The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it bad to expose your kids to scary things?

Matilda: empowering, enlightening and maybe nightmare chaser. (Kennedy Center)

We’re at that spot in our lives where our kids are realizing there are scarier things out there than just the idea of monsters with big noses lurking in the dark. War, refugees, shootings, lockdowns. Our 8- and 6-year-old guys are pretty innocent still, but their brains work in overtime, just like all kids’ brains do.

Our younger one is still very nightmare-prone, and I know the 8-year-old sometimes stays up at night worrying about things. And so when it comes time to introduce them to outside influences — TV, movies, the newspaper — we carefully consider what we’re exposing them to. I’m discovering, though, that maybe they’re at the age where I’m thinking about it a little too hard.

This became pretty clear to me when we took the boys to see “Matilda” at the Kennedy Center recently.

Sam, the 8-year-old, had read the book in the fall and loved it. It was just the right mix of scary, funny, gross and kid-empowerment. He and I had read most of it out loud while Jonah, then 5, sat on the bed looking at other books or wandered in and out of the room. I didn’t ask him to listen and didn’t think he was paying attention to it. But when we all got to the Kennedy Center, Jonah explained so many details of that book to my husband that I realized he had been taking it in, even though I thought it skewed too mature for him. (He’s scared of the idea of teachers who yell, and any talk of things like the Chokey usually spin him into a bit of a tizzy.)

So that night at the show, I worried about the typical Roald Dahl darkness. And yes, Jonah was scared at parts. Even Sam jumped out of his seat and buried his head in my arm a few times. Miss Trunchbull killed Miss Honey’s father! Murder! I could feel myself sweating a bit, figuring we’d backtrack for a few nights in the kid nightmares department.

I have the same reaction when tough subjects from the horrific to mundane mature content come up:

“Why are those flags lower on the poles today, Mom?”

“Why doesn’t Santa bring presents to homeless kids?”

“If people only die when they’re old, why did he die already?”

“I know all the swear words now, Mom, except for one that starts with a B. Can you tell me what that is?”

“What’s erectile dysfunction?” (Looking at you, Sunday-night football.)

I hear these questions and wonder how much to explain, sometimes coming up with “Er, um, are you hungry? Let’s get a sandwich.” Because what’s good to explain to the 8-year-old isn’t necessarily smart to tell his little brother just yet. And they are together a lot.

So, like many parents, I often wonder how young is too young for (fill in your own blank here). I try to explain life as well as possible, but when I’m caught off-guard, I’m afraid I’ll give a dumb answer that sticks with them in the wrong way. Unfortunately, that also means that part of me keeps them a little more protected than they need to be.

At a friend’s house recently, the dads were discussing whether to let their kids see the latest “Star Wars” movie. Meanwhile, we took them to see the “Minions” movie, which features war, a psychotic woman, guns blazing, murder and mayhem. Sure, it’s animated, but it was hell. Another friend’s daughter, 8, was begging to read the seventh Harry Potter book, which my friend held back on. Finally, her daughter read it and loved it, and of course all is just fine.

We’re all trying to figure out how young is too young (thanks for the help, MPAA and Common Sense Media) for our own kids. And of course what’s right for one isn’t for another. Some parents will hold back entirely, others will let go entirely. I am still trying to find my middle.

What I’m discovering is that sometimes, even when you think your child can’t handle something, it can be a great gift to push them to their limits. Also, it’s best not to underestimate them. Jonah and Sam not only had no adverse reaction to the show, they loved it.

By letting Jonah go we opened the world to him a little more: He sees that there is good and bad and downright evil. But there are also kids who are so smart they can outsmart adults. Who knows? Maybe there’s a girl somewhere who can really move things with her eyes so the good guys can win in the end. And that might be enough to make some nightmares go away.

Amy Joyce is the editor of On Parenting and was a total scaredy cat growing up. She blames it on watching “The Blob” with her older brother and a clueless babysitter. She tweets @amyjoyce_berg.

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