriate to that reality, but *never* dishonest or dismissive.

    To illustrate the point about perception of reality, my daughter was asked to draw a picture of a Christmas scene where the Holy family found “no room at the inn”. In her picture the Inn had 23 floors – her only reference being Holiday Inn!

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  20. Deb says:

    I appreciate your broaching this subject. I’ve got a 5-year-old who is not quite asking these questions yet, but I want to be well prepared.

    I grew up in the late 70s/early 80s and was terrified of being “nuked by Commies” every night when I said my prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep… If I die before I wake.”

    I was not in a family where I felt I could gain any solace by turning to my parents for answers. I am hopeful that my husband and I are providing a more nurturing environment for our daughter and, while it is the nature of children to obsess over global concerns, she might not be as traumatized by those thoughts as I believe I was.

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  21. Jane says:

    The greatest gift you can give your children -especially as a father – is a solid display of emotional stability. I still remember worrying about how my parents would react to things emotionally. When there were money problems, when there were marital problems, when a plotline on television touched on money problems or marital problems, I worried… worried about how they would react. I wish in some ways I had been able to express my own emotions without worrying so much about their explosive emotions.

    As a sidenote, have you ever read the Little House books. Pa in those books was my hero growing up, specifically because he responded to terrible setbacks and disasters with cheerful reassurance for the rest of the family…

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  22. News Writer says:

    One of the greatest illusions parents have is that they can keep their children safe from frightening information, suffering, sorrow, and other depressing facts of life.

    The secret is for parents to make time to listen and talk with kids. Being a parent means thinking about stuff you may not want to think about and being resilient yourself in order to raise resilient children.

    My grandfather died when my oldest child was a toddler. We didn’t expect a 2-year-old, who had visited great-grandfather infrequently, to notice he was gone. Wrong.

    A school project required our beginning reader to bring in a newspaper article. After a hunt for a suitably sanitized paper, we looked for an article, which the obstinante child wanted to choose on her own. She saw the unfamiliar word “adoption” in a headline and received a sanitized explanation about how some people take care of children and love them even if they didn’t give birth to the children. (Nothing about death or illness of parents or any discussion of premarital sex.) Horrified child listens to explanation and draws her own conclusions: “You mean people _give_ their children away?” It took a while to dry the tears and have a calm discussion.

    Child is outside playing with neighbor when there’s a nasty car accident about 25 feet away. Playmates all see the crash and hear one driver scream at impact.

    My kids enjoyed Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I didn’t try to hide reality from them. War, death and accidents happen. I did try to reassure my children.

    But this idea that parents should be able to filter and control life has resulted in a weird disconnect, where parents don’t want to hear about reality. They don’t want to visit grandparents who are going to die soon because they don’t want the kids to grieve. Dear Abby’s July 31 column has a letter about this situation. In addition, they don’t want pictures of injured or dead bodies at car crashes or pictures of injured or dead soldiers at war in Iraq.

    Pretending that cars crashes don’t kill people and that no one comes back from war in a casket just shows how much people today are in denial about real life. People complain that teens think nothing bad will happen to them, but if they’re insulated in a world where nothing bad is allowed to affect them, why should they be realistic about risk?

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  23. di says:

    Modern parenting works by the Centrifugal Bumblepuppy principle–there is nothing on earth that cannot be made even more complicated and require more expertise and resources than it did previously.

    Kids need to know enough about what is going on that they aren’t confused or frightened by the unknown. They should not be kept naive to the point of social embarassment.

    I need half a dozen research studies to tell me this?

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  24. RW says:

    Dub,

    This mother is very smart. Having not read the story myself I’m not positive but I’d imagine that she did receive some amount of help for her child and herself, made international news, and even got you to bite by writing a story about her situation (albeit secondarily to your lesson).

    You’d likely have never written about this on your blog if she had simply said the casts were there because he was born that way…

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  25. Steve says:

    Your wife is from the same “school” that believes that kids will never swear if they don’t hear it at home.

    Frankly, there are too many parents who try to shield their kids from any risk, potential trauma or reality for far too long. The result is a generation of potential couch potatoes who have no street smarts and will never participate in anything but scheduled activities. Despite this, they pick up their four letter vocabulary, attitudes to sex and the world around them from their peers who also get it in an oblique and dishonest fashion. A recipe for disaster.

