These days I find myself thinking of Neil Postman, the late author, educator and cultural critic who wrote, “The Disappearance of Childhood.”  He pointed out that our concept of childhood is a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the development of literacy.  In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that the print culture made it essential that children learn how to read and write.  Childhood was an outgrowth of an environment in which information controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be ways they could assimilate psychologically.  Childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.

Postman’s point was that the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible.  It requires no instruction to grasp its form and does not segregate its audience.  He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process.  They are exposed to the sights and sounds of natural disasters, such as fires and floods.  They are surrounded by ever-present media presenting stories and pictures of unimaginable events here and around the world.  More than that, they are exposed to adult responses and controversies that dominate the environment in ways that may seem equally dangerous or at best incomprehensible.

For example, what are children to make of the raging controversy about sexual harassment?  “Me too,” can almost sound like a children’s game.  What is it that women are mad about, and is it that men do bad things?  In a similar vein what are young children to make of various comments relating to immigration, or the idea that certain groups don’t like other groups?  Even political discussions and commentary can take on an angry or ominous tone.

Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are or would like them to be.  Yet sometimes, our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding what our children are thinking and feeling.  In thinking about the issues that are currently dominating the environment we may need first to confront our own ideas and attitudes, our own values, in order to determine how we want to talk about them to our children.  To what degree do we wish to impart a point of view or to what degree do we want to encourage children to think through some of the questions themselves?

The way we talk to a child about disturbing events or questions depends a great deal on the age and developmental stage of the child.  The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond to him, is to listen to his questions and what he says.  In that way you can correct any distortions in his understanding and offer a simple story about the issues or facts involved.  The story needs to match the child’s age and developmental level but can be straightforward.

We can’t protect children from life’s painful events or confusing experiences.  We can listen and respond to their concerns and in that way, help them develop the mental and emotional muscles they need to confront life’s questions.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at