Beyond Red Ridinghood: Protecting Children From Our Pain About the World

By Tamara Brennan, Ph.D., executive director of The Sexto Sol Center for Community Action and writer at Mindful Moms Blog. Originally published on

If, as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when “bad things” keep showing up to disrupt the calm in that village?  For those of us in the United States, watching the news with so many reports of war, shootings in public places, and information about policies that fly in the face of decency and fair play, well, it’s enough to ruin what inner peace we may have left despite of the hectic pace of our lives. Then it starts to rain too much in Colorado, creating yet another of the natural disasters that seem to happen all too frequently these days. As caring people, we carry an awareness of tragedy in our pockets as we go about our daily lives.    1418479_35492784

Each of these events is a part of an endless stream of bad news and tragedy. When they come out of nowhere too close to home, they shake up our sense of safety that we usually take for granted. But as we react to the news of each new shocking happening, the children in our lives are watching us, feeling our reactions and wondering what it all means about the world that they are just beginning to learn about. How we respond to their questions and fears is a test of the depth of our commitment to peacemaking.

Not everyone agrees about what information should be withheld from young children. Decades ago I was involved in informing people about the realities of the dirty wars in Central America, with their characteristic and systematic violation of human rights. On the way to a speaking engagement, I asked my speaking partner if he would consider not mentioning the details of a particularly horrendous and upsetting recent event if children were present in the audience. To my dismay he argued that the good to be gained by telling people the shocking truth about our country’s foreign policy outweighed the possible impact on a child or two.

Sure enough, there was a young girl sitting right in the front row. My partner did not censure his remarks. All I could do was watch helplessly as the child visibly recoiled with the telling. It was like witnessing desecration of holy ground. Afterwards, he and a close friend argued that children “need to know” what is really going on in the world, as if that experience somehow was ultimately for her benefit.

That is a sentiment that I have heard many times from activists, but I’ve yet to hear a compelling reason for this kind of early education about the ugly side human affairs. In a world of terrible atrocities, infuriating betrayals and devastating disasters, teaching young children about “the way things really are” goes way beyond telling them the story of Red Ridinghood and the lecherous wolf.

In order for children to develop in a healthy way, they must be allowed to have a fundamental sense that they are safe and that this is a benevolent universe. Their relative feeling of trust in the world will be the foundation on which they will build all their future experience – no small thing. The world is complicated, absolutely, but how is it beneficial to allow young children to believe that it is threatening, chaotic and loveless?

A child’s ability to comprehend the nature of life develops over nearly two decades. Being mindful that young children do not have our sophisticated ways of coping with news of tragedy, disaster, violence and danger will help us make decisions about what information we expose them to at home or while they are in school.

But let’s be honest. For politically committed and well-informed parents, there are moments when we get full to the top with feelings about the world situation. For all of us, parents or not, whenever our feelings are aroused, it takes self discipline to not blurt things out just to relieve the tension we feel or to register our outrage. If we do, the impact could hit like a careless stone hurled into the waters of the immature awareness of the children in our lives. Is that really what we want to do? After all, isn’t it for their sakes that we work for a better world?

If we are serious about creating a peaceful and sustainable world, we would not do violence to children’s precious and basic trust in life by exposing them to frightening information they can’t assimilate. It is a matter of respect then, to protect our tender children from the fear and anger we feel about the mess things are in. We would do well to face our own pain and disappointment so that we can heal the angst we have been carrying. Not only is doing so good for our families, but when we take back our power that has been trapped in fear, rage and grief, we become more effective as proactive change-makers.

Our world, more than ever, needs healthy people capable of envisioning and creating a human culture based on love and compassion. We need people who are emotionally responsive and thus able to act decisively while leading the way to higher ground with kindness.

There will be plenty of opportunity ahead for “real life” education for our children as realities become apparent to them in a more natural way without premature exposure. Our job as parents, teachers, friends and relatives is to protect them long enough to allow them to develop a healthy faith in a loving and safe world. It is their birthright to have the opportunity to develop a feeling of being empowered before the daunting challenges facing humanity make them feel overwhelmed. If we succeed in creating the conditions for their empowerment to occur, we will see them become the realization of our deepest hopes as they step into their roles as part of the shift toward a the better world we dream of.