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  26. Simon says:

    This seems like another one of those ‘wow I’m thankful I don’t live in the developing world’ kind of posts. For example, when you are living in a context that is more violent, exposes you to such truths by virtue of the fact that they occur more regularly and more publicly then those kinds don’t have the choice, and consequently, neither do their parents – parents must tell their kids the truth as a survival tactic. You don’t survive in the backstreets of Soweto, South Africa by being naive. Therefore the question that you place isn’t: ‘when should you tell your kids’, it should be ‘when do people who live in a place where they need not tell their kids for reasons of survival tell their kids about bad thing’. The question you ask is overly general. It’s another instance in which individual’s choice sets are constrained by the context in which they find themselves.

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  27. Chris says:

    Parents are typically more worried about their children than reality warrants. Children are a lot less vulnerable to negative information than adults give them credit for because adults have a somewhat biased view of childhood (“I’m smarter, tougher, and more experienced, so I can handle it, but my kid isn’t so they can’t.”). In truth, anyone that has dealt with young children after the divorce of their parents or even death of a parent will likely know that they often deal with it more effectively than the adults impacted by that situation.

    It’s largely because the same lack of vast life experience that adults assume make children more vulnerable actually serves as a shield. For example, a five year old that loses a parent will (consciously or subconsciously) compare every future negative situation they experience to that loss; it basically becomes the base point against which all other points are judged. Since few things are worse than that base point, those children are likely to remain less rattled by negative externalities than adults who have not undergone a significant loss in their lives (since that experience has few or no equivalents for such adults).

    Of course, this is based more on my personal experience than any scientific method. I lost my mother at a rather young age and was able to take the loss of my father years later much more productively largely because I had experienced the similar loss (it also made things like bad grades, getting dumped, and job losses seem a bit more trivial to me than they did my peers).

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  28. Amos says:

    funny and well-stated opinion, it concerned about the reality we have been faced, and offer me an awesome way to deal with it…thanks

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  29. achilles3 says:

    Great post Dubner. Thanks for sharing this on the blog.

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  30. Kim says:

    If a child is old enough to ask the question, then he deserves some form of an honest answer. The trick as a parent is to provide that answer in an age-approriate way that doesn’t tap into to any of the child’s pre-existing fears (if possible). If the issue directly taps into one of those fears, you have to acknowledge that fact immediately, and put the discussion into that context–since that is likely the reason the child is asking to begin with.

    With my children, I usually start off with a very generalized answer, and if they keep asking questions, I get more specific from there. As a parent you do eventually develop a very good sense of when you should stop before you child gets overwhelmed or upset by information.

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  31. Rachael says:

    Don’t kids take a while to develop empathy? I did – I knew, as a small child, about people being killed, but I didn’t yet have enough empathy to care, so it didn’t bother me. And by the time I was old enough to care, I was old enough to cope.

    In my (limited) experience, kids are more scared of the monsters under the bed than the murderers on the news.

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  32. Browning says:

    Children need to feel safe until they can fend for themselves. Your job is to keep them safe and make them feel safe. So, when your kid asks: “Will you and Mom get divorced?”, the only acceptable answer is “No.” It does no good to expatiate on human nature or how people change. Your kid wants to stop worrying.

    Same for external risks. Tell a kid specifically who will keep them safe. It might be you or it might be the US Army. Your kid will feel better and get on with being a kid.

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  33. frankenduf says:

    the mugabi story reminds me of the truism that propaganda in violent times often takes the form of the torture of children- if you look back in the annals of justification of war, there is invariably stories of the other side torturing children- apparantly to induce violence from people you need to evoke a powerful enough emotive spur, and this motif is the most effective

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  34. Clint says:

    I don’t think it really matters what or when you tell your kids, but how you yourself react to it as a parent. Frankly, I think we treat kids like they’re dumb, even though at a very early age they’re aware of death and violence. This is your chance to step up to the plate and be a parent, offer comfort, and explain to your child the rarity of these occurrences.

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  35. anne says:

    Really tough questions. The fact that we subscribe to newspapers CAN be awkward now that they know how to read! I find I try to put any information about bad stuff in the context that bad actors will be punished and the story will have a good ending. For example: that mother who beat up her little girl is going to jail. That little girl is going to a new and safe home…. Many people died in the Holocaust but countries came together to fight Hitler. Some of it stretches the truth on occasion but in general, I’m trying to reassure my kids that there is justice.

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  36. Kip says:

    two comments-

    @RW: “This mother is very smart. … I’d imagine that she did receive some amount of help for her child and herself, made international news, and even got you to bite by writing a story about her situation …”

    There are negative externalities, though. The fact that someone would lie about this (blaming the horrors of war when she is really just seeking personal attention) is part of the reason why people do things like deny the holocaust, not believe rape victims, and assume homeless people will use “food money” for booze. Making people empathize with you when you’re lying will, once they learn you were lying, shatter their willingness to empathize with others in the future. All she’s really done is increase the selfishness and cynicism of a lot people who heard her story.

