What’s the Best Age to Discuss Painful Realities?

When do you think is the best age to start talking to a child about the sad realities of our existence, such as racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc.?

In my opinion, it makes sense to tell a kid that these things exist at around the age of 9-10.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a regime that my parents hated passionately. They experienced anti-Semitism and read forbidden authors. My father listened in a clandestine manner to the BBC and Voice of America at night. However, they never shared their feelings about the regime with me. They let me grow up believing that we lived in the best country possible. I devoured children’s stories about the kind Grandpa Lenin who loved little kids and saved sick hedgehogs. I was a happy child who wasn’t tortured by insecurities and anxieties about things I was yet not equipped to understand.

When I was 10, my mother had the first cautious talk with me about the history of the Soviet Union. She talked to me in a way that made me understand certain things about our historic legacy but that didn’t scare me or make me feel despondent.

I know people whose parents talked to them about the life in the Soviet Union in very negative terms from a very early age. I honestly don’t see how these hard, painful truths enriched those kids’ existences.

“A child needs to know that she lives in a happy, warm, welcoming universe,” my father always says. “Then, when she grows up, the realization that bad things exist will not break her. She will still have her memories of happiness and security that will carry her through the rest of her life.”

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “What’s the Best Age to Discuss Painful Realities?”

  1. Age ten would be ideal, but sadly, in my experience, life didn’t wait around for me to turn ten before I first experienced antisemitism. I was about six or seven years old when I first experienced it, I remember putting scotch tape to my nose to try to make it smaller and flatter like the noses of my classmates, because they teased me for my “big ugly nose”.
    My father caught me, and said I should be proud of my nose, because a big nose signified that I was curious and intelligent, and that I came from a long line of smart people with big noses. “And remember,” he said, looking at me solemnly, “The next time they make fun of your big nose, just remember, G-d have you that big nose so you’d know how much your classmates stink!”
    So if you can, put it off, if life gets in the way, be creative about how you explain it? πŸ™‚

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  2. Last weekend my 8 year old grandson was playing some “shoot ’em up” game on 3y.com and he said, “My Mom has been to war.”

    I decide I needed to put an end to his fantasies and replied, “No, your Mom was in the army in Germany. She never went to war. Your Grandma is in a war.”

    He asked, “Has she killed anyone?”

    I responded, “No, she is an engineer. She builds and maintains the buildings, drills water wells, builds sewage systems and makes maps.”

    He asked, “Does anybody shoot at her?”

    I told him, “Yes.”

    He said, “I think war is so cool.”

    I told him bluntly that there was nothing cool about war. There is nothing cool about people having their hands and arms and feet and legs blown off. There is nothing cool about a bomb that blows people up and you find a baby’s shoe with the foot still in it, but nothing else left of the baby. I didn’t tell him about the people who kidnap children and kill them by drilling holes in their heads with power drills. I thought that would just engender nightmares.

    Then he wanted to know why people go to war.

    I told him that most people are either forced to or they can’t find another job to feed their families. I told him that the people who start most wars never fight personally. They just stay at home and send other people to fight and be maimed and die.

    He got very quiet and I could tell that he was thinking about it a lot.

    Since then he hasn’t played any war games on computers and he hasn’t talked about how cool war is. I think he is old enough to cope with the truth.

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    1. I applaud you for these great responses. I was 6 when I said about another kid, “He’s so skinny, it’s like he’s just been released from Buchenwald.” My grandmother went white in the face and gave me a long lecture about the victims of of the Holocaust.

      Of course, when you see a kid doing things like that – without even understanding what they mean – a serious talk is in order.

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  3. I basically agree that 9-10 makes sense. And anything under 5 is WAY too young. But I think children can learn about some things starting around 5 years old. It’s important to build empathy in children….and one way to do that is to let them (gently) understand about pain and suffering. Again, gently is the operative word here. I agree that children need to feel safe and secre. And I think an 8-10 year old really can start understanding some things about history: the good (like art) and the bad (like war and racism). I still remember reading _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ as a 9 year old. As an adult, I realize that the novel is schlockey and deeply problematic in many ways. But as a 9 year old, I wept and was filled with righteous anger at racial injustice. πŸ™‚

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  4. Depending upon circumstances it may be impossible to avoid discussing certain things. It all depends upon presentation and tone. You have to not scare the kids by showing your own horrified reactions at what is going on and your own fears. Yet, you must say something because if not, they will know you are hiding something and *that* will be problematic, too. As I remember, 5 or 6 is a decent age to talk about serious matters if one must, but it really all depends on how traumatic (or not) you make it.

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  5. My response is “Whenever they begin to ask questions about those things”. They can do that at any age, but sometimes the ones who are best able to answer are other children.

    I was staying with some friends about 35 years ago, during the apartheid time in South Africa. The government had one of its periodic crackdowns on dissenters, and several people were banned or detained, some of whom we knew (I was banned myself at the time)

    Their younger daughter, aged 9, asked “Why does God allow it? Why does he allow our friends to be put in jail?”

    Her older sister, aged 11, said “It isn’t God, it’s the green snake” (a reference to C.S. Lewis’s book The silver chair).

    “But that isn’t true,” said the younger one. “It’s in a book. Somebody wrote it.”

    “Yes,” replied the older one, “but what it means is true.”

    One of the best ways of telling younger children about such things is by reading fairy stories to them, where someone suffers injustice and fights against it (think of tales like Jack and the beanstalk). Then, when they encounter such things in real life, they can come to recognise that “What it means is true.”

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    1. I would agree in principle – allow the children to ask the questions, and answer when they ask. My kids are 7&12, and one of their favourite movies is “To Kill a Mockingbird”. They don’t “get” everything, but they ask – we answer. They ask more – we answer more. Sitting them down for ‘the talk’, before they’ve expressed the curiosity will only serve to scare them, which doesn’t help anyone.

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  6. I always answered questions and then we’d usually discuss whatever it was (racism, war, death, eating meat, sex, we talked about it all). The tough things seemed to come up early, and for some reason, usually in the car (we drove 2 hours each way twice a month to visit grandparents, so maybe it was the combination of boredom and captive parent). When they asked, I always tried to answer appropriately for age. Of course, as they got older, then they wanted more details and more indepth information.

    In one area, though, both kids decided early on that they wanted to remain ignorant. To this day, both kids refer to dead animals at the side of the road as “resting” (they are in their 20s).

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