Should We Protect Children From the Realities of the World?

Part One of Two

As all parents know, it’s difficult to raise children (as young as 6 years old, until late teenage years) successfully. One of the more basic challenges is the difficulty in knowing what, exactly, should be the right approaches. I’d like to discuss an important parenting approach that many parents don’t usually choose.

Many parents decide, consciously or subconsciously, to protect their young children from knowing that the world isn’t always a healthy place, and that all the people living in it aren’t perfect. They believe that children should be raised in a “bubble”, protected from knowing of the existence of unhealthy habits, circumstances, and people. They believe that children need to feel “safe”, and that any discussion that’ll make them feel afraid, or get a sense that something bad may happen to them, or anyone that they love, is wrong.

I agree that it’s important for children to feel safe. I also agree that children shouldn’t be exposed to anything which can lead to bad habits or behaviors. Many parents try to limit their children from further exposure to negative things, even after they’ve already been exposed. I’d like to add that parents should consult with experts in the field once their children are aware of the existence of unhealthy habits, and opportunities, such as smoking, movies, etc., to help them decide on the best approach. Continuing to “block” them from what they’re already interested in, will often lead to very negative outcomes

Nevertheless, there’s one area in which I believe it’s important to expose children, in order to help them grow into healthy adults. In my home I wouldn’t have intense conversations similar to those that I’ll describe in part two of this article, unless those topics have already “entered” my children’s lives. Even then, I’ll, first, try to divert them from the subject. Once it was clear to me that they a strong need to discuss it (they see it as relevant to their lives), or are just fascinated with the topic, I’ll embrace the opportunity, and use the incident as an opportunity to expose them to the realities of life, in a “controlled” manner, in a planned discussion between parent and children. I’ll do my best to offer them a “happy ending”, but only when it’s realistic.

Despite the risk that conversations which focus on the existence of unhealthy habits, circumstances, and people, may make children feel unsafe, there’s a way to expose them to these topics, and still have them continue to feel safe. I believe that parents can’t and, therefore, shouldn’t, attempt to protect their children from the “pains” of the world. However, they can show them that there’s truth and beauty in the midst of the pain. If parents can make their children appreciate that, they’ve succeeded as parents.

I’ve met many adults who were protected when they were children, from the knowledge that there are people who have bad intentions, and have done terrible things. I’ve also met many adults who were protected from knowing that bad things can happen to them, even when they haven’t done anything wrong, such as illness and premature death.

These parents believed that they were doing their children a favor by sheltering them. Despite their intentions, the majority of their children “grew up” to be fragile adults, who were unable to “handle” any stress, or disappointment. They “fell apart” as soon as they were confronted with a stressful situation, or bad news.

All parents face the challenge of knowing how to properly expose their children to the realities of life, at age appropriate levels, and to also have them feel safe. (This article can’t properly describe what would be considered to be age appropriate: emotional strength, frame of mind, and the particular topic. Readers should feel free to contact me)

I know that, if certain conditions are met, children will continue to feel safe, despite being exposed to “scary” realities. When parents fulfill the conditions listed below, it’ll be important to have those discussions with their children:

1) Children live in a home in which they feel safe. Feeling safe in a home requires many factors: Sholom Bayis; a healthy relationship with their parent(s); at least an average amount of self-esteem; being in an emotionally stable “place”, when they’re told the “negative” information.

If the children feel safe in their home they can listen to the challenges people face, without “bringing those challenges home”. They’ll see them as possibilities, but distant ones, fears that can happen, but ones that they’ll be able to manage since they live in a safe place.

2)  Parents, Rabbeim, or anyone qualified to describe the difficult topics to them, should choose their words, tone of voice, and body language carefully, so that, collectively, they convey the message that the situation is manageable. The importance of this point should be universally recognized. When people listen to others, they’ll draw conclusions based on the calm, or hysterical tone, of the person conveying the message. People can “plant” a negative message, in a manner that gives people honest, and realistic, hope, and confidence, that, with the proper attention, “things” will fall into place.

