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Talking To Children About Evil

When do you think we ought to begin discussing the reality of unnatural deaths with our children?
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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 family visit 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 three-and-a-half years ago, the day before a group of home grown British terrorists were 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 our children? And are there certain topics that ought to remain taboo?