6 thoughts on “Beyond Red Ridinghood: Protecting Children From Our Pain About the World”

  1. Thank you for this post, it solidifies my reasoning for not watching the news when my little ones are awake. It pains my heart to see one bad story after another and I deal with it by first sending up a prayer for those who are hurting. Once I put that prayer out in the world I say thank you for my current situation and then focus my brain on finding a way to help (if it calls for it) or turn my attention to something else, kids can’t do that. There’s no reason that they need to be exposed to the details of the world’s current events. If you want them to be aware, do it in a way that is constructive, where they don’t walk away feeling that all is lost. When hurricane Sandy hit we made care packages and I simply told my son that there was a bad storm and some people needed help getting the things we were sending. His response was “OK”. He didn’t need the graphic details or to see the pictures/video on TV to understand that something bad happened and that he could help.

  2. Thank you. My husband was raised with a fire and brimstone southern religious family who taught him that people are born bad and are not to be trusted. Despite escaping that horrible environment, he can’t seem to shake the worldview he was first shown despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary he has personally experienced. He still keeps people at arms length and doesn’t warm up to new people for months. This article will hopefully help him see that our son deserves to grow up believing the world is safe and good.

  3. Thank you for this article! I concure about everything you have written and shared. We have practiced “news free” living since our children were born and continue to do so as much as possible. Whenever one of them happens to hear it on the radio (sometimes I listen to NPR while washing dishes ) such as my 8 yrs old daughter asked me recently, “are you listening to something positive, or is that the news?”

    Amazing how we program ourselves and our little ones through our home environment, let alone being influenced by our global world environment. After her comment we discussed the possibility if she had a news station, what would she broadcast? She didn’t miss a beat “I’d tell everyone “it was a bit cloudy, but then it cleared and I saw a rainbow! There’s a rainbow outside people go look!”

    I’ll be following you, I love your writing and your work, you are a rainbow, thank you for sharing it with us!!

  4. Tamara, beautiful and inspiring article. I hope it gets wide circulation. Here on the other side of the world in Israel, we are in the same situation. Many of the parents and grandparents I live and work with have themselves stopped listening and watching the news and reading the newspapers. We’re informed of the things we have to know through other means. As a result, we feel the world is a beautiful and peaceful place, and we are all the calmer and happier for raising our children and enjoying our families.

  5. I’m not sure I totally agree here. I stumbled across attachment parenting earlier this year and since have made every possible effort to implement this methodology, if you will, in our lives. They gray areas always seem to present themselves right where I need the most guidance. This being one.
    We have four kids under 7 and for the point of this article we do not watch the news. Our oldest has made friends with the boy across the street who, at present lives with his grandparents due to the fact that his father is fighting overseas. Naturally, my son came home with some very strong opinions on what Nathan’s dad is doing over there but more than anything wanted to know “why?” Why not his own father? Why is it even necessary?
    I’m not sure what age this article is specifically geared toward. I suppose with children it’s all an individual thing to be evaluated accordingly. However, it highlights my ongoing problem with fully understanding what “attachment parenting” even is. Too many parents look to those online that would offer advice with some sort of credentials and then they try to the best of their ability to follow that advice to the “t” only to drive themselves crazy and miss the point altogether.
    Surely there must be a middle ground? More importantly children need to see their parents overcome challenge. Generally we think of that being death or loss of some kind, something large. My everyday challenges are small, so small they hardly matter. I’ve tried for a very long time to put on the peaceful face. Try to be the mom of my own dreams only to realize that mom doesn’t exist because human’s just aren’t programmed that way. We get angry! Likewise, we cool down, find our peace and learn from the situation. I’m afraid if I only took the words of this article at face value I would feel that any and all severe political situations are not to be discussed in front of the little people, ever.
    I think you can find a middle road here. You can safely say that “mommy is very upset right now” and communicate that what’s going on is a very big deal but that it in no way effects us and our home. What if one day it does? How have you prepared them for the possibility of the big bad wolf appearing on your own doorstep? It happens everyday in other countries. Why are we to be excluded from that? Now just so I’m not the shade of gray that troubles me most, what I’m asking is this: is it really so wrong to keep little Tommy somewhat informed on the world around him? Can he not comprehend the beauty that you repetitively expose him while understanding that not everyone sees this? That sometimes even grown-ups are frightened, because that’s the complete truth, but that we learn how to cope and how to express our feeling in healthy ways. Bottling everything in for that ultimate name of “peace” is not healthy. Fear and anger have their respective places in humanity for the sake of survival and children from very early ages can distinguish which is right and which is wrong. Let’s not deprive them of critical thinking skills in reference to morality by over sheltering from what is really happening, sometimes in their own front yards. They need to see us face the Boogie-Man and live through the experience. It’s what gives true hope.

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