Educating children: balancing the need for instilling security with knowledge of evil

As I’ve probably noted too many times in these pages, I am an addicted bookworm, and always have been. The pages of my books have always been escape (albeit often to realities more difficult than my own), and in modern days I find myself super-stimulated. Audiobooks in the car, downloaded library audiobooks in the gym and on the treadmill, and usually 3-4 paper books on my nightstand being read simultaneously. And then I discovered than one of the treadmills in the gym has a connection to my iPhone, essentially allowing me to watch films on my Netflix “instant” queue.

This brings me, albeit in a roundabout way, to the film I am still watching called Sarah’s Key, based on the book by Tatiana de Rosnay and some thoughts that have cropped up.

For any of you who have not seen the film or read the novel, I will only say that it depicts the French roundup of Jews in 1942 Paris and temporary incarceration at the Velodrome d’hiver (winter bicycle velodrome) before being sent off to the Nazi murder camps out east—detailing the degree of French collaboration and ease with which property was stolen from Jews sent to their deaths. Highly recommended, although I haven’t finished watching the film and I feel deflated and as though I’ve swallowed a lemon. Whole.

One of the things that parents have to struggle with is the balance between keeping our children safe, secure, happy and confident—yet at the same time projecting the dangers and terror of mankind’s horrific deeds. Shooting miners in S. Africa. Genocide in Rwanda. Atrocities in Africa between warring tribes and religions. Random murders in schools and movie theaters in the US. 9-11. The murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The holocaust. And tragically, the list goes on and on.

Unlike some of my learned and erudite colleagues here on Occam’s Typewriter, who write phenomenally well and often put together forceful cases for their contentions with citations, references and links—and perhaps eschew those of us less gifted (or perhaps simply lazier who have not taken the time to do their homework)—I neither have supportive literature nor do I have any concrete thoughts on the matter.

What I do know, is that at least until a certain age, providing a child with love and stability is key to his or her emotional development. I’m sure that large bodies of research support that, as modern child psychology seems to be based on this. So taking this as a “given,” how do we parents introduce the concept of evil—not in an abstract or fairy tale manner, but in relation to our lives at present?

It’s no secret that children of holocaust survivors have been plagued by tremendous emotional and psychological difficulties. Such is the case in Sarah’s Key, and such is the case in my own life. When I was about 12 years old, my 15 year old neighbor and fellow back-garage basketball player took his own life for reasons unknown. He was the son of Hungarian holocaust survivors, and one can only imagine what influence this must have had.

So how do we inform, yet protect and shield our children from the horrors of the world? Is there a magic age where children will be able to put things into perspective, to balance good with evil and not become demoralized? Is there any measure of the maturity and emotional stability needed in a child before one breaches pure evil in conversations? Or does the information filter in from school and the environment before parents can even begin?

I don’t have any answers. Sometimes the evil is so rampant that it’s the purity of my own children that keep me sane.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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3 Responses to Educating children: balancing the need for instilling security with knowledge of evil

  1. cromercrox says:

    I still don’t have the gumption to watch films like Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List or The Boy In Striped Pyjamas. I did read the book of the latter, which left me feeling numb. It had been recommended to me by … my children.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      It’s definitely tough to watch these films or read these books. Since having children, I find myself far less “tolerant” of any film that involves tragedy, particularly where children are involved.

  2. mgg says:

    I watched Sarah’s Key on the big screen…was very moving. Haven’t read the book yet.
    I compare this kind of evil to a malignant terminal disease. Well, there are a bunch of terminal diseases that children could come down with. But do we tell our children about them? Describe to them the pain they could go through if they came down with some of them?
    Of course, there is a lot of cruelty in this world. What are the chances that our children will be exposed to such kind of cruelty? If you think that the chances are quite high, tell them about it by all means. Otherwise, it is better for them to come to you when they are ready to talk about the cruel and violent world. With the many random and mindless shootings that are in the news these days, that conversation might occur before we are prepared for it.

    As parents, on the one hand, we want to protect our children from all evil, even from the thought that human beings are capable of such evil. On the other hand, we want our children to be prepared for the world which has this evil in it. Perhaps, we can train them to keep their eyes, ears and minds to be open, so that they can ask the right questions and we can lead them to find out the right answers for themselves. Telling our children about evil is somehow forcing our perspective of things on them. When they will grow up in a world that will be so different from the one we grew up in, I don’t think our perspective of things are right for them. Teaching them to keep their minds free of prejudice and bias is the best we can do. But how do we prevent our prejudices and biases from coloring their world when they are an integral part of who we are? Seems such a difficult thing to do…

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