When Are Children Ready to Learn About Evil?

When are children ready to learn about evil? Are the concepts of good and evil something that should be actively taught or do children passively absorb these cultural norms from their environment? Pondering these questions I realized that I cannot remember the first time I heard about the Holocaust and chances are you don’t either. Somehow, the notion of this mammoth event just became a part of us, seemingly by osmosis.

Holocaust, concentration camps, genocide
When did you learn about the Holocaust?


I often think about this when I consider current events and how they are affecting my child. Should I be offering some sort of guidance to my children as they take in the bloodthirsty evilness of ISIS beheadings? Is there an age at which it is better to shield children from the full import of evil and what it means?

peekaboo, infants, game, development
Is Mommy coming back?

Or perhaps it really doesn’t matter. A child’s understanding is, after all, somewhat limited by age. Think of a child playing peek-a-boo. It won’t work with children under a certain age. When Mommy is no longer in sight, the very young just assume that Mommy’s gone for good. Her disappearance may or may not make the child cry depending upon how needy that particular child is at that particular moment.

Later on, however, the child realizes that peek-a-boo is a game and that Mommy is coming back. Instead of crying or showing disinterest, the child shows excitement when Mommy disappears, because of the sure knowledge that Mommy will reappear. Baby doesn’t know when or from what direction Mommy will appear and that plus the anticipation makes it funny when Mommy’s face suddenly pops into view.

By the same token, a child must reach a certain age to understand that death is finite. A young child can’t begin to fathom the calamity of a plane flying into very tall buildings with people in them. And maybe there’s a good reason for this lack of understanding: their inability to take in these concepts protects children from what they are too young to bear.

Adults, unfortunately, sometimes fail to understand the blasé attitude a child displays upon hearing terrible news. The adult doesn’t understand that the child doesn’t understand! The wise parent doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you??? I just told you that Uncle Fred got run over by a truck and you say, ‘Oh, okay?!?’ Where is your empathy?”

Assuming parents don’t feel the necessity of scaring children into an understanding they are too young to have, I’d like to think that children come to understanding when they are ready to do so. That is, children come to understanding when they are capable of handling the finite nature of death, the brutality of genocide, or the random beheading of a journalist by ISIS. But then, what is the nature of that understanding? Do we ever really understand these things? Even as adults?

I really have no definitive answer to any of these questions, but I do know that an intellectually curious child will eventually ask parents hard questions about evil. Will you know what to say when the time comes? I suggest you use the same approach you’d use for teaching children about the birds and the bees. If your child asks a question, answer with straight simplicity, but do not volunteer unsolicited information. If children don’t ask, it’s because they aren’t ready to hear the answers (assuming they know they have an open line of communication with you, their parents).

mother, child, parent child communication
Keep the lines of communication open.

In spite of your best efforts a sensitive child may become fearful upon hearing what you have to say about terror or tragedy. Part of the issue here is the random nature of evil and brutality. Let’s say your child asks, “Who was James Foley? What is a beheading?”

In telling your child the facts, you realize that it is natural for her to wonder: can this happen to me? She would like a definitive answer, yes or no (wouldn’t we all?). Here is where patient discussion is a good thing. Your child may have a raft of questions, all designed to help her flesh out her own response to the event, for instance: How many American journalists are there in the world?

She is trying to work out the probability of such an event repeating itself, of such a thing happening to someone she knows, of such a thing happening to her. That’s the fear of the random. That is why terror is called “terror.”

fear, child
Fear of the random, fear of the unknown.

Be open to discussion. Let her know that James Foley and Steven Sotloff are two out of hundreds if not thousands of American journalists. Be ready for hard questions that really cannot be answered with any self-assurance: Should all journalists now fear for their lives? Should your child fear journalism as a possible future profession?

The impossibility of truly understanding evil and the randomness regarding how, by whom, and when it will occur is a difficulty we all face, children and adults alike. Evil and brutality are unfortunately both random and unpredictable and this is the root of a sensitive child’s fear. FDR said that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

As parents we do have a few weapons against that fear: namely honesty, open lines of communication between parent and child, and the wisdom to know when our children are ready to take in the information we wish we never had to teach them.







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