What kind of information should young children be protected from?
January 14, 2013 11:10 AM   Subscribe

The coyotes are eating the cats!

I'm wondering how parents should go about judging what information their children should be protected from.

Clearly there are many types of information that children should obviously be protected from, but there seem to be some grey areas as well, and it is those types of information that my question addresses.

This question came to mind because of a recent situation. Coyotes have been preying on cats in our neighborhood for some time, and recently when I spoke of this aloud at the park in front of my 4-1/2 year-old daughter and two other kids who are about 6 and 8, their father started whispering about it to signal to me that this isn't something he wanted them to know about. I'm usually pretty mindful about what I say to whom, so I felt bad that I had done something careless, but I also realized that my approach to handling this information with my daughter was very different from the approach of the father of the two older children.

As far as I can tell, the fact that coyotes are preying on cats doesn't disturb my daughter at all. We don't have cats and the other kids do, so that could be one reason their father is more protective about the information. But I think it's also possible I am intentionally more open about such information so that my daughter can grow and mature without being overly sheltered.

I know that there's room for personal preference, cultural differences, etc. in parents determining how open to be about information that might be in some way disturbing or troubling to a child, and certainly I always err on the side of caution (including not saying something, or presenting it in a gentler way, such as saying "preying on cats" instead of "eating cats"), and the capacity of the child himself/herself to handle such information is of course a big factor as well, but I wonder if there is anything I am missing in thinking about this topic. For example, is it possible that coyotes preying on cats is disturbing to my daughter without me realizing it? She has shown no signs of it troubling her, and in fact she's very aware of the concept of food chains and who is predator and who is prey.

I think the obvious answer to my question is each parent needs to make their own subjective determination, but I'm wondering if there is anything more than that guideline that parents would be advised to know about. What also would be helpful is some specific examples of such information that other parents have had to decide whether to share with their children and how they made their decision about whether to share it. I don't think I've faced this type of issue often because most information has been clearly black or white in terms of whether my daughter should know about it, but I can see the possibility of other information in the future falling into a grey area, thus my interest in input from other parents on this topic.

Thank you.
posted by Dansaman to Education (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, I don't think you did anything careless here; what you were talking about is a fact of the animal world without moral connotations. It was the dad's job in that case to field questions from his kids or to talk it over with them to see if they were disturbed. Chances are he was more disturbed than they were by the story.

To answer your question, although it sounds like you're already being pretty cautious, topics I would watch out for:

* People-on-people violence
* Gruesome or disturbing facts ("coyotes preying on cats" isn't gruesome by itself, without more details)
* Detailed talk about horror/scary movies or stories. I was in a convenience store this weekend; on a rack at kid eye-level was a DVD with a cover that scared the bejeezus out of me. I can only imagine seeing it at the age of 5 or so.
* Detailed talk about sex.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:20 AM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

We think that coyote ate one of my cats around when I was 4 1/2; my parents said that is probably what happened when it disappeared. I was pretty sad about it but I guess I turned out alright...
posted by Joe Chip at 11:24 AM on January 14, 2013

I judge what I say in front of kids by thinking to myself two things: "Will this kid repeat this in front of their class," and most importantly if I am speaking about something personal or perhaps critical of friends or family, "Will this kid repeat this in front of that friend or family member?"

Unfortunately, it's more the second one that causes more pause...
posted by lstanley at 11:26 AM on January 14, 2013

In this case, about the coyotes, I wonder if the other family might have a cat go missing recently (coyotes or not). The father's reaction sounds like my neighbor's reaction when he told me about his son's dog being hit by a car; he didn't want his son to hear our conversation.

Whatever guidelines you use, there's always the risk that even perfectly age-appropriate talk will be upsetting to a particular child (or adult) because of his or her own life and experiences. And there's no way to know that before you know it.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 11:26 AM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Basically violence or sex. Where you draw the line on those two continuums is the question, and I don't think you can accurately predict where another random parent/family will draw their lines.

Also, the make-believe-ness of your various holiday mascots (Santa, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc.).
posted by Rock Steady at 11:36 AM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you are in the right, and it was unreasonable of the other dad to expect you to protect his children from the idea that predatory carnivorous animals exist.

I think that, outside of commonly agreed upon things like whether Santa exists and avoiding bigotry, disturbing images, or graphically sexual topics, it is generally up to parents to deal with this stuff themselves.

I can't think of any real "gray area" topics that could, when discussed by adults, completely destroy a child's emotional wellbeing, or whatever the issue is here. I also think that it's better for parents to be explainers and contextualizers for their kids, rather than gatekeepers.

For the most part when I was the ages you mention, I didn't really eavesdrop on adults much, and when I did, I did so with a mix of not understanding and being vaguely bored. Most examples of disturbing topics from my own childhood I can come up with were inescapable and extremely distressing things, like the AIDS crisis, famines, terrorism, the Cold War, etc. which adults were talking about all the time. I don't think a thoughtlessly uttered phrase is going to make much difference.
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on January 14, 2013

Hey, it is what it is. The father in question gave you the signal, you picked up what he was putting down. You respected his decision to not freak his kids out, and that's cool.

You don't want to be that parent who ruins Santa for the rest of the kids because you're a "realist". But you can draw the line at the absurd, babies coming from a cabbage patch for example.

Most folks are pretty good at getting across distress if you wander into territory they haven't covered with their kids.

