When my 4-year-old asked how I got him in my tummy, I didn’t flinch. I discussed conception and childbirth with him (including how I had a C-section) and answered his questions about whether it hurt and if there was much blood. When my 6-year-old asked me if Santa Claus was in the “real world,” I smoothly turned it around and asked him what he thought. He’s sure of Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but he suspects the Easter Bunny is just some guy in a rabbit suit. When it comes to most subjects, I believe in giving my kids as much information as they’re ready for while also understanding that sometimes they just want reassurance that the world is as it seems to them.
But there is one topic that I stumble over time and time again, one subject I just can’t bring myself to address. It’s not sex or Santa or issues of race, gender or disability; we talk openly about all of those and I welcome their questions. But when one of them pipes up to ask why they’re not supposed to talk to strangers if I’m not around or, more pointedly, when one of them stops mid-play to ask if there really are bad guys in the real world, I freeze. I don’t know what to say. Correction, I know what to say, I just don’t want to say it.
Speeding and theft were the worst things he could imagine at that moment, and my heart broke a little bit to realize that, before too long, he’ll be aware of crimes much, much worse.
Explaining to my very innocent little boys that not all people are good and that they should never go off with a stranger, no matter how nice they seem, is the worst feeling in the world. I present it in the most benign of terms, explaining that if they went off with someone I didn’t know, I’d be worried and sad that I had lost them. When my 6-year-old asked the question about whether there were real bad guys in the world, I tried the, “What do you think?” technique, to see what his perception of the world might be. And what could it be, for a child who has never seen the evening news? (Truth be told, I haven’t seen it myself in seven years.)
On that morning, we decided that yes, there are bad guys, and they are guilty of things such as driving too fast and stealing money from stores. Speeding and theft were the worst things he could imagine at that moment, and my heart broke a little bit to realize that, before too long, he’ll be aware of crimes much, much worse.
In the aftermath of these conversations, when they have returned to the world of LEGO and "Transformers," I question my squeamishness on the topic. Am I failing them by not telling them the harsh realities of the world? Do they really need to know about violent crimes and the people who commit them? Am I putting them at some unknown risk by not emphasizing how bad people can be? I really have no answers to my questions, but I recognize the privilege I have in avoiding the topic and being able to give them as sheltered a childhood as possible.
I’m not lying when I tell them I believe most people are good. I truly do believe that. I think most people want to do the right thing and that most people are helpers, as Mr. Rogers said. Most of the time, I do not fear for my safety or for the safety of my kids, and I don’t watch the news or let myself indulge in an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to other people. But of course, it's also because I use everything in my power to shelter my children. Is it possible to believe in the goodness of humanity while also limiting my children’s contact with adults to only those I know personally and trust implicitly? Clearly.
I want my children to be open and accepting of everyone they meet, to be kind and respectful and be helpers when they see someone suffering or encounter injustice. I want them to be—and believe—in the good in the world.
But I don’t know how to reconcile my beliefs and what I want for them with the headlines splashed across media and Facebook. I can turn the newspaper over and close my laptop and shield them from the images—but the day is coming when I can no longer shield them from the worst of humanity, and then the hardest conversations of my life, and theirs, will begin.