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December 08, 2008

How much is too much information?

2_3 I ran across two posts this morning that got me thinking about how much I share with my 4-year-old daughter. Downstate blogger Soy is the New Black, in complaining about her father's new wife's overbearing nature, revealed that she took her 4 year old to her grandmother's funeral without actually telling her that Nonna was dead. 

And celebrated NY Times columnist Judith Warner worried about her 8-year-old daughter's fascination with the Black Friday trampling death of a Walmart worker and bad things in general. Both pieces caused me to pause for a moment and wonder if I am too open with my children.

I think it is up to each individual family to determine how much real world badness we want to expose our children to, but my instincts have guided me toward honesty. NPR News still plays at breakfast and in the car, even though I know my daughter's listening. I'll only switch it off if I know something truly frightening is about to come on. I don't refrain from discussing current events with my husband at the dinner table and answering my daughter's questions as they come up.

Which brings me to Monday night. As I was loading toothpaste onto her toothbrush, Z said "Tell me about the dead babies."

"What dead babies," I asked, truly baffled.

"The dead babies in China," she replied, "the ones with who had the bad milk."

I explained to her that some poison had gotten into baby formula in China and a lot of Chinese babies got sick. Some of them even died. But I told her that the people that let the bad stuff get in the babies' milk were caught and punished and everybody was working to make sure something like that never happened again. An overly optimistic answer to be sure, but one colored by my generally optimistic world view.

You see, in spite of all of the horrible stuff that's happening in the world (Darfur, Zimbabwe, the Congo and Mumbai just to name a few), and has happened throughout human history, I believe that humanity is fundamentally good.

My childhood was filled with exposure to the worst moments in human history and some really horrifying current events. I learned about the Holocaust at Hebrew school in the second grade, but I'd been exposed to conversations on the subject between my mom and my German nanny, whose father had been in the S.S. There were classroom lessons on slavery and war, and there was the real-life experience of having an armed escort follow my school bus after the Berlin disco bombing in 1986. Living in Pakistan from 1988-1991, my eyes were opened to a whole lot of scary, sad and bad stuff; I saw anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and abusive attitudes towards women, animals and the poor up close and in person.

There was very little that my parents sheltered me from. Starting around grade four, I watched Holocaust documentaries and read The Diary of Anne Frank. I knew about terrorism, child abuse, pollution, AIDS and the growing crack epidemic. My upbringing wasn't perfect, but I think one thing my parents did well was encourage me to read, learn and discuss history and current events, a habit I continue to this day.

I'm not sure I could create completely sheltered environment for my children if I wanted to. It's not who I am. And with a child as inquisitive as Z, I would spend all day dodging questions and spinning fanciful yarns. So I'm sticking with the truth and limiting details until she gets older. She saw my beloved Grandma get lowered into the ground, but she doesn't know how she suffered in the end stages of lung cancer. She knows there are families who don't have a home or enough to eat, and she's learning what we can do to help them. Heck, the kid knows exactly where babies come from. I just haven't filled her in on the exact mechanics of how the "seed" got in there.

How much did your parents tell you and how much do you share with your children? Do you think your willingness (or reluctance) to show your kids the dark side is related to your view of the world?

Original Chicago Moms Blog post. Alma blogs about life as a working mother of two girls at Marketing Mommy.

flickr photo by CARF, used under Creative Commons license

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