Beyond Red Ridinghood: Protecting Children from Our Pain About the World

through their eyes

By Tamara Brennan, PhD

Thank you to Attachment Parenting International for contributing this article. Find more articles and resources on their website.

If, as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when “bad things” keep showing up to disrupt the calm in that village? For those of us in the United States, watching the news with so many reports of war and natural disasters, shootings in public places and information about policies that fly in the face of decency and fair play, well, it’s enough to ruin what inner peace we may have left despite of the hectic pace of our lives. As caring people, we carry an awareness of tragedy in our pockets as we go about our daily lives.

Each of these events is a part of an endless stream of bad news and tragedy. When they come out of nowhere too close to home, they shake up our sense of safety that we usually take for granted. But as we react to the news of each new shocking happening, the children in our lives are watching us, feeling our reactions and wondering what it all means about the world that they are just beginning to learn about. How we respond to their questions and fears is a test of the depth of our commitment to peacemaking.

Not everyone agrees about what information should be withheld from young children. Decades ago, I was involved in informing people about the realities of the dirty wars in Central America with their characteristic and systematic violation of human rights. On the way to a speaking engagement, I asked my speaking partner if he would consider not mentioning the details of a particularly horrendous and upsetting recent event if children were present in the audience. To my dismay, he argued that the good to be gained by telling people the shocking truth about our country’s foreign policy outweighed the possible impact on a child or two.

Sure enough, there was a young girl sitting right in the front row. My partner did not censure his remarks. All I could do was watch helplessly as the child visibly recoiled with the telling. It was like witnessing desecration of holy ground. Afterwards, he and a close friend argued that children need to know what is really going on in the world, as if that experience somehow was ultimately for her benefit.

That is a sentiment that I have heard many times from activists, but I’ve yet to hear a compelling reason for this kind of early education about the ugly side human affairs. In a world of terrible atrocities, infuriating betrayals and devastating disasters, teaching young children about “the way things really are” goes way beyond telling them the story of Red Ridinghood and the lecherous wolf.

In order for children to develop in a healthy way, they must be allowed to have a fundamental sense that they are safe and that this is a benevolent universe. Their relative feeling of trust in the world will be the foundation on which they will build all their future experience—no small thing. The world is complicated, absolutely, but how is it beneficial to allow young children to believe that it is threatening, chaotic and loveless?

A child’s ability to comprehend the nature of life develops over nearly two decades. Being mindful that young children do not have our sophisticated ways of coping with news of tragedy, disaster, violence and danger will help us make decisions about what information we expose them to at home or while they are in school.

But let’s be honest. For politically committed and well-informed parents, there are moments when we get full to the top with feelings about the world situation. For all of us, parents or not, whenever our feelings are aroused, it takes self-discipline to not blurt things out just to relieve the tension we feel or to register our outrage. If we do, the impact could hit like a careless stone hurled into the waters of the immature awareness of the children in our lives. Is that really what we want to do? After all, isn’t it for their sakes that we work for a better world?

If we are serious about creating a peaceful and sustainable world, we would not do violence to children’s precious and basic trust in life by exposing them to frightening information they can’t assimilate. It is a matter of respect then, to protect our tender children from the fear and anger we feel about the mess things are in. We would do well to face our own pain and disappointment so that we can heal the angst we have been carrying. Not only is doing so good for our families, but when we take back our power that has been trapped in fear, rage and grief, we become more effective as proactive change-makers.

Our world, more than ever, needs healthy people capable of envisioning and creating a human culture based on love and compassion. We need people who are emotionally responsive and thus able to act decisively while leading the way to higher ground with kindness.

There will be plenty of opportunity ahead for “real life” education for our children as realities become apparent to them in a more natural way without premature exposure. Our job as parents, teachers, friends and relatives is to protect them long enough to allow them to develop a healthy faith in a loving and safe world. It is their birthright to have the opportunity to develop a feeling of being empowered before the daunting challenges facing humanity make them feel overwhelmed. If we succeed in creating the conditions for their empowerment to occur, we will see them become the realization of our deepest hopes as they step into their roles as part of the shift toward a the better world we dream of.

Image credit: Steve Corey


6 thoughts on “Beyond Red Ridinghood: Protecting Children from Our Pain About the World”

  1. I have nothing to add, only my thanks for an article that is well-considered and fabulously spot-on. I am currently reading “On Kindness” by Adam Phillips and he makes a brilliant case for how to preserve the natural kindness a child is born with rather than doing whatever society does too frequently to take it away. Many thanks for this article!

