Another type of overprotection is even more commonplace than the first two examples, and that’s overprotection through censorship. This is when parents attempt to hide basic facts or realities about life from their children because they perceive the subject to be unpleasant or uncomfortable. Censorship often disguises itself as “proper” parenting and comes in a number of different variations:
Examples of Parental Censorship
- Lying about where babies come from or how they are made because a parent is too shame-ridden to talk about this fundamental fact of life that is at the heart of existence itself.
- Searching the pet store for an identical looking goldfish so that you can avoid telling kids that their old one died.
- Redirecting a child when they ask a difficult question so as not to have to answer it, or telling kids they are “too young” to be privy to certain information when they are curious and trying to understand something.
- Meticulously monitoring everything they are exposed to so as to filter out uncomfortable truths about life or anything that might puncture a parent’s bubble of what they consider their child’s “innocence.” This can be evidenced by parents who act as though their child might turn to salt at the sight of a naked (or natural) human being, or the parents who rallied against Sesame Street because Katy Perry guest-starred wearing a shirt that showed far less cleavage than kids would see during a trip to the beach, or the thousands of parents who were furious at a BBC program whose host was born without an arm, claiming that seeing this might traumatize their children or cause them to ask difficult questions. (Children were far more accepting of this sight than their bigoted parents were.) Whatever form it comes in, it’s about trying to maintain a false facade or bubble around children that keeps them in a separate reality…a magical world of make-believe “innocence” that appeases a parent’s anxieties while keeping children ignorant.
What’s wrong with shielding things from children?
It’s natural to want to shield children from painful or upsetting things, and there are certainly a few limited situations where buffering reality or limiting a child’s exposure to something would be prudent. But there are also a number of problems that arise from this type of parent censorship in its common form:
- The issue in dealing with many of these subjects is not that they’ll upset the child, but that they upset the parent. They strike at a parent’s fears, a parent’s insecurities, or a parent’s neurosis. So parental censorship typically only protects the parent, usually at the expense of the child.
- Like the other forms of overprotection, parents who act as gatekeepers to knowledge about the world baby their child at the expense of building competence and fostering healthy, progressive development. “Every time you lie to avoid an uncomfortable situation, you miss a chance to talk openly,” says Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “You want to let your kids know they can always turn to you, no matter what the problem or circumstance.” (Hunt, 2010, p. 48) When you lie about a goldfish dying, you’re being deceitful and betraying your child’s trust, and you’re also teaching them that you’re not a person they can trust with difficult information. You’re also passing up a valuable opportunity for them to learn how to cope with death in a situation where the painful feelings are much less intense than they will be in other bereavement situations. You’re denying them the practice they need in facing death that will help them deal with the bigger losses sure to come in the future.
- By refusing to discuss things with kids, it makes particular subject matters taboo. When a subject becomes taboo, it becomes shame-ridden, uncomfortable to talk about, and filled with emotions that are darker than they need to be. This creates vulnerability in the child. When parents shroud sexuality in shame, it doesn’t make the subject go away or make it any less influential in their child’s life…it merely creates a profound vulnerability that they must now approach the subject with. The same thing applies when parents treat emotions as taboo – it doesn’t make children stop feeling emotions, it simply ensures they’ll feel more insecure and shame-ridden when they do get emotional. Simply by avoiding issues and approaching certain topics as if they are the boogeyman incarnate, you give them far more destructive power than they’d ever have on their own.
- Parents naively think that by ignoring or censoring a subject it makes it go away. This is not what happens. When parents try to censor something – say the topic of death or sexuality – it doesn’t mean that children leave the issue alone and continue merrily along their ignorant way. Rather, it just means that 100% of their information comes from other sources . . . sources that may not be as helpful or comforting as parents could be. One of two things happen when parents try and censor a topic: Either 1) In the absence of parental input, a child’s mind is left to imagine and mull over their worst possible fears or confusion. They are left alone in the dark to struggle to make sense of the world, and what they invent tends to be far more discomforting than reality. For example, a child whose parent runs off may imagine that they were the cause of this abandonment in absence of other explanations, leading to more painful feelings of rejection. 2) They’ll rely on others for knowledge, and these others may present a warped, distorted or incomplete view of things. Take the aforementioned example. Who do you think will offer more comfort to a child whose father ran off with a different woman: You or the opinions of kids on the playground? Parents, teachers and other caretakers are usually a child’s most reliable source of both knowledge and comfort, and when adults fail them, what they fall back upon is usually less than ideal.
- Ignorance doesn’t last. Eventually children will learn about these things on their own. When they do, every single instance where you lied to them or avoided discussions will diminish their trust in you as a confidant.
What parents should and shouldn’t keep from their kids
Parents should not regard any aspect of life as taboo. Children were born into the real world, not some magical land from a fairy tale, and childhood is supposed to be the time when they are training to learn how to navigate this real world. They can’t accomplish this when you’re doing your best to wrap them inside a magical cocoon of lies and deceit. It’s certainly ok to buffer certain topics and blunt the edges. Just as you wouldn’t take a 5-year-old to see a gory slasher movie in which people are graphically bludgeoned by axes, parents should try and blunt the impact of trauma or limit a child’s exposure to topics of violence or murder or other ugly human behaviors. But shielding kids from exposure to violence or aggression (whether on TV or in real life) is entirely different from lying to kids about sex (a normal human behavior that arises out of affection, not aggression), or pretending that death and violence or other difficult subjects do not exist.
So don’t hide things from them, especially when it comes to basic facts of life or things they experience themselves. A child who watches his mother get beaten or is witness to a shooting doesn’t need you to ignore the situation and pretend it didn’t happen. They need you to help them make sense of it. Likewise, your job as a parent is not to hide the real world from your kids. It’s to help them make sense of it and develop a positive attitude towards living that encompasses the full breadth of life and portrays the world as it actually is.
If your child catches you off guard with something, rather than trying to change the topic and suppress their interest and curiosity, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell them you need a little time to think about how best to explain it: “That’s an interesting question…why don’t you let me think for a while about how is the best way to explain it to you and we’ll talk later.” This way you can prepare yourself without ignoring your child’s need to understand. But don’t spend their childhood hiding life behind a false curtain like the man from the Wizard of Oz. Teach them how the world really is, in ways that let them see the good and the bad while still coming away with a healthy attitude.