There's a cult film called "The Toxic Avenger" that came out in the mid-1980's. It was especially popular among teenagers for its shock value. The movie included excessive violence, bestiality, disfigurement, and criminal conduct. I was watching this movie on VHS one day after school with a friend, and we were duly transfixed, when my mom entered the room and promptly shut it off. It was the one and only time in my life that I recall my mother ever censoring anything I was watching or reading. The "hit-and-run-of-a kid-on-a-bike" scene was too much even for her. (Actually--there was one other time around the same age when I found an erotic book containing very sexually explicit words and scenes, and my mom threw it down the 9th floor incinerator chute of our apartment building with fanfare). I really didn't fight her on these moments of censorship, as they were so rare and reasonable, and I knew somehow that she was right.
Recently a friend said this: "when our tender, young children ask difficult questions, terror strikes at the heart of a parent." She was referring to topics like domestic violence, famine, war, racism, bigotry, pollution, and other societal ills. Specifically, how, when, and even whether to explain these things to our kids. Last weekend, Paige asked me to explain 9/11. I started and faltered: "There was a war ... there were these buildings ... there were these planes ... there were these guys ... they were mad ... there was this policy ..." I didn't even know where to start, or how to end, since every explanation drew a new question I couldn't answer.
I think what makes these conversations difficult is two things: first, there is finding the words to explain abstract and upsetting concepts to children in terms that they will understand and absorb without becoming unduly terrified and confused. It's a tightrope. But there is also this: when our children are born, you hold their soft warm bodies and look into their newborn eyes and they feel like blank slates. They are innocent, and their innocence is compelling. We want our kids to be "innocent" for as long as possible. We are resistant to these conversations as parents, I think, because with each explanation a little bit of our children's innocence falls away and is replaced by disillusionment and ultimately cynicism. So the hesitation to engage in difficult discussions with children is, to some extent, borne of our own desire to protect them from knowing the evils of the world and maintaining their innocence for as long as we can.
When difficult topics arise, I try to put aside my own investment in my children's innocence. I try to answer my kids' questions honestly when they ask them: Where do babies come from? Why do people have wars? Why do people sometimes go to jail? What is evolution? And so on and so forth. I don't go out of my way to solicit difficult conversations, but I follow my kids' lead when they are ready to have them. I try to answer these questions in simple terms and contexts, and I view it as a challenge to do so deftly.
If all else fails--and it often does--I go on Amazon and look for a Berenstain Bears book about good-touch/bad-touch or strangers. Works every time.