Should children face their fears, or avoid scary stuff?

My 11yo daugher A- had a really hard time going to sleep last night because she had been reading a fairly scary book (well, a fairly innocuous book with a scary passage. I mean, how scary can a book about unicorns be?) and was afraid she’d have bad dreams.
This lead me to wonder about something: when should we encourage our children to do things that are scary and might stimulate nightmares and when should we discourage them instead?
So far, Linda and I have held the line on the Harry Potter series, for example. A- has read The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, but we’ve stopped her from proceeding to book #3, The Prisoner of Azkaban because I believe it’s really with this third book that the series takes a turn for the dark side, the more malevolent scenes and storylines.

On the one hand, I feel like we as adults know more and can accurately assess what our children are ready to handle or not, but on the other hand, a few nightmares are inevitable anyway and if she’s interested in reading scary stuff, shouldn’t we just let her read it and “get through” the consequences of the frightening material?
I had lunch with A- and three of her 11yo buddies yesterday (a surprise party, don’tcha know) and it was very interesting to ask them about whether they’d read the Harry Potter series. One had read all seven books and another hadn’t even read the first title, though she had seen the first two movies.
Clearly, then, parents in our community are paying attention to the books and movies their children watch (one girl, 11, had only ever seen three movies in her life, Mathilda, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, while another had undoubtedly seen hundreds of different titles. A- is somewhere in the middle and has probably seen about 35 different movies at this point in her life, but never once in a movie theater).
Since you’re reading this, I bet you pay attention to the media your children experience too, so tell me, dear reader, how do you decide what they’re ready for, and how often do you let them — or encourage them — to cross the line just a bit and challenge themselves with something harder, more complicated, or more frightening than they usually enjoy?
Until last night, I was ready for A- to move to the third Harry Potter book, where we meet Harry’s godfather Sirius Black and learn about the soul-sucking Azkaban prison, but after last night, I’m just not quite sure…
Of course, to mitigate this all, when I got up this morning, A- was busy reading the book that had the scary section, while grinning at me and explaining how she’d “finished the scary part and the book’s great now!”

8 comments on “Should children face their fears, or avoid scary stuff?

  1. My 4-year-old is pretty good at figuring out what he himself is ready for. He’ll watch videos like “Scooby-Doo Original Mysteries” and demand more… or, in other cases (like latter-day Scooby video), refuse to watch.
    Many times he’ll process what he has seen by talking about it with us, asking us to help him recreate a scene, or (my favorite), asking us to tell him a story about it. Sometimes he helps, and other times he wants us to tell it, to give him an ending where “the little boy” gets control of the situation.
    We do keep careful watch of what he sees. I know friends who let their kids watch Transformers and Spiderman and similar movies, but my kid just isn’t ready for that. He’s a boy with natural aggressiveness – we have a hard enough time helping him learn to rein it in (especially with baby brother), so why make it worse? We’re sticking with Pixar, PBS, and Disney Channel for now. He’s got plenty of time for the edgier material!

  2. I try and steer clear of violent stuff. However my daughter is 5. I try to remember my child hood reading habits. I have came to the conclusion that there are two paths you could take, tape paper over the scary part and write a shortened cliff notes version over the top so she doesn’t miss out on the plot. (we as parents panicked when our child climbed high on the play ground hoping they wouldn’t fall… and when they didn’t and acomplished the physical task unhurt felt amazed.. can they do this mentally? yes) Then Again Some things should never be in our mental mind.. why have certain images and or thoughts trapped in our memories? I had to walk out of the room this week myself from a disturbing movie! and it took me hours to get over the post traumatic stress of just 3 minutes of horror…. Memories do fade I suggest having a balanced follow up.. a light funny book, few good jokes, or a protective peaceful song to clear the mind before sleeping… and maybe some st john ‘s rescue rememdy!..

  3. I have a just-turned 5-year-old boy.. his friend.. a 6-year-old girl is allowed to watch the Pirates of the Carribean.. and has done so over 30 times.. it isn’t the violence that she’s acting out.. she gets my boy.. shuts them both in her closet and kisses him.. and tells him they’re married..
    My boy didn’t know what to do.. I didn’t freak out.. but we aren’t going over to play any time soon.. She started watching Pirates at age 4.. that’s nuts… but the family never has the TV off.. the ads alone show so much violence and sex.. two hours a day of the tube is more than enough!

  4. I really try hard to make sure my son steers clear of any kind of violence…but it’s hard! It is amazing how much sex and violence there are in commercials. Thank goodness for the DVR! A parent really has their job cut out for them in this area, for sure.

  5. I say, let them face their fears. Our older daughter LOVES scary movies and stories. She’s a Halloween fanatic. We let her watch what is within her comfort zone, and we’ve only had a problem with her being scared afterward once. She watched an episode of a scifi tv show, and then claimed she couldn’t go to bed because “robots might get her”. Dad came to the rescue with some quick thinking. He made her a sign with a picture of the robot he found online, which read “No Robots Allowed” and we helped her tape it on her door. It did the trick!

  6. My 5 yo son definitely has a threshold, and he’ll tell us about it. I got him a collection of “stories for boys” from the library recently, and we read two of the more innocuous stories, but after he looked at the pictures in the rest a few times (pirates, swamp monsters, etc.) he told me he thought it was too scary and I should take it back right away. He has had bad dreams now and then, and has a very good memory, so we definitely avoid scary stuff. He refused to even go near the Halloween store this year. My 3 1/2 yo daughter doesn’t seem to scared of much, though she doesn’t like the car wash because it’s too loud!

  7. I believe it’s important to avoid any kind of violence and scary material. With this kind of subject matter so readily available (and hard to avoid), goodness knows they get enough as it is. Children are so innocent, and I think it’s important to preserve that innocence for as long as possible. Goodness knows they’ll get their fill of sex and violence throughout their lifetime with the way movies and TV (even commercials!) are geared.

  8. My son aged 8 has now a big phobia of planes and boats after watching Titanic with me and shows on Discovery channel about plane crashes in my absence (around age 5). We are still going to a therapy and cancelled two trips this week because of that. I recommend you make sure your children are ready , like in our case you may be very surprised that your child could not handle it.

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