    @Simon: “the question that you place isn’t: ‘when should you tell your kids’, it should be ‘when do people who live in a place where they need not tell their kids for reasons of survival tell their kids about bad thing’.”

    He said that–the last two paragraphs. Please read the whole article before criticizing it.

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  37. Celeste says:

    According to the ABC special that aired last Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT, Randy Pausch and his wife Jai didn’t tell their children that their father was dying until he was on his deathbed. I agree (for the most part) with this idea of avoidance…at least until the kids are older. Once they hit about junior high, I think they should be involved.

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  38. Ted says:

    I covered up some other news from Zimbabwe based on an earlier experience. I told my then 8 year old son about hyper-inflation … he was definitely interested. A few days later, my wife told me that he was very concerned about the prospects of it appearing again here.

    I didn’t tell him about the recent devaluation of currency in Zimbabwe even though he just asked if there was any way to make the dollar worth a penny (he’s now 12).

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  39. Matthew says:

    Tapproach I’ve tried to take with my fairly intelligent 6 year old son, a 4 year old daughter and a 10 day old (he doesn’ ask too many questions yet) is to explain as much as I can but keeping it at their level. I’ve faced everything from questions about racism (Uncle Remus) to explaining my grandmother’s death to finding my son crying in bed about the projected destruction of the Earth by the sun at the end of the sun’s life cycle. (Who ever thought that talking about the life cycle of stars would induce sadness in a 5 year old?)

    I decided early on that the best thing I can give them is the truth. I can control what the truth looks like (death in “Silverado” looks very different than death in “Kill Bill”) but when I am faced with a question about the meaner aspects of humanity and life on Earth I’ve found that giving some hint of the seriousness makes for a more sympathetic understanding.

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  40. Caitlin says:

    I was five years old when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. I caught a glimpse of the now-famous TV footage, and several images were burned in my memory (though I’m sure distorted by my imagination). My mother quickly changed the channel, but following my questions she did explain to me generally what was going on – if I remember correctly, she included a little civics lesson just like you did. I remember being shocked and somewhat afraid. However, I was quickly reassured by my mother, and the fear faded.

    The fact that this was happening half a world away also helped. When a man murdered fourteen female students at the École Polytechnique that same year (much closer to home – I am from Montreal), my mother was much more vague when answering my questions, though this was probably also because she, herself, was very emotional about the event.

    In retrospect, I am happy my mother took the approach she did. I think the “correct” approach to broaching “bad stuff” varies depending on the situation and, perhaps more importantly, on the personality of the child. But I was always satisfied when my parents didn’t treat me like I was irrational or skirt sensitive issues. I was always very aware that something was going on, and a total lack of explanation would have been frustrating and disconcerting.

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  41. Belfast Brendy says:

    I love how Americans say things like “Zimbabwe isn’t like the US”…you can “vote” for whomever you want…but that doesn’t mean they’ll actually get into office, even when a lot of other people vote for that person too! At least the Zimbabweans are open about rigging an election and intimidating the opposition.

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  42. JJ says:

    This is a very tough subject.

    I remember when I was young, in 2nd/3rd grade, my mother was insistent on urging me to learn about the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, and, more important to the family, China’s awful predicament during WWII. She bought me books, Grandpa told me stories…

    But that was all historical info, so even though I learned about it, it was like something that I couldn’t fathom happening. Despite my father, a broadcast journalist in LA at the time, covering the LA Riots — I have no recollection of my parents ever telling me about it happening. I think it’s OK to shield kids from the modern “bad stuff” because it makes them worry and they end up having a grim sense of the world.

    The suffering that comes with death is also part of the “bad stuff” that parents keep from their kids.

    I think that shielding the “bad stuff” to a certain degree (to what point, I don’t know) is a smart move…

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  43. Kirilius says:

    I believe we should look into our own past experiences when we were younger and try to reconstruct our memories of events like these (learning about bad things). After all most of the readers of this blog are adult and who else than us can better answer these questions:

    1) What were the bad things I learned about (saw) as child?

    2) What was the effect of that on my further development (emotions, character, world view, etc.)

    I am sure answering these questions won’t be easy but it can provide at least some valuable insights.

    My memories are that the times I felt worse as a child were when I encountered something really bad and I was not prepared for it (I had never heard of it before). On the other hand I could relatively easily live through something bad that I knew about prior to happening.

    Personally I think that shocks should be avoided because they cause most of the damage to a child. And shocks are inevitable if a child is protected for too long from seeing and knowing the bad things that wait for us out there. I think the best course of action would be to raise an awareness about these thing GRADUALLY. Trying to shield a child for too long will only make the inevitable shock even worse.

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  44. WB says:

    I take it the Dubners never watch TV news in front of their kids? My dad was a news addict, and given the long time “If it bleeds, it leads” attitude of news, we had daily exposure to the Vietnam War, fire, murder, weather disasters, etc.

    No wonder I never grew up thinking the world was a safe place. But the playground kids convinced me of that more than anything on the news. If you ever want to see man’s inhumanity to man, visit a playground during recess.

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  45. Mimi says:

    Oh, good grief. I do NOT lie to my children–I tell them as much of the truth as they are able to understand. Understand death at three? GREAT! Then they’re that much less likely to jump out in front of a moving car, and they don’t have to be bubble-wrapped like so many other people do who lie to their kids all the time–first, to make the world seem “safe” and then to make, you know, not actually kill their kids.

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  46. blue92 says:

    Protecting children is different from protecting their *childhood* — which is really another word for innocence or ignorance. Obviously the lesson must be suited to the individual, but there’s more to be lost than gained when prolonging ignorance unnecessarily.

    So long as the child can distinguish between an idea at distance and the reality around them, they can probably be taught anything that can be sufficiently explained at their level within their attention span. Tell children they’re not capable of handling information, and eventually they’ll start believing you.

    Some minimal shielding is of course practical — you don’t want to excessively terrorize your kids with the worst the world has to offer. But ultimately the celebration of innocence many subscribe to is largely a device for avoiding difficult discussions while perpetuating the parent’s desire to live vicariously in a simpler, easier world.

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  47. DigitalAutumn says:

    I think people are misstating the original intent of the piece. Yes, a lot of American parents overprotect their children from the reality of life. But there’s a big spectrum between not going to visit a dying grandfather, and not wanting to explain babies being beaten.

    I think there’s no point of burdening children with things that are horrible, don’t directly impact their safety, and that they can’t do anything about. Not until a certain age, at least, where they are working on issues of a moral compass and the nature of the world. My five year old is interested in war and soldiers and guns, and so I expose him to a bit more of the reality of those things. I don’t see any need to let him see the news and find out that someone’s house in the neighborhood got robbed, or that somewhere in the world people were buried in a mudslide. Better at this point I think to let him learn about and understand the people of the world, so that when he’s old enough he can feel that empathy for them.

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  48. Marguerite says:

    A parent’s job is to keep the kid safe, loved, and provided for.

    Bad stuff happens in the world, but a parent has to assure the kids that it’s going to be OK for them. If the kid has some questions, be honest, maybe over-simplify if they’re little. Like talking about sex, a gradual approach of need-to-know and as-it-comes up works well.

    Give kids some credit. Back in the early 80′s, Will Lee, the actor playing Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, died. They could have pretended nothing happened, like Mr. Hooper never existed, they could have sent him to Florida (like how my aunt’s cow went to “a bigger farm” –riiiight), they could have gotten another little old man who didn’t look much like him, but they were brave and did an episode about Mr. Hooper being dead and not coming back. Instead of the hide-everything aesthetic that gave us twin beds for married couples in 50′s shows, they realized that a simple, age-appropriate presentation was in order. (The show already had songs and skits about plants, animals, and people being “alive’, so this worked as a contrast.) I digress…I don’t know anyone who freaked out and became totally neurotic because Mr. Hooper went to the big corner store in the sky and it was portrayed honestly to them.

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  49. JLA says:

    I think the world would be a better place if kids grew up more aware of the realities that exist instead of in a bubble. A kid version, of course, but by the time they are teens, they are more often than not entangled in their own emotional and hormonal battles that expecting them to grasp and empathize just how lucky they are is asking a lot.

    I think ensuring that kids are aware of what is going on in the rest of the world is ideal, bc if they are alarmed about it at a young age, hopefully they will not become as complacent about it as previous generations have.

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  50. Caliban Darklock says:

    There are only two ways to avoid telling your kids bad things.

    1. Say nothing. Kids are not stupid, and can tell you aren’t telling them something. They will make something up to fill the gap. What they make up will probably be even worse than the reality.

    2. Lie. Again, kids are not stupid, and will figure out you lied to them eventually. Then they won’t trust you, and when you try to truthfully reassure them that Bad Things really are not about to happen, they don’t believe you.

    I believe you should just tell them about those bad things. So my two and four year old children have been frankly and honestly told the truth about various recent events that most parents would probably rather avoid discussing. So would we, but honesty just seems like the better policy in the long run.

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