How much importance should we place on the innocence of children?

Hi SD,

I don’t have children, but I imagine in today’s world, with recent events, kids today are much more world-wise than they used to be. In other words, kids have to deal with death, sexuality and other related topics, violence, hatred, bigotry, etc. at a much younger age than we did. Not saying the world was rosy when we were kids, but things have changed significantly.

My question is: is it more valuable for a child to be “innocent” and protected as long as possible from our screwed up world? Or are they served better by being slowly introduced to it with parental help in interpreting what they experience (on the news, on TV, etc.?) I would normally go with the latter option, and create mature children who get that the world is fucked up, but I can’t help but wish that they could have the idyllic childhood that I enjoyed from my over-protective parents. I mean, once you grow up, that’s it. No more childhood for you!

Thoughts are welcome!



I always believe in telling it like it is. Which is why I never did the Santa Claus thing with my son. Kids are a lot more resilient that grown ups tend to give them credit for.

I don’t agree with the basic premise. Kids have almost always had to deal with ‘non innocent’ topics from an early age, the experience of well-off white people in the 1950s is a historical abberation, not the norm, and was far from universal even in that demographic group. People are more likely to pretend now that kids don’t have to deal with such things, and kids in the US tend to have a lot less to deal with overall. Your parents may have been able to shield you from the realities of the world at a young age, but it’s far from a universal experience.

For example, here’s a description of the lovely experience of a 6-year-old black girl going to school in 1960 (quoted from ):

I think it’s important for children to know there are people who do wicked things in the world, rather than to pretend it never happens (the shock of finding out that it does would be all the worse the later in life it comes). But one doesn’t need to dwell on it, or drown them in sensational and gory details; just to make sure they get a balanced view and some reassurance about their own safety.

FWIW, the BBC has a special news programme for children. I know they’re very conscious of the need to strike that difficult balance, but they don’t shy from discussing things like terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, knife crime, child poverty, and so on - they just look for the right tone to strike.

I’m not a believer in “childhood innocence” at all. Not when you consider how vicious and cruel they can be to each other.

Like others, I question your premise. Since people died earlier in the past and it wasn’t unusual for an acute illness to suddenly take down a previously healthy sibling, friend, or close relative, kids from older generations more often exposed to the unpleasantries of mortality. People were also less likely to be tolerate difference, so encountering bigotry was not unusual. It seems to me kids are a lot more sheltered today than they were in the past.

I don’t think keeping kids innocent for the sake of it makes much sense. The sooner kids are trained how to handle the cold, hard world without falling apart, the better.

Last week, my FIL told me he and my MIL rarely would tell their children in advance about plans to take them to fun places, like zoos or amusement parks, because they didn’t want to set their kids up for disappointment if plans fell through. With preschoolers, I could see doing this. But once a kid is old enough to understand the world doesn’t revolve around them, I think its harmful to constantly shield them from the consequences of everyday life. Being disappointed is not a death sentence, right? How does a kid learn to cope with undesired change if their parents don’t allow them to experience it naturally?

It is interesting that the USA defines the legal drinking age and the age of consent at the highest age in the world. No country has a drinking age higher then 21 nor an age of consent higher than 18, and very few match that. One can only conclude from that that the USA presumes its own citizens to be the most retarded in development of personal responsibility, or that America is actually retarding its own maturing citizens.

I’m not even sure how to define “innocence”. A few years ago it was a pretty big local story that a child visiting Madison, who’d never been in such a “large” city, walked out into the street and was hit and killed by a car. Wherever she came from, passing vehicles were apparently few and far between.

Is that “innocence” or simply “ignorance”?

Another parent having difficulty with your premise/terms.

I was HUGE on teaching my kids responsibility. To do so, you have to teach your kid that actions have consequences, and that people (including themselves) have the ability to control their actions. Yeah, little kids can be incredibly nasty. So I don’t know what benefit there would be of not telling your kid that other kids are being little shits, or that certain behavior affects others in various ways. I can remember so many times that my kid would say, “I didn’t mean to”, and we would respond, “Yeah, but you DID.”

We taught them a codeword (StarTrek) that any adult would know if they were asking them to get into a car. We had them walk to and from school as soon as they were beyond kindergarten. And we honestly and openly addressed anything they asked, whether it be where babies come from, or what is the worst swear. So in that respect, they were not entirely innocent.

Of course, I did not feel my kids needed to be exposed to all of the ugliness that exists in the world to learn those lessons. So I remember when the Ok City bombing occurred. A friend of ours said their kid (1st or 2d grade - same as our oldest) was traumatized by it, whereas I doubted my kid was even aware of it. And I don’t know why she ought to have been. We didn’t watch the news around the kids, and didn’t make a point of bringing up every ugly thing we heard of. Plenty of time for them to learn of that later.

And there is a limited period during which kids believe in make-believe in a manner that made things like Santa, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, and leprechauns a lot of fun.

I thought then and still think that too many kids are infantilized - certainly through high school and often into college. Helicopter parents, excessive structured activities, etc. But I think that is something different than what you suggest.

None. Zero. Children need to know what the world they live in is like. You can’t put on an 18-year Teletubbies charade for them and then expect them to function in the real world.

Innocence is a seriously loaded term especially when tagged onto children.

Its literal denotation is “has not done anything wrong”, but the connotation merges that with “is ignorant and naive”. And it is the keeping of children ignorant and naive that people are talking about.

