Monday, August 4, 2008

The tough stuff

Stephen Dubner today grapples with how we tell our kids about bad stuff that is or might happen. Do you tell them the truth or shield them until they are "old enough"? And when are they old enough anyway? Dubner provides useful links to studies and advice about this.

His motivating example was what was happening in Zimbabwe. It reminded me of a conversation with my 9 year old daughter. She came home from school the other day and said, "What are we going to do about Mugabe?" Clearly they had discussed the situation there and she was of the view that he had to go. I responded that I didn't know and this is a difficult situation. She countered, "well, he could be killed. After all, if someone did that they could get away with it because he was the person who set the laws."

A longer discussion about the notion that assassination, murder and what stops it from happening (answer: it shouldn't be just the law) ensued. But it was clear to me how complex this issue was and that it was fundamental to moral development and not just in terms of coping with bad stuff happening in the world. Almost all bits of literature that deals with war and is at the level of a 9 year old is unambiguous on this point. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, it is OK to go after evil people. Her level of comfort with that concept shouldn't be a surprise even if our reaction is not to like to hear it coming from someone so young.

But there is more to this than just dealing with bad events around the world. The harder stuff for a parent is dealing with grief and problems closer to home. In our family, someone close is sick (and worryingly so). This has engendered explicit discussions about death and our approach has been to be very open so that feelings can be discussed and the children can work through it all while at the same time hoping that these things do not happen. The complex thing is dealing with uncertainty. In these matters, adults are really bad at it so how to you help children through?

Our problem is that while we have adopted the expert line on such matters and have been happy to talk about this, when they are around others, if the topic comes up, it is quickly and obviously squashed. Our 7 year old, in particular, wants to discuss these things with as many adults as possible. But instead, he is greeted with denial of the possibility or "you shouldn't talk about that" or what have you. Of course, this is just part of the difficult situation and is, in many ways understandable. However, it is hard to run textbook grief handling tactics when everyone around you isn't on board. I fear it has left him less comforted and more confused. But then again, what else should you be?