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I have recently found myself facing my sweet 9-year old cousin, who looked at me with those big naive eyes, and knowing me as the geeky aunt who knows everything, asked "why did the Germans do this to us?" Meaning the holocaust. At which point I found myself opening and closing my mouth in search of something to say, because I'm 30, and I still don't know why.

I have more than one young cousin, and my friends' children, and I will eventually have children of my own, so I anticipate facing this kind of questions more than once. So how do you answer a child's questions about cruelty, injustice, bigotry - about evil? I can't explain to a child about the banality of evil, can I? It's such a cruel thing to accept. But what other answer is there? How should I have answered my cousin's question?

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    Just as a side note: Make sure that if you explain something to children from other parents, that their paren'ts are ok with you expaling it, at least until they reached a certain age. – Etaila Sep 6 '18 at 16:57
  • You might want to ask your local librarian or do an internet search on books written for children addressing the tough issues. At the very least it will give you ideas on how to frame your answers. And it's a lot easier to give a good answer if you aren't blindsided by the question. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 7 '18 at 18:32
  • Relevant xkcd. – Pam Sep 8 '18 at