The unspoken message should be that “what’s taking place is a real problem, but it isn’t anything that we can’t handle”. Handling a problem doesn’t have to mean that they can make an ill person healthy. Handling a problem can also mean that, even if what they fear will materialize, they’ll be able to understand, even if not completely, why it happened, and compensate for their loss (such as death, financial, etc.)

3) Parents, Rabbeim, or anyone else qualified, should convey the message that they have confidence in the children that they’re strong enough to emerge healthy from the difficult challenge that they’re facing. In addition, they also know that their family will always do whatever they can to help them.

Through our conversations, and their trust, my parents made me believe that I could handle anything that was “thrown” at me. They did this by allowing me to take risks. For example, I was sent to Eretz Yisroel for two months, and had a place to live for only the first two nights. I thought that this was normal, and found a place to stay by the end of the first day. I did the same thing with my children, although I prepared multiple safety nets for them. These safety nets ensured that if my children couldn’t succeed as I hoped they would, there would be alternative solutions for them. This protected them from suffering.

4) Always explain why whatever is happening, happens. When what’s taking place makes sense, it becomes easier to accept. All people, especially children, will become confused, helpless, and angry, when they don’t understand what’s happening. They’ll believe that an injustice has taken place. They’ll believe that the world isn’t fair and, therefore, they can’t “win”.  

5) Conversations must be balanced. Articulate clearly that there are some bad people in the world, but that there are also many good ones. Make it clear that things won’t always work out as they anticipated, but many times they will.

I consider the message of balance to be the most common, important, conversation, adults can have with children. Children should be reminded of balance in a wide range of topics: a) There are good people, but there are also bad ones; Or, depending on the circumstance, b) there are bad people, but there are also good ones; c) Sometimes teachers will accuse students of doing something wrong when they didn’t do it. However, those students probably did something wrong that went unnoticed; d) People may have been insulted without cause, but they’ve also received unexpected compliments.

Balance creates honesty. When people are honest with themselves they’ll have to admit that they’ve hurt others, even if they’ve never thought about it.  

Properly exposing children to difficult realities is important, and requires one to follow the conditions mentioned in the first part of this article. People don’t usually “fall apart” because of a concern that something in their life isn’t working out. They fall apart when they believed that they had a right to expect things to work out. People who’ve been sheltered usually believe that everything will work out.

Avoiding difficult conversations with children will make those children believe in unrealistic “facts”, when they become adults. I’ve seen adults become crushed when they were confronted with the most basic of realities. Their naïve beliefs that life will always seem fair, that the “good guy” always wins, and that nothing will ever go wrong, will cause them to become stressed beyond what they can tolerate, and they’ll lose their ability to function.

Below are six conversations that parents should find the opportunity to have with their children:  

1) Many people act selfishly, angrily, as well as with every other negative trait. Children should become accustomed to the reality that they’ll have to interact with people who aren’t nice. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to make the statement that someone is a “bad” person. (The laws of Loshon Horo will have to be followed. In general, any conversation which has a purpose, will protect the other person, and/or is already well known, one is permitted to say.)

The conversation shouldn’t be cynical, or resentful. Children will notice this by people’s tone, and/or body language. It should be practical. They should say something like this; “The world is full of different types of people, some are good, and others less so (“less so” is a “soft” word which conveys the message without sounding extreme to the child). When you interact with people, get a sense of what type of people they are. Accept that people are the way they are, and react accordingly. If you aren’t sure how to interact with certain people, ask for advice, but keep in mind, people are mixed creatures. You may have noticed a negative trait, such as they anger easily. However, they may also have positive traits, such as being generous. They may not be people with whom we want to hang around, but they may not be dramatically different from you, and me. We’re also good at doing some things, and bad at others.” The last sentence will remind children of the balance found in each person.