The notion that knowing something or being exposed to something makes a person an evildoer, a person who is guilty of some wickedness or wrong, is an incredibly shitty and destructive notion and people who apply that notion unironically to children are doing an incredibly shitty and destructive thing.

Having said that, is there anything of value in the notion that children should be protected from exposure to certain ideas or understandings, not for concern for the children’s blamelessness but for their safety?

I think at its core this notion is a belief that whatever ideas and concepts children might have come up with on their own, they’ll be suppressed and supplanted by these unpleasantly disturbing ideas that we’re trying to protect them from?

Or (he asks more cynically) is it a belief that the ones to properly fill the children’s heads with the appropriate ideas are the parents or the school or the church or whatever-the-heck isn’t the source of ideas & concepts that we’re labelling “destructive to the innocence of children”?

Or (thoughtfully) is it ever all that easy to distinguish between when it’s the first and when it’s the second?

I agree with many of the above that question the premise. Children are monsters. In many ways the lack of empathy and mature reasoning makes them crueler than adults.

I see no particular reason they deserve to be shielded from the unpleasantness of the world. If anything, I wish my parents had been a bit more honest with me because I definitely grew up with some very naïve ideas.

Small children do not, as a rule, need to be terrorized by tales of murder, rape, suicide, and war.

In my experience, the children who are most vicious and cruel to each other are those whose world has rarely been other than cold and hard. They learn to ‘handle’ it by becoming cold and hard themselves, and by the time they become adults, this is largely irreparable.

Some things can only be, or are best, learned as children, in a somewhat-protected sphere of childhood.

Innocence is overrated. The truth is a good filter for people who can and cannot handle it

In case it wasn’t obvious, I was not saying that there was not something of value to the notion that children need protection from some concepts.

I was suggesting, though, that we should suspend our attitudes there long enough to examine them. That doesn’t preclude reaching the same conclusion we’d reached before, but it’s kind of useful to post the question WHY is it good for small children to be insulated from awareness of murder, rape, suicide and war?

What bad things happen to them as a consequence of exposure to them? Emotional trauma, to know that such awful things happen? Which emotional traumas: fear that it will happen to them? Disillusionment about the overall goodness of life and of people?

What, in contrast, is the outcome to them not being so exposed (until when… later in childhood? when they’re in middle school? high school?) — is there a worrisome tradeoff for them to find this stuff out later? Or will their capacity to trust people, their idealistic attitude, etc, offset the dangers of not being forewarned?

Are they at any greater risk of cynicism and disillusionment if they find out that what they were encouraged to believe when younger is not, in fact, what the adults believe or know about the world and that they were being protected from the truth? Will they feel protected once they know?

Are children more easily traumatized at a deeper level such that they don’t recover from it later?

Are children more robust and relient about coping with whatever actual situations turn out to be real than folks who, at a later time in their life, have to face difficult challenges that they’d never coped with before that?

I would say that my kids were somewhat shielded. We lived in a low crime area and they went to schools where violence was seldom an issue. I wanted my kids to believe that their parents were infinitely honest and would protect them under any circumstances. As they grew older and expanded further out into the world they learned more but I felt they had a good moral barometer to start off with. I never wanted them to think that bad behavior was ever ok.

As for TV and computer they watched what they wanted.

Interesting questions, to be sure. I think that there is, in fact, something gained by keeping children “innocent,” of certain things…or rather, by shielding them from some details while gently and with supervision revealing others. That is, a better world.

As children have become more and more shielded as children, the world has become a better, more just and more equitable place. I think there’s a direct link there. We raise our children under the illusion that the world is a good, just and equitable place. It isn’t. But raising them to *think *so, at least for a little while, gives them the capacity later to imagine that it could be. And this allows them to work hard to turn the world into what they thought it was.

The very best part of my kids’ “innocence”? That part that just doesn’t understand why people are mean. The part that accepts gay marriage as valid, and transgender individuals as people deserving of rights, and thinks we can save every homeless pet and feed every starving orphan. Those parts of innocence are awesome, because when you have enough kids raised who believe that, then when they find out it isn’t so, they work on making it so.

I do think it’s entirely possible to go overboard here, and I think there are some particular topics, like sex and abuse, that it’s stupid and dangerous to shield a child from, because ignorance of these matters puts them at greater risk of becoming victims. But will I continue to tell small children that we treat everyone nicely no matter what the color of their skin because it’s what is inside that counts? Hell, yes. Let them find out about racism later, when they have the cognitive ability to realize that those who don’t share their values are wrong and misguided.

I’m better at posing the questions than I am at answering them :slight_smile:

Also, I am a person who hasn’t reproduced.

But my inclination here would be to try to enlighten the kids through verbal conversation—not just “let me tell you about the bad stuff” but also some discussion about what caring humans have thought about it and are trying to do about it and so forth—in lieu of directly exposing them to the bad stuff. And to do so at the rate that they are interested in or curious about it.

Absolutely. Mr. Rogers gave us many gifts, but perhaps my favorite is his statement on what to tell children when they witness tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That gives kids something to do, and it gives them hope, and it gives them role models, without denying to them that bad things happen.

I’m 41, and I still need to hear that some days.

In today’s world, you just can’t shield them from horrific news, unless you cloister, homeschool, and avoid all media. But there are ways to protect the good kind of innocence in the face of all that.