Avoid telling young kids about existential threats

·2 min read

Jan. 23—Q: My 3-year-old is fearful of trying anything new, including things that other kids his age love to do such as swinging on a swing, sliding down a slide, and splashing in a pool. I feel like I should begin talking to him about what to do in case of a fire in our house and "stranger danger," but how can I make him aware of how serious these dangers are without scaring him?

A: Sorry, but that is not appropriate information to impart to this age child, not unless a real and present danger exists and his cooperation is required if the danger arises. The commonsense rule of thumb: Tell a child what he needs to know, when he needs to know it.

There are real and present dangers you should tell him about and instruct him to avoid — everyday things like hot stoves and moving vehicles. But telling him about dangers that are remote, which he cannot see or feel but only imagine, will only cause him alarm and, yes, even possibly nightmares.

From a purely practical standpoint, ask yourself: What is my 3-year-old going to remember of what I've told him about house fires if he wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes the house is on fire? The answer, of course, is that he is likely to remember nothing. No matter how much information you've given him about house fires, he will undoubtedly panic and begin screaming for you. Likewise, what can he do to protect himself if someone tries to kidnap him? The answer, of course, is nothing. No matter how much groundwork you've laid, a 3-year-old cannot reasonably be expected to keep his wits about him in a situation of that sort.

Parents should give that sort of information when a child is capable of using it. For example, a child should be told about house fires when he's old enough to use the information constructively. Along that line, a friend of mine recently trained his 5-year-old to open his bedroom window, let down a folding ladder, and climb down to the ground. Two years makes a huge difference.

A few years ago, during a visit to a preschool program, the director introduced me to a child in the 3-year-old class. As I bent over to say hello, the child looked absolutely horrified and shrank away. I looked at the director, who said, with a discernible sadness in her voice, "These kids have heard so much from their well-intentioned parents about men who are going to steal them that they think every man is a danger. It's so sad. At this age, they should have no cares, and so many of them already have more cares than they can even understand, much less handle."

Well said.

JOHN ROSEMOND is a family psychologist. Find him at johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.