2) Children can be told that parents, Rabbeim, and all adults, can make mistakes, but this doesn’t mean that they’re not good people. This contrasts with the belief in some families that figureheads should be presented with an aura of perfection. When these children become adults, they’re disillusioned when their Rav makes mistakes, such as momentarily becoming angry, or any other lack of character. (It may be difficult for readers to imagine how much damaging criticism I receive, when I suggest to parents that they introduce the fact that all adults aren’t perfect. They don’t realize how much damage they do to their children, and students, when they don’t tell them). What often results are children who can’t find anyone to be their Rebbi/advisor, and who live their lives without guidance, a very dangerous way to live.

3) Sometimes adults don’t make innocent mistakes; they do terrible things to themselves, or to others. Children need to know that not everyone is nice. They should be told that there are bad people in the world. They should, actually they must, trust people, but they should do it cautiously. They should be prepared to be disappointed in people who they thought were special, but aren’t. However, this message must include the need for them to also look for those special people who exist in the world. Having this conversation assumes that they already believe that there are people that they can trust, such as their parents and siblings.

4) Children should become accustomed to the reality that life doesn’t always “work out” the way they wanted it. Their trip to Eretz Yisroel may have to be cancelled, and parents shouldn’t make believe it’s because the children did something wrong, and don’t deserve it. Conveying the message that life doesn’t always work out is not easy, because it’s difficult to introduce them to a life lesson when they’re disappointed about something. Therefore, the conversation should take place after alternatives have been presented to them.  

5) People become ill and, some of them, may not live. Since death is very scary to children, this conversation must be done with sensitivity. Nevertheless, if the children know that someone they care about is ill, this message must also be conveyed to them at age appropriate levels. I’ve spoken to teenagers who were traumatized by the death of their grandparents, who were more than ninety years old. They couldn’t fathom that someone they cared about would leave them. Believing that people they care about “can’t” die isn’t healthy.

6) Bad guys sometimes win, and life doesn’t always work out until years later and, then, maybe only in the next world. Many children will accept that problems can emerge, and that life can be difficult. However, they’ll still find it difficult to grasp that everything won’t “fall into place” at the last minute. A part of the reason may be that they’ve been protected by their parents from disappointment. I believe that, culturally, with the availability of numerous books on Hasgocho Protis, and with so many stories on divine intervention, people are convinced that everything will work out immediately. However, It doesn’t happen that way, and it’s not supposed to; Hashgocho Protis stories are the exceptions.

In addition to exposing children to the realities of life, there are other understandings which must be taught to children at a young age:

1) Parents should raise their children with the understanding that, throughout their lives, they’ll have to leave their comfort zones. Many parents take care of their children because they love them. They’re always “car-pooling” them, offering them taxis, takeout food, anything to make them happy, and to prove that they love them.

The challenge created by so much attention is that, when they become adults, they’ll be surprised when they have to do things that they don’t want to do. Many young adults feel pressured when they have to go to work when they’re not in the mood. They feel the same pressure when they can’t visit friends, instead of helping their wives on a Thursday night.

Parents should show their children love by buying them things, and making their lives convenient. Nevertheless, they must also get them to do what they’re not in the mood to do. While rewards are helpful, they create their own risks, by making children believe that whatever they do will bring instant gratification, something which doesn’t, often, happen in the real world. Naively expecting that it will, will cause them to become disappointed in life by believing that life isn’t fair to them.

2) Children need to learn how to make decisions. Some parents make all of their children’s decisions, some of them sincerely, and others because they believe that they know what’s best for their children. Whatever the parents’ motivations are, it would be better if they trained their children to make their own decisions. Otherwise, as I’ve seen with several adults, they’ll become frozen with making the most basic decisions, such as which shirt to put on, or what to eat for lunch.

Decision making is a difficult skill to teach, especially when there are multiple possibilities, and none of those possibilities are good choices. If the parents had previously exposed their children to the realities of life, training them to make difficult decisions would’ve been an easier task.

Parenting was never supposed to be easy. However, most parents never imagined that it would be as challenging as it is. Nevertheless, doing effective parenting, and starting it at a young age, can make the early, as well as the later, parenting years, rewarding, and easier than parents can imagine.