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Bursting Their Bubble

How much bad news can kids handle?

Our cat Felix is usually as cuddly as a teddy bear. But everyone has a dark side. My lovely wife steals candy from her children. My 7-year-old wears her sister's underwear. Our Felix happens to be a sadist. One afternoon, he had captured a mouse in the garden and was happily torturing it. He would back off and wait for the wounded mouse to crawl forward, then he'd pounce on its back. You know the routine.

Nature was taking its course, but this time a 4-year-old was watching in horror. "Felix! Stop it! I hate you!" Wendy yelled, as she swooped in like a medevac helicopter and snatched up the mouse. Holding it in her two cupped hands, she ran next door where my wife Betsy stood outdoors chatting with a neighbor.

Felix followed, robbed, angry and watchful. If the kid took one bite of the mouse, he would press charges. The mouse's body lay motionless across Wendy's little palms, its fur ripped and eyes blank. "It's dead, sweetie," Betsy said.

Wendy looked at the mouse. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she sobbed, "I don't understand."

Betsy told her that all living creatures have an end and that the mouse's life had ended because Felix had given it "a bad booboo." And that Felix is not wicked; he had just done what cats do. She and Wendy brought the mouse into our back yard and conducted a short graveside service for it, which seemed to soothe Wendy. It was her first brush with mortality.

And where was I during all of this? At work, which is just as well, because I am ten times the mouse-killer Felix is. I take no pleasure in it, but it is my relentless trapping, not Felix's occasional gruesome exhibition, that keeps our house from being overrun with mice. Call it MY dark side. But, please don't tell Wendy her father is a serial killer; a kid should have to absorb just so much bad news at one time.

We have three children and each one is at a different place on the sad road to full disillusionment. Two of them know something about dangerous strangers, one of them knows about terrorism, and none of them knows much about the Nazi Holocaust.

Although I try not to withhold information they need for their personal safety, I'd like to fool them into thinking that the world is a nicer place than it really is. I'm afraid that full and early disclosure might knock them flat and make them give up. If my 11-year-old knew her share of the national debt, I doubt she'd be willing to come out of her room.

Call it kindness or cowardice, but I just hate to burst their bubbles. I don't think I could say, "Wendy, remember the terrible news I told you about the dinosaurs? Well, there's more. Lots more. You'd better sit down."

A few months ago, we took Wendy to visit a farm. She got to pat a sheep's back and feel its living sweater. She helped gather eggs and saw a cow being milked. She danced from wonder to wonder, thrilled to be in the midst of such cheerful cooperation.

Betsy and I answered her many questions easily, except for one "How do you get chickens to give you their meat?"

A straight answer was not in either of us. Shame has caused me to forget my exact reply, but the words "bloody murder" were not part of it. I made my answer complicated enough to be boring, but not evasive enough to be intriguing.

(When our daughter Sally was 6, she thought that farmers waited until their cattle were asleep. Then they would carve steaks off them and sew them back up, undetected. In Sally's little world, what the cattle didn't know never hurt them, though I guess they woke up a little sore.)

Years ago, when our oldest daughter Marie was 4, she looked into the sky and asked me dreamily, "Where would a cloud take you?"

"Nowhere," I'd said. "They're thin as fog, and if you sat on one, you'd fall right through."

"Oh," she said quietly, and I felt like I'd grabbed her by the ankle and yanked her right out of the sky.

A few days ago, Wendy and I were cloud-gazing and, remembering what I'd told her big sister, I asked, "Where do you think a cloud would take you?"

She continued gazing up and eventually said, "Probably to Dreamland. You'd go there and get to visit your dreams."

Anyone care to rebut?

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