From The Blog

Talking To Children About Evil

My daughter came home from school yesterday and told me that her best friend had a “hate list.” “What’s that?” I asked....

My daughter came home from school yesterday and told me that her best friend had a “hate list.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a list of all the people in the world that she hates.”

“Don’t make one yourself,” I said quickly. “That’s not nice.”

“Yeah, but I only have one person on it,” she responded.

“I don’t care. You’ll hurt someone’s feelings.”

She looked up at me, wide-eyed. “But it’s Hitler.”

Pause.

At first – of course – I laughed. But then I kept on thinking about it and I realized that not everyone would find it funny that their six-year-old knew about Hitler. I remember once writing a post about talking to your kids about death, which dealt with my (failed) attempts to explain death in any meaningful and convincing way to my then five-year-old daughter. The post also touched upon our visit as a family to The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. And I got more than a few comments from people who thought that it was really bad parenting on my part to have exposed such a young child to the Holocaust. As one woman wrote in the comments section: “I think we have a parental duty to protect children from even knowing about the worst aspects of evil.”

Do we?

In my case, my husband is Jewish, we’ve been to Israel as a family and my nine-year-old could practically write a book on World War II at this point. So somehow I don’t really think that we could “hide” the Holocaust from my daughter, even if we wanted to. But I also feel strongly that the Holocaust is quite recent world history. And at some point children need to know that the Holocaust happened in order to comprehend its magnitude and horror and very possibility, if for no other reason than to guard against it happening again.

But the Holocaust isn’t the only evil we’ve talked about with our kids. I moved to London 3½ years ago, the day before a group of home grown British terrorists was arrested for a “liquid bomb plot” at Heathrow airport. The next day, as we tried to settle our new home/country/life, there were TVs on everywhere we went. People were jittery. My then five-year-old son asked me what was going on. Should I have lied to him? Perhaps. But I didn’t.

As I wrote about subsequently, 9/11 and all that has come since has permanently changed the way Westerners perceive and experience terrorism. It’s no longer something that happens “over there.” It is woven into the very fabric of our daily lives through things like threat levels (ours just went up to “severe”), how much freedom of speech is permissible at universities, even what kinds of liquids we can bring on board an airplane. Living – as we now do – in that sort of environment alters the equation for what kids need to become aware of at an early age.

You could also extend this line of argument to encompass natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti (while understanding that this is a very different form of tragedy.) Is it distressing for a six-year-old to learn that 150,000 people just died in an earthquake because they happened to live in the wrong place at the wrong time? Sure it is. But my daughter and I have talked about Haiti too. Whether that’s to make her appreciate just how fortunate she is or to begin to teach her about charitable giving, it’s a worthwhile lesson, IMHO.

So, at the end of the day? I’m totally down with the I Hate Hitler list.

But how about you? When do you think we ought to begin discussing the reality of “unnatural” deaths with your children? And are there certain topics that ought to remain taboo?

*****

For those who are interested, here’s a post I did yesterday about what Gordon Brown can learn from the recent elections in Massachusetts and Chile.

Image: Mai piu’ by maxgiani via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Elle January 26, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    My parents loved to travel and when I was old enough they took me everywhere – including Pompei and the Anne Frank house, among other places. IIRC, I was 11 and 13 respectively. I think it would’ve been fine if I’d been a few years younger. I’m sure I’m better for it. The idea that suddenly everyone I knew ceased to be (through either a quick death or a slow torturous death) is a helluva concept for a kid, but I don’t think it’s “too much”. That said, I don’t have kids and it’s been a few years since I was a kid myself. ;-)

    • delialloyd January 27, 2010 at 6:12 am #

      Thanks, Elle. I do think there’s a right time to introduce this stuff and I still wonder if we were too early with our daughter. But it’s helpful to hear that you have also gained from such exposure early on.

  2. ashley January 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    i was always made aware of world atrocities and ‘evil’ like hitler. My Grandfather was in a concentration camp during WWII, it’s not just world history, it’s family history.

    My brother was young when 9/11 happened and it was everywhere! If my parents hadn’t explained it to him he would’ve been terrified, piecing together the things he had heard. i don’t think there is any harm in being honest and explaining things that children will find out about otherwise.

    • delialloyd January 27, 2010 at 6:41 am #

      thank you ashley. and i’m very sorry about you grandfather. i agree that sometimes it’s better if *we* give them the details rather than letting them try to imagine them!

  3. daryl boylan January 27, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    You did good with Allie! As to Mr. Brown learning from Chile & Mass., I wish him no luck but good. However, it’s a somewhat dismal moment to be a Democrat or Labor.

  4. Veronica January 27, 2010 at 6:07 am #

    My 6 year old daughter learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school including that “he was shot by someone who didn’t like what he was said in his speech”. I was surprised and am concerned; I think that was too much information for this age. I’ve had to reassure her that cows live a long, happy life and die of old age before they’re made into beef. Yes, I’m worried about how I handled that one. And she’s seen her share of crucifixes at that same school (I knew there would be plenty of regrettable aspects of the choice to send her to Catholic school.)
    By 6 she’s been contemplating this more than you’d guess from the G rated princess Disney movies which frequently include some tragedy-and attempted murder-, squashed bugs, and the flowers she picked that dried up and died in the vase. My girl has asked me about all these things.
    If you come across any good advice on this topic please do pass it along.

