Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

How much is too much?

Knowing when to tell kids about the dangers of the world can be a difficult decision. Photo / Thinkstock
Knowing when to tell kids about the dangers of the world can be a difficult decision. Photo / Thinkstock

"Mum, what happened to Lucas?"

Boy, how I dread that question, which I seem to get about once a day at the moment. It's a question about lovely little four year old Lucas Ward, the Gisborne boy who drowned in August after escaping the attention of his grandmother momentarily.

One might think that my own four year old need not know about Lucas; indeed, why does he? The reason is that one day recently, my son kept saying he would "run away" and, as we live on a very busy main road, I feared he might just one day run out the door and into the path of the unrelenting traffic.

I only had a few seconds to come up with a reason why it wasn't a good idea.

"You shouldn't run away, because sometimes when kids run away they can get very badly hurt. Some of them never see their mummies and daddies again."

I drew in breath, hoping that that in itself would be enough to quell the conversation. Fat chance.

"Why wouldn't I see mummy and daddy again?" the bug-eyed boy asked.

I thought both about wanting to enforce the idea that running away was bad, and also the idea that learning to swim was a good one (my son was an unenthusiastic "nipper" at that point).

"Well, there was a little boy called Lucas, who was also four, and who ran away and never saw his mummy and daddy again and they were so very sad."

Conversation about falling into the river, and not being able to swim, and getting very sick ensued. As always with these considered dialogues, one leaves off feeling it's all gone very well and then gets reminded shortly thereafter that in fact, it hasn't.

"Mum, is Lucas swimming in the river like this right now?" I get a few days later, complete with dog paddling gestures.

"Mum, is Lucas living with Nemo?" some days later.

"Mum, where is Lucas?" on a constant basis ever since.

I was discussing this with girlfriends a few weeks later and wondering exactly when children should be told about things - what ages are appropriate, and what subjects should be broached?

One woman had had a death in the family which had thrown up a few curly questions. Another's son took an interest in pregnancies and babies.

Was it right to issue off a quick "yeah, yeah" when a child asks whether his mother swallowed him and vomited him out on birth? Or try and explain it in all its horrific and painful glory?

Should we, to our four-year-olds, be using the words penis, vagina and so on, or is the ubiquitous "willy" a better choice?

And don't start me on the subject of "safe touching" - a topic that became so convoluted in our house that my son is now convinced the only people that can touch him "down there" are his uncle who lives in a different country, and a doctor who will put his genitals back on with sellotape if they get "pulled off".

I fully admit to picking the wrong topics, and explaining them in entirely the wrong way. But I do believe in a little bit of healthy fear to keep kids in line - and in the case of Lucas, the fear of a child wondering away and not being able to swim is a legitimate fear to raise and presents an tragic precedent.

However as a parent you do wonder whether your child is helped by being told these things before he or she can fully understand it - and whether you're cutting short an idyllic childhood with your tales of real-world truthiness.

It's only when you speak to other parents about it you realise that most of us are revealing the mysteries of the world to our children in a very ad hoc fashion, and that most young kids are probably walking around with a very strange version of things whirring around their over-imaginative heads!

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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