Q.When are children old enough to read and hear about assassinations and other tragedies?

My 7-year-old son reads several years above his age, which presents a problem. While books for younger children seldom tell their readers how a famous person died, those for older kids always do and I don't think he's ready for that information.

My son is also asking some questions that I don't know how to answer.

He loves the Beatles, for instance, and knows that two of them are dead.

When he pointed out a picture of George with a cigarette, I could honestly say, "Yes, and that's why he died." But when he asked how John died, I told him that I wasn't sure. "I think it was an accident," I said.

My son knows that his relatives are unlikely to get lung cancer, like George did, because none of them smokes, and he knows that he won't get it if he doesn't smoke, but he can't protect himself -- or us -- against a stranger who is mentally ill.

I don't want my son to hear about catastrophes that are random or completely unfair because I don't think a 7-year-old should know that some things are beyond his control.

Am I right?

A.Do you want to be the one who tells your son about Martin Luther King's assassination, or do you want the teacher -- or a neighbor or a classmate -- to surprise him with the news?

One way or another, he will be told how King and John and Robert Kennedy died as soon as he is told about their lives. Glossing over the hard truths now will only make reality more shocking later.

Also, if you lie or conceal common knowledge about someone in history, you may set up a pattern of deceit that could seep into your own family relations and encourage your son to dissemble, first about minor things and then about important ones.

Of course your 7-year-old isn't ready to hear the graphic details of a death -- or a divorce or a kidnapping or a bankruptcy in the family -- but he does need you to answer his questions honestly, whether they're about life or death or sex or arithmetic. Just let him lead the way and don't give him more details than he is ready to absorb.

It's a matter of protecting your child without over-protecting him.

A 7-year-old is too young to watch violent movies, or even the evening news if it's all about body bags or bombings or assassinations, because words and pictures, presented together, decode stories for a child completely. Your son can deal with tragedy in a book, however, because he will only take in as much information as he can handle.

And he's definitely ready to have straightforward conversations with you on any subject, because you'll know when he needs more information or when he's heard enough.

Don't shy away from his questions just because they're hard to answer. The questions of a child are a gift. They give parents the chance to explain a distressing situation with compassion; to put their answers into a historical context and to ask their child what he thinks about the cause and the consequences of slavery, for instance, or mental illness or any serious topic. These subjects may seem premature to you but the more information your son gets, the better he can understand the world around him and the more empathic he will be.

A 7-year-old can absorb all kinds of knowledge if it's explained simply and clearly, and he can even accept scary knowledge as long as he knows that life is a bit like a fairy tale. Sooner or later, the good guys win.

The biography of a historical figure also gives a child the chance to imagine himself in a tough situation and to figure out what he would do to get out of it. These moments of pretend will empower your child and give him some of the extra strength he needs to face the inevitable challenges of life.

It may be hard for you to let your child examine the world freely, but it will be even harder on him if you don't.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.