  2. This is nice if you have the luxury of withholding the information. But the reality is that bad things happen everywhere. Maybe most children in the US are only exposed to traumatic events via the news, but not all. Some have no choice regarding “exposing them to frightening information they can’t assimilate.” It is really hard for me to take this article seriously… unless the author is assuming that the privilege she has to tell or not share this information with children is one shared with all parents. Not everyone has that luxury.

    1. Laura, thank you for articulating so gracefully the unease I was feeling as I read this. It would be such a lovely world if we all lived in such a place of privilege that we could shield children from horrible things and our reactions to horrible things, but the sad reality is that horrible things happen, and children witness them. A number of children in our circle were introduced to the horrible fact that children can get sick and die when my son died of cancer at the age of three. Parents had to deal with how to tell them that their friend was not returning from the hospital. They very carefully revealed their own sadness, for at once they wanted to be honest about grief and also avoid scaring them, and they had to find a way to explain that, no, they probably would not get leukemia and die like my son did, but that sometimes kids do. It was such a hard, hard lesson for these 3, 4, and 5-year-olds to learn (and we hated they had to learn it), but this was their reality. Sometimes children die. Sometimes disasters strike our towns. Sometimes scary things happen. How we respond to those scary things, how we move forward can teach children–even gently–how to interact with a very real world around them. Having seen older children who have witnessed such tragedy in one form another, I can say that having loving, nurturing, honest parents guide them through the events often results in these kids being so much more mindful, so much more compassionate, and well, a lot more realistic. I don’t think there is any harm in that.

  3. There IS the issue of energy–the energy contained in what I call “Global Grief” reaches out and touches everyone. The job of a parent is to explain and assure, based on the age of the child. To deny that those things are happening makes them wonder why they are feeling what they’re feeling at the same time people they trust are telling them all is well. It is a delicate subject for thoughtful people and I’m glad this article was written.

  4. This article really pisses me off. Such middle-class white-girl liberal-blinder problems. And, I am as liberal as they come. If you haven’t noticed, kids are learning to duck and cover in elementary schools, prepping for the next assault-rifle-carrying nut job. And, that’s everywhere. Go to the inner cities and see what kids see from the time they are wee. Pretend that homelessness doesn’t exist? That there’s no prostitution or drug addicts or crime? No drive-by shootings? Pretend that people don’t get sick and die for no other reason other than they got a stupid disease? My husband was diagnosed with brain cancer at 40. My kids were 2 and 4 at the time. Yes, we protected them as best we could, but when your dad is dying before your eyes, well at a certain point you’ve got to respect the kids enough to tell them what is happening. When my husband died, the kids were 5 and 7, and I didn’t shield them from the grief we all felt. It’s been 8 years now and my kids are the most compassionate, grateful, loving kids. They KNOW how lucky they are. And, I don’t sugarcoat the shit that is going on in this country and how it makes me feel. They need to have knowledge to deal with the outside world. They need to form their own opinions and have access to facts. They will be engaged members of society because they see that it needs fixing. They will be brave because they see their mom standing up for what she believes in. The other day, when one of us was bitching about school, (I think it was me, actually!) my daughter said, “We’re lucky we even get to GO to school!” and she talked about Malala being shot in the head for WANTING TO GO TO SCHOOL! Put in context with the larger struggles going on all over the world, my children understand their privilege and their duty to do good in the world, by being kind and compassionate and a good friend to all. But, my kids see other kids struggling at school, whose parents are mentally ill or drug addicted, whose parents abuse them or are in jail. This is the real world that they live in. I find it absurd to pretend otherwise. In response to the comment, “…but how is it beneficial to allow young children to believe that (the world) is threatening, chaotic and loveless?” I would say: The world IS threatening and chaotic, but far from loveless. It is our job to use love to better our world. We do our best to keep our children safe from harm, but we do them no favors by pretending we live in Utopia.

  5. I agree that censuring information from anyone is not respectful. If I do that to kids, I lack respect to them!
    However, my role as a parent is:
    -protect my kids from the media manipulation (only some horrible stories are told, but not others, stories that have ”sensational” aspect sell more adds etc).
    -help them see the big picture: the world is ”bad” when you look form a certain point of view, but it is also magnificent if we look at it differently.

    I am a third world country child, I lived in war, had an abusive parent, lived in extreme poverty. Then, when I moved to safe rich country, I went back to work in extremely poor parts of the world. I have seen ugly things. But there was no one single day that I didn’t see extremely beautiful things as well.
    I think it is my job to help my kids see the big picture, rather then get caught in only negative things. It helps us being grateful. But I won’t censure!

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