Throughout Europe, tough subjects are a regular part of life and history. The people walk among the prior execution squares. Sites of huge massacres, wars, and injustice have been turned into pizzerias and coffee shops. Not because respect is not given, but because history is so common that the people have found ways to live among it, not around it.
Now imagine trying to explain these tough subjects to a 5-year-old, or even a 10-year-old. Where do you begin? Such is the dilemma of parents, especially those who home school.
Tough Subjects are Everywhere
This photo is a great example of how tough subjects arise in everyday travels and conversations. You may be looking at it trying to figure out how, but it does. Look closely.
Can you see the lighter colored stone facade one row from the top? Now do you see the left profile of a face in that stone? Wonderful! The stone contains a story, one that isn’t an easy one to tell to children.
Here’s how the story goes, one afternoon Michael Angelo was walking through the streets of Florence when he came across an execution in this very square. He was so taken by the face of the young man waiting for death, that he carved his face into the adjacent building wall. He stood in this very spot and watched the man’s execution in an attempt to honor and preserve his last moments.
This is not an issue we encounter daily in America. For most of us, we have to seek out spaces held for mourning. We have to plan large trips to honor certain events and people. Regardless of how accessible a history like this is, how do you explain it to your children?
Tough Subjects Include Sadness
The easiest way to teach your children tough subjects is to set the stage for sadness. You don’t have to be a pessimist to know that death and cruelty are part of life. They can’t be ignored. And by sheltering children from the horrors of the world we are doing them a disservice.
So, how do you begin? Well, from day one. When your family goldfish dies, you have to tell your child just that. Kids don’t understand flowery words, you have to use “death” and “died” and “isn’t coming back.” As parents, it’s hard because we want to protect our children, but children are incredibly empathetic. They can process and handle emotion so much better than we give them credit for.
Therefore, when your friend adopts a baby, explain it to them. Use circumstances as life lessons and teach your children about adoption. The above photo was taken in front of the largest orphanage in Florence, Italy. This is the memorial that was put in the place of the rotating wooden window. A place where people could drop off their infants and spin the “lazy Susan” style door to ensure the child was inside the building away from the elements while waiting for discovery by the nuns. This is what giving your child up for adoption used to look like, and when you visit places like this with your kids, they’re going to ask questions.
Teaching about the Holocaust
The most commonly taught genocide in recent history is The Holocaust, and when world school adventures take you through Europe it’s going to be the subject of many questions. Focusing on facts first, allow them to draw their own conclusions.
A good example is when teaching about Hitler. In this case, begin with something like “There was a man named Adolf Hitler. He was a short, ordinary man. He was very good at making people believe him.” Then give your children an example of a time that YOU were convincing but didn’t fully know all the details. Or ask them to try to convince you of something.
Then, depending on age, you can go further into the details. Explaining how Hitler thought differences in people were bad. How he convinced others to follow his thoughts. How World War II was fought to stop him from doing bad things.
This is an incredibly challenging subject to teach because children are not naturally this cruel. It’s unfathomable and therefore hard to understand. Visualizations will be the key to understanding. Start by explaining “the how.” This photo is our oldest son explaining “how” the gas chamber works from a scientific standpoint. If you leave the obvious moral issue out and focus on the facts, history, and science your child will come back around to the questions of morality all on their own.
“WHY?” Maybe the Toughest Part
There have been moments where adults just cannot understand “why?” so we cannot expect children to arrive at that point on their own. How could a society let themselves be brainwashed to this extent? How did they not know what the concentration camps were really for? The list is long. This is how you help yourself and your children understand this better.
First, you can look at Hitler promotional propaganda posters. Are they pretty? Does his message give you hope for the future of your country? If you were a middle- or lower-class citizen, would his campaign speak to you? If any of those answers are “Yes” then you just voted for Hitler and that is how easily a country can be persuaded. When there was no one else to blame he blamed a race of people and easily convinced others to do so as well. If Curious George told your children that all green vegetables were terrible do you think they’d eat them?
The truth is that the “why” is almost always solvable, but terrifying. If Hitler could convince his countrymen to conduct such cruel acts, what are we, people with modern warfare, capable of? It opens a whole lot of other questions about personal and societal morality, that we do not have the answers for.
How many times have you heard that history repeats itself? One of the biggest reasons why it does is because parents are continuously sheltering their children from the cruelties of the world. We think of it as protecting them, but we are creating another generation of people primed and ready to repeat events they don’t fully understand.
In all ways, make sure you are speaking the truth to your children. Truth is crucial. By answering questions truthfully and directly, we can change the way our children understand history, and hopefully avoid repeating it.
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Photo Credits: Lydia Bradbury and Unsplash