Questions of Age: When Can You Talk to Children About Serious Issues?

When is it too soon to talk to children about serious issues?

Last week, my boss posed an interesting thought: when is his son the appropriate age to go to the Holocaust Museum here in DC? As a Potter fan, this question perplexed me; I was incredibly young when I read about the themes of war, death, poverty, prejudice, inequality, genocide, and crime in the Harry Potter series. How would I answer this with my own children? Is there a line between the fictional atrocities and the real that children should not cross too early? Historical events like the Holocaust are real – the museum is a beautiful, profoundly emotional experience into the human lives of that destruction. When are children old enough to understand? When are they old enough to not be afraid? When would he be old enough to learn about this horrifying time and learn from it?

rainbow fishThis topic relates around the ideas of education and censorship that have burrowed themselves within our society. Through various TV shows and online media, there are some issues such as body image and violence that are seen early on; on the other hand, discussions centered around sexuality or gender are brought up much later. Perhaps this is because parents are still grappling with some issues while others are brought up by peers. However, I was faced with the issue of censorship when I was recently looking to buy my niece a copy of the Rainbow Fish, one of my favorite picture books as a child. While I was reading the reviews, I realized that some saw the story as a socialist morality tale (the rainbow fish giving away all his shiny scales) when I had understood it to be a sharing story! Should I teach my neice about socialism so early or should I stick to easier topics? What had my parents done?


number the starsA lot of these issues come back to the question of age. But, is age defined by a number? To me, age depends on a child’s experiences – what they have read, seen, and done to make sense of the world – which will allow them to be “ready”.  As far as I’m concerned, children don’t often act their age; in Quinn’s post, a young girl had the wisdom of someone who lived on the earth much longer and The Girl Who Lived had the courage of one who has fought many battles. With this in mind in thinking about the Holocaust museum, I would say that it depends on what children have learned in school, if they had read about WWII, and if they had any frame of reference. I remember reading Number the Stars, living through all the secret riddles and nightly escapes as if they were an adventure; the holocaust hadn’t exactly seemed horrific, but it was certainly scary and uncertain. I wasn’t shaken until later, after seeing films and stepping foot into a concentration camp. My question is: how can we gauge this “age”?


For me, it was reading. Through books, I had a frame of reference to both understand the world and to step away from it. Time traveling to different places, imagining myself as a witch/knight/adventurer, and delving into historical times all helped me to face the confounding nature of the world. Of course, reading would not be possible without parents, coaches, friends, and mentors who let me in on their own stories and life lessons. However, I am beginning to think that it is the frame, the way we outline hard topics, that allow for children to be ready.Maybe, if we bring things up early, in a healthy and constructive way, it would change so many of the most serious issues.

What do you think?

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  1. March 25, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    I agree. I personally learned through books. I tend to find that in school, they don’t talk about these things unless they are currently happening or someone has brought attention to it (Amanda Todd). I learned through the media. Though books, it sort of eases in and as you grow up, you understand more of it so when your parents start talking about serious issues, you’re sort of already aware and you’ll understand it a bit better. Otherwise, the bullys are simply meanies that just say mean things and beat you up, and you may not get that they can take a life.

  2. March 25, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    I was taught about serious issues when I was a child. I don’t recall the exact age though. My mom’s father went through the Holocaust so I knew when I was young what all of that was about. I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC when I was I want to say 6 or 8 or so. Reading also helps I guess. I was always a reader. I’m 20 and I still read every night before I go to bed. When I was a lot younger I was able to understand the issues of war, death, poverty, prejudice, inequality, genocide, crime, etc in any form of literature. I agree with you that it depends on what the child has read and learned. If they start to ask questions about serious issues (not ‘how babies are born’) then we should talk to them about it. We can’t go into the complexities at first naturally but we start with the basics and slowly work up from there.

  3. Quinn Kess

    March 26, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Personally, I’ve always thought that kids are insulated too much from the realities of the world. How many times, as we’ve grown up have we had that moment of “but but but, the world is supposed to be nice and shiny, and now something isn’t right!“? So, really, I think children reading about what’s going on in the world is important.

    Also, personally, I’ve always drawn a line between fiction and reality, oddly, in the other way. If it was reality, then you can’t really ‘hide’ it. Why hide something that’s happened? Everyone needs to understand history, whether you understand it at a basic level (In the 1930s, people were mean and one group killed a lot of people because of who they were) or on a deeper level (Hitler committed genocide because of race and other factors.)

    Then again, when I was in kindergarten, I almost got a detention for talking about mummification in class and grossing out everyone else. I… have never been shy about history.

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