  5. delialloyd January 27, 2010 at 6:14 am #

    Hmmmm….I find myself thinking that MLK is a good one for them to learn about also, though exactly when is a good question. (Had never thought about crucifixes!) Totally agree on Disney..someone just told me that they had to add a scene to the original Star Wars film to make it qualify as a PG movie b/c they didn’t think all the shooting was “enough”! (huh?)

  6. Veronica January 27, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    natural causes vs. unnatural: I think by this age they actually do have some concept. My daughter has noted that birds and fish eat worms (she loves worms and has tried to keep them as pets) and that other animals eat birds and fish. Recently at the zoo she saw her beloved wild African dogs chewing on enormous white and red bones and commented that the bones must be deer bones. ( My husband and I exchanged alarmed glances after murmmering non-commitally.)I think they put together a fairly accurate picture of reality. Hitler’s genocide vs. an animal’s feeding is one of many concepts they’ll probably grasp in time.

  7. Robin January 27, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    “Protecting” children from reality is a big mistake. Kids can handle the truth and need the truth to be prepared for the real world they will live in when they grow up. Most often the parents are “protecting” the kids because they themselves are having trouble coping with the realities of the world. Our job as parents is to develop our children to be able to protect themselves – not shelter them.

    That said, the larger point is the question of evil itself. What makes Hitler evil and not us? “The line between good and evil runs through the human heart”. To think that Hitler is somehow “different” then us – and that explains the evil – this is an incorrect and dangerous idea. Children should learn (and so should adults) that situations and our responses to situations is what makes evil. All of us are capable of ‘evil’, I often see very nice kids acting in ‘evil’ ways. The peer pressure of the Nazi’s is not so different than the peer pressure in high school.

  8. delialloyd January 28, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Robin…some interesting points there. I agree that we all have it in us to do evil and that social context matters and that kids need to learn this as well (though maybe at a slightly later age). Thanks for adding this. I will mull it over.

  9. Asa January 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    Very interesting and would love a direct answer to the question – at what age is it ok to talk about this? Guess there isn’t one – depend on the child.
    But I feel that being honest about death is important, especially when someone in the family dies. And to talk about it and to explain that we don’t have all the answers. I remember when my grandfather died and my parents didn’t take me to the funeral. It just made the whole thing bigger then it was, for me. Such a mystery.
    But I can’t blame them – it’s their generation. When my uncle died a few years ago I learned after the funeral that there had been an opportunity to say good bye to him before the funeral and to see him. I wasn’t asked because my mother had said that I didn’t want to. She still tries to protect me. =o)

  10. The gold digger January 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    Veronica, I am even more concerned about the explanation your daughter was given about King. Shot because someone didn’t like what he said? That’s a horrible explanation to give to a child! First of all, it isn’t true (in that it is too simplistic), but worse, it might make a kid wonder how dangerous the world really is if you can be shot just for what you say!

    There are ways to explain evil that do not have to make the everyday world terrifying. “King was fighting to end bad, unfair things that were happening to African Americans. Some people did not want him to succeed. He was struggling against strong forces. One of the men who disagreed with him and feared him chose to do an evil, horrible thing and shot him.” That is a comprehensible explanation that does not lead a kid to think that if her dad gets in an argument with some random guy that he is going to get shot.

  11. Linda January 30, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    I think it depends on the child and his/her capability of handling the information. My 8-year-old is fine with knowing about this kind of thing and takes a very pragmatic approach to it. My 5-year-old, on the other hand, worries about so many different things, and explaining the Haiti earthquake to him would cause him incredible stress. If he asked me about it, having heard it somewhere else, I wouldn’t lie to him, but I’m not going to bring it up to him either.

    • delialloyd January 31, 2010 at 8:46 am #

      good point linda. all of this has to be adjusted to the particular child and their sensitivities (as well as their curiosities….so kids just never ask!)

  12. Leah February 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    While I think it’s important to moderate the information given to children, it’s never a good idea to shield children from the hardships of life in the name of protecting them. That just creates a person who is then unable to deal with tragedy when it comes. And it will come.

    My own mother was very good at protecting me, and when one of my childhood friends died unexpectedly at the age of 15, she and I both were utterly adrift.

    Let us all remember how blessed we are to live in a time and place where we have the option of shielding our children from such things. Historically children have been born surrounded by disease and famine and poverty and death from the moment of their birth. Children are naturally resilient – thanks, evolution!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The lies we tell, part 2 « Stone and Sea - January 27, 2010

    […] can find the post I’m talking about here, but the first paragraph reads […]

  2. Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Visit Germany « RealDelia - November 3, 2010

    […] 1. Germans grapple with their history. Berlin is a city where you literally can’t walk for five minutes without bumping into some reference – whether physical, historical or cultural – to World War II, the Holocaust or Adolph Hitler. They’re everywhere. They’re on the sidewalks. They’re in the museums. They’re in the book stores. It’s as if the country – and this city, in particular – is wearing a giant sign that reads: “We will not forget.” And while my six-year-old did confess at one point to being a bit “Hitler-ed out,” that’s a good thing, in my opinion. We can’t remember enough. […]

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