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How Much Truth Can a 5-Year-Old Handle?

I'm not trying to shield my child from reality, but I want him to love the world he inhabits as much as I love it. His life will unfold and there will be unlimited opportunities for his view of humanity to crumble.
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At some point I know my kids are going to have to face the many ugly truths about life on this planet and, by and large, I think that's a good thing. Part of molding a young child into a decent, responsible, adult is making sure they are aware of the suffering and injustice in the world so that they value what they have and strive to better the lives of the people around them. Knowing how good you have it builds gratitude and, in my experience, it's unusual for a person that dwells in gratitude to dwell in unhappiness.

Still, I think it's a good idea to reveal the negative side of life slowly. It's kind of like when you're dating. Sure there are plenty of odd, off-kilter and unattractive things about each of us, but we try not to lead with those facts. You don't want to tell a new love interest that you're lactose intolerant, wet the bed until age 9 and are predisposed to male pattern balding and early onset Alzheimer's on the first date. It's perfectly fine for this stuff to come out in good time, but all of it at once is going to make for very few second dates.

With our kids, we started this process in a low key way; a Wednesday night sandwich making project with our church and the LA Union Mission. The first year, Z didn't really have a grasp on why we were making sandwiches but it was fun to slap bread, meat and condiments together once a week. When asked during our second year of sandwich making, Z proudly stated that we were making sandwiches for people who didn't have refrigerators. It was a start.

As Z began to learn his alphabet, he took an interest in the people he saw panhandling at big intersections around town. "What does that sign say, Daddy?" became a common refrain. This led to conversations about why people needed food or work or a home. He was particularly perplexed the notion that not everyone had a place to live. On one occasion, Z suggested we put up tents in our backyard and buy a bunch of blankets, "So people would have some place to sleep. And besides, camping out is really fun." It made perfect sense, of course, other than being entirely crazy.

One night, on the way out for a pizza, we saw a haggard looking guy holding a sign reading "Just Hungry." Without hesitation, Z said, "We should take him to CPK with us, they have great pizza." I instantly replied "We can't..." and then, in a split second, considered how to finish this sentence.

He might just want money and not food.

He might do something dramatically inappropriate in front of my kids.

He might be high on meth.

He might smell really, really bad.

He might expect me to make conversation with him.

He might kill us all.

I was aware that these reasons ranged from highly implausible to profoundly degrading. Z would have sensed it too, had I actually finished the sentence -- which I didn't. I just left it out there as a fact "We can't." without giving him a 'why' and, thankfully, he let it go.

Lately, however, Z has crossed something of an intellectual threshold and has begun asking questions for which there is no complete answer or for which he's simply not ready to digest unvarnished candor. Two nights ago, as I tucked him in for bedtime, he busted out with "Where do you go after you die?" This kind of question, without the courtesy of even a little existential foreplay, tends to give me a slight pit in the stomach. I'm sure I over-dramatize the importance of my answers but I feel incredible pressure to deliver an honest reply that doesn't also send him into a spiral of nihilistic depression while he's still in kindergarten (after all, that's what puberty's for).

We hit the same kind of speed bump right before the holidays. Determined to dial-back the feeding frenzy that we knew would engulf our home as presents and boxes began to arrive from friends and relatives, Karen and I sat Z down and told him we wanted to go through everything he owned -- top to bottom -- and donate at least half of it to people who had less than he did. Z was surprisingly good at letting go of his belongings -- he took real pride in being able to give great stuff to kids who didn't have as much as he did. He would frequently say things like "Someone is going to love this, it's so much fun," while stacking a game or toy onto the donate pile.

The problem came when Karen suggested we find a local women's shelter for some of the better clothing and newer toys. Z immediately asked "What's a women's shelter?" The answer hitched in my throat as I tried to sand off the sharp edges of reality and explain domestic violence in a feel good kind of way. "Well, buddy, it's just a place for women and their kids who don't have any other place where they can be safe." It seemed like this partial answer was going to satisfy him and he sat quietly for a long moment. Then he followed up with what, in retrospect, is the obvious question "Are there men's shelters too?"

Is this the moment I explain to my son that some men brutalize their wives and children? That without a safe place to go, some of these women will end up dead? Is this the moment I explain what a murder-suicide is, or an Amber Alert, or a restraining order? Sure, he'll eventually know all of these things. But does it need to be today?

I'm not trying to shield my child from reality, but I want him to love the world he inhabits as much as I love it. His life will unfold and there will be unlimited opportunities for his view of humanity to crumble. Before that happens, I want time to ingrain in him the belief that -- despite the inevitable heartbreak and disappointments -- life is good. I want that truth indelibly etched on his soul. Z has already dealt with the death of both maternal grandparents and we've explained that the reason he can't talk to adults that he doesn't know is that there are some bad people out there who would harm him given the chance. This is a healthy dose of "the world is a cesspool of horror and injustice" and -- like that first date -- I'm interested in full disclosure only as a long term proposition. For now, I'll settle for what I've got -- partially aware and thoroughly happy.

And so, with all that sentimental melodrama churning in my head, I made the only logical reply: "You know, some little boy is going to love that Spiderman backpack."

Z smiled and said,"Yeah, it's pretty cool."