Ideally, we want to raise caring and tender children who rightfully grow into wise and smart adults.  Unfortunately, the way into adulthood is, and always had been, fraught with predators and disappointment and liars.  We prefer to pretend these evil elements are not among us — and within us — and the ability for adults to repress inherent danger in the spinning world is what particularly places children in a purposeful peril.

What, then, is the best way to protect children, and make them aware, but not leave them paranoid and untrusting in an ever-virtual, non-virtuous, modern, world?

We need to encourage a preternatural cynicism in our children.  We want to believe life is chalked in black and white with puppies and balloons and teaspoons of faerie dust — but life isn’t that way in any way — and the faster we disabuse our children of an imaginary, idealized, simplistic, world, the better off they’ll be in capturing and recognizing the evil essence that seeks to entrap and exploit them in their tender years.

If nothing bad happens to the child — all the better! — but isn’t it smarter to place all children under a blanket of cynicism than to risk leaving them exposed and wandering?  Even the best cynics among us can land on happiness and divine joy in the unexpected and the overwhelmed.

We like to keep complex ideas simple for children because it’s easier for us to help them pretend they better grasp higher meaning — but is there a risk in the dumbing-down of specific concepts and precise dangers?  We can’t draw a précis world for them in notions of just Good and Bad — because there are too many variables and if/thens that may preclude a curious child’s natural want to question and wonder.

Even para-absolutes like, “Red means Stop” and “honor your elders” are not always necessarily true or even theoretically viable — and the trusting-by-default of definition is where the child becomes vulnerable and exploited in a narrow niche of the contextual exception. Few children stand a chance of winning an argument with anyone who has at least ten years on them; so, sometimes the best weapon you can hone for an unwitting child is to disengage and retreat and risk anger instead of trying to win and connect and be liked.

Is it easier to bring out the cynic in the child — with requisite nihilistic reminders that nothing is perfect and nothing will ever be — than trying to construct an effective treatment against the salve by praying to winnow down dangerous marrow by figuring context on-the-fly?

Perhaps our children should just learn by default to generally mistrust everyone and everything just a bit — and they’ll be better off that way than trying to decide every single time if a smile — from a stranger or a friend — means danger or helpfulness.


  1. Although I don’t have children, I adore them and have many friends with littlies and many with young grandchildren. I despair the thought of raising them all to be cynical. I understand that it must be difficult to raise a child to be wary but friendly, open yet cautious. I have always been friendly with kids in stores etc. But I am increasingly aware that I need to tell the mom/parent/caregiver that (e.g.) her hair is pretty or the dress is cute of I like his shirt rather than telling the child directly. Most times the mom says thank you and tells the child to say think you to me. But not always. I feel sorry for the children that grow up trusting no-one – I think they will have lost an important part of their childhood and it may well turn them into cynical, unfriendly, unhappy adults – I’d love to know what psychologists know about thtat

    1. Hi Nancy!

      Yes, as you example, interacting with kids is difficult, and tricksy, even as an adult — imagine how confusing it must be for them to try to figure out the world of external intentions when they are alone.

  2. Good food for thought, David. Sadly, there is the opposite scenario, too. We know a somewhat neglected child, whose mother actually relies on her own guardian angel to cover the gaps in his safety; this boy has raised himself in many ways, so fearful and guarded that I wonder if he’ll ever feel the joy of an open heart.

    1. There are terrible risks to children everywhere — and they belong to each of us — and yet there are threats and dangers that we never sense, but they regularly see and experience. It’s a fine and delicate line we tread between cautiousness and callousness. Is it better to have a mistrusting child, or a child who inherently submits by default?

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