So talk away, but be on the lookout for the subtle signs that the other person would like you to change the subject.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:54 AM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

We don't have cats and the other kids do, so that could be one reason their father is more protective about the information. But I think it's also possible I am intentionally more open about such information so that my daughter can grow and mature without being overly sheltered.

Your family does not own a cat; there is no coyote threat to your family. His family does own a cat, and there is no need for his kids to be freaked out that their cat may be eaten by coyotes. That is not "overly sheltered" - that is the stuff of childhood nightmares.

While you don't want to protect your daughter from broad information, you (like other parents) probably want to protect her from trauma. You know best whether your kid will be traumatised by a dead squirrel or seeing grandma in the hospital or attending an open-casket funeral or burying fluffy's mangled body in the back yard.

I think an example of this is how many MeFites recently posted about the many parents who told them "Fido went to live on a farm" and only realised decades later that Fido had in fact died. Some parents will shelter their kids from that kind of personal upset; others will decide that learning to deal with grief and loss is part of the lessons of childhood.

Neither I nor the "Fido farm" people are less able to cope with death or more naive or anything else as adults; these are calls parents make based, I assume, largely on the personalities of their children. I don't think there can be one universal guideline.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:06 PM on January 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

Something to keep in mind is that parents will sometimes be overly cautious about specific topics that they know will upset their own children for personal reasons. I grew up on a farm, and things like coyotes eating cats is just a fact of life and wouldn't be censored from kids. But, I was an extreme cat lover from an early age, and I could see my parents shushing conversation about something like that because they would know I would get upset and lose sleep about losing one of my cats (and as parents, you don't want the struggle of soothing a possible overreaction from fear when it can easily be prevented in the first place).
posted by Eicats at 12:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

It probably depends on the kids as well though. I doubt that there's an objective answer because some very sensitive kids might be disturbed at 10 whereas some kids will never find it disturbing. Obviously it was something that the father of the older kids thought they couldn't cope with but that's a completely separate issue from what your child is able to cope with.
posted by Laura_J at 12:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

It actually may be different for every kid. Your daughter is okay hearing about this, but the father you met probably knows that his own kids would have freaked right the hey out.

There are indeed a few things that generally everyone agrees kids shouldn't know about (i.e., hardcore porn), and there are also a handful of busybodies who think the whole world should be sanitized for their little Dexter's protection, but other than that everyone generally knows that everyone rolls differently on this, and they handle any disconnects in what is or isn't taboo the way that guy did. You caught his signal, so you're cool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:09 PM on January 14, 2013

Isn't that the "beauty" of parenting? Only some set rules but tonnes of judgement calls that vary widely per child and family.
posted by Neekee at 1:44 PM on January 14, 2013

I think I wouldn't offer this up in earshot of anyone else, esp. if I don't have an animal that could be at risk. It's tactful. Your own kid can process the knowledge just fine back in the car. Same with other sensitive stuff--not every public outing has to be a teaching moment.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:19 PM on January 14, 2013

It isn't just parental preference either, it is dependent on the kids too. I agree that you didn't do anything wrong but anecdotally you could have told me coyotes eat cats when I was 6 and I would have accepted that as a fact of nature. If you had told my 6 year old brother the same thing he would have had a meltdown of epic proportions because that boy LOVED cats in a highly emotional way.
posted by magnetsphere at 3:57 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

> I'm wondering how parents should go about judging what information their children should be protected from

There's no way to make a rule for this. Even in my family, one kid can handle certain things that the other kid would find very upsetting, and vice versa -- and it isn't just based on age.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:49 PM on January 14, 2013

Some kids are more sensitive than others, so I would let that guide me. You know your kids, but you don't know other people's kids, so I would stay on the side of caution with other kids, and speak what you are comfortable with with your kids.

As a data point, I was very sensitive to animals at that age and would talk to them and believe I had a deep connection with them. The coyote information would have set my imagination running, visualizing the deaths, imagining my cat being taken by them, etc. (kids have intense and creative inner worlds) That being said, if it was explained to me in some fashion that spoke to my fears and allowed me to understand the risks in life without feeling powerless about it, it might have been o.k. (but I kinda doubt it).
posted by Vaike at 4:51 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was so sensitive as a small child that I cried when Winnie the Pooh was about to go over the waterfall in a honey jar. One of my brothers adored frogs, and was traumatized by seeing a frog killed by the lawn mower; my second brother made up gory stories for fun as soon as he began to talk and was unphased by anything. So n'thing the parental discretion based on children's personalities.
posted by celtalitha at 8:13 PM on January 14, 2013

I was just having this conversation elsewhere re: a children's book that talks about the September 11 attacks. At what point do you tell your kid that passenger planes crash sometimes (accidentally and/or on purpose)? At what point do you tell your kids that cars crash sometimes? What happens the next time you go on a plane or in a car?

At what point do you tell your kids about gun violence - friends told me that their young daughter was told at school, after the shootings at Sandy Hook, that "if she hears thunder inside to go play hide-and-seek", which struck me as dreadful on a whole bunch of levels.

The point, as everyone says above, is that there are no rules about these things, and part of parenting is figuring this out for your own family. To the extent that you can respect that other people are doing the same for their own families, as you did, the easier it is all around.
posted by judith at 9:16 PM on January 14, 2013

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