Actually, this post is not going to outright answer whether you should take your five year old to an anti-sex-trafficking rally, but it is going to try and look at the underlying assumption: how sheltered should I keep my children? Should I be telling them about the harsh realities of life- slavery, racism, crime, war, rape, tsunamis ? Or, should I preserve the safe innocence of childhood as long as possible?
First, I think it’s worth stating that this is a very privileged question to be asking. If you’re a child growing up in Calcutta, you know about poverty. If you’re a young black boy in America, your parents have “given you the talk” already. The safe, innocent world of childhood is already pierced by your reality. But it still begs the question: if it’s in our power to shelter our children, should we? Or, at what age should we start talking about these things?
I want to talk about both suffering and injustice, but also things that are just plain scary, because I think a large reason why we don’t expose our children to hard things is because we don’t want them to be traumatized and scarred for life. Also, I don’t have kids, but I was a kid not that long ago. 🙂
When I was about eight, one of my friends at school told me that she had woken up in the night and someone was peering through a gap in her curtains. She called her Dad and he went out and chased a guy off who was loitering on their property. He could have been a robber. She couldn’t sleep alone for several years after that. I obsessively closed the curtains tightly every night after hearing that story.
Every kid has fears and anxieties, and when you have a very vivid imagination, these can be consuming. I grew up in South Africa, and it has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. We would overhear stories of hijackings and armed robberies at dinner parties, and us children would tell each other about them with all the fervor of ghost stories. We didn’t realize that actually as white South Africans we were still quite privileged and most of the victims of violent crime were poor, but stories of assaults on farms and people being held up at gunpoint were at the forefront of our consciousness.
I was also scared of irrational things (like a demon hiding in the hallway, or a giant snake coming up out of the toilet to bite me) and I had very vivid nightmares. I would wake up in the night, frozen to my spot, stiff with fear and unable to move, convinced that someone had broken into the house and was sitting in the shadows, breathing, waiting for me to move before they attacked. I would hold my breath for as long as possible, listening. When I was convinced no one was there except for my sister, I would squeak out, “Mooom!” in a whisper. That would give me enough courage to call louder, and somehow, she had the superpower to hear me and come. Sometimes I was brave enough to get out of bed and go to the bathroom on my own.
We didn’t have a TV and my parents didn’t watch violent news. They didn’t talk about violent crime. My family was a very kid-friendly place. But the fact is, even the most vigilant parent can’t protect their kid from ever encountering things that are scary, dark, and downright evil. There’s always going to be a pin-prick in the bubble.
I remember an instance in fourth grade where I read a Readers Digest at a friends house that had a very graphic story of a South African women who had survived hijacking and rape, as well as almost having her head severed. Definitely not good reading material for a nine year old! Obviously she survived and lived to be featured in a magazine, but it was hard for me to focus on that part.
I tell these stories to point out that the world isn’t safe, even in the most privileged areas, and there’s no way we can make it so. The question shouldn’t be how to avoid scary, dark, sad, unjust things in our world, but how to appropriately help children to handle them. It’s like the difference between leashing your four year old to a playpen because you’re scared he’ll burn himself on the stove, or teaching him that the stove is hot, and how to be safe in the kitchen.
It comes back to whether you want to raise innocent kids you’ve tried to keep safe, or resilient, compassionate kids (Go read a Kenneth Ginsberg book for more on resilience).
Here are a couple of ideas I have when it comes to the scary, and I’m interested to hear yours:
- Read them more fairy tales: It might seem counter-intuitive to read kids “made-up stories” to help them deal with the real world, but fairy tales and fantasy are amazing things. They build resilience. They define good and evil very clearly, and they show good battling the evil and winning. If kids can battle and win in a fantasy world, it gives the courage and stamina to do battle in the real world. CS. Lewis was a firm believer in this.
2. Have them invite Jesus in: When I would wake up my mom with nightmares, rather than belittling my fear, or telling me it was just a dream, my Mom would pray with me and then tell me that I should imagine a happy ending to my dream with Jesus beside me. This meant I would have to lie back down, on my own, close my eyes, and go back to the scary place, but then use my power of imagination to bring Jesus into that scary place. Actually, research shows this is the best way to deal with bad dreams- having the kids return and resolve the conflict and face the fear rather than avoiding it makes them resilient overcomers rather than fearful victims. It also strengthened my relationship with Jesus from a young age, and it helped me understand that no matter how scary the world got- in my dreams or in real life- I didn’t have to be paralyzed by fear because Jesus was with me.
3. Frame: If your child has talked about poverty, or racism, or injustice, or violence with you at home first, when they encounter it on their own, it won’t have the mysterious fearful power that it strange things have. Your child will be able to frame it. We grew up reading stories about poverty, slavery and racism well before we talked about those things in school. These were heavy topics, but it didn’t phase me. The one thing we didn’t talk about and I wish we had was HIV/AIDS (this right when the government was finally talking about this publicly so it wasn’t on everyone’s “radar” yet, which is why I think we didn’t) and when we heard about it at school it scared me. I knew the teacher told me I couldn’t get it, but seeing photos of sick people terrified me. I was able to talk about it with my parents, and having them explain they knew several people with HIV (and in fact I did, too!), and that I really was safe from contracting it if I didn’t touch blood with my open wounds reframed the situation away from fear and towards compassion. What if I hadn’t felt I could talk to them about it? It’s not that I would be any “safer” I would just have been fearful and less compassionate towards those with HIV/AIDS. The famous Mr. Rogers quote to children after disasters is to “look in the news for the helpers. The helpers are always there.” That’s another example of framing the situation away from the fear and towards the positive.
4. Don’t be afraid of their questions: Sometimes adults are afraid to bring up a topic, because we’re scared what our kids will ask. The French child development expert Dr. Dolto mentioned in Bringing Up Bebe was a firm believer in telling children everything, even from a young age. According to her, a child as young as two should be told about the death of a grandparent, and taken to the funeral and allowed to look at the body and say goodbye. She says something like, “The world is a scary and mysterious place when you are young. You are shuttled about and kept in the dark. When you are informed about your world, you are empowered.” She advocates using language the child will understand, but not avoiding any topic. So, when the Paris terror attacks happened, rather than trying to hide it from the children, children were given an opportunity to ask the experts questions . Sometimes the questions kids want answered are different than what you’d expect. Sometimes kids are afraid of things they really don’t need to be afraid of. Letting them ask questions gets ride of false fears and ideas.
Okay, so people who are ACTUAL parents (and not just recent children, like me!) I’d love to hear your ideas on helping your children build resilience in the face of scary things. This topic was prompted by a conversation with my amazing sis-in-law who really should just be co-credited with lots of these posts. 🙂 She always gets me thinking.
And make sure to read PART 2 where I talk about building compassion in the face of suffering and injustice.