Truth & the Pandemic
Remember Hansel and Gretel? Since 1812, children have been engaged by this familiar story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pressured by their stepmother, a father abandons his children in a faraway forest and leaves them to die. The children are kidnapped by a witch who plans to devour them for her dinner. With themes of child abandonment, kidnapping and a near death experience, today’s parents might consider Hansel and Gretel dangerously dark and frightening for youth’s “fragile” sensibilities. Would parents be right about that?
It’s a timely question as parents wonder how to talk to kids about our current pandemic, with its threat of a menacing virus, an increasing death toll, and the pervasive sense of loss and grief as we shelter in place. How honest should we be — how much “dark” information can children handle?
Of course there’s no hiding from kids the pandemic’s signposts: face masks, physical distancing from friends and family, the interruption of school and camp and athletics. It’s in children’s nature to try to make sense of what’s happening around them. But many parents fear that too much honesty will do kids harm.
If we shy away from speaking honestly to our children — including and in particular about illness, death, and the uncertainties of life — we abandon them to their imaginations. Child psychologists have long known the power of children’s imaginations to conjure things far scarier than reality itself. Therein lies the value of honest discussion: kids can externalize what’s going through their minds, freeing them from the scarier places their imaginations take them.i It’s a kind of liberation that makes Grimm’s Fairy Tales so compelling to youth: the scary stuff is now “out there,” concretized in the form of a story, visualized in illustrations, and not so frightening that we can’t speak of it. In other words, speaking the truth less often plants troubling thoughts in the minds of youth than frees them from the darkness their imaginations conjure when they have nothing else to go by.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales typically included a hopeful ending: Hansel and Gretel escape the witch’s clutches and return home to find the stepmother gone, their father thrilled to see them. Talking to kids about the pandemic, we offer hope through the comforting knowledge that by carefully following the safety guidelines, we’re likely to be okay.
i Bettelheim, Bruno. The uses of enchantment. Knopf (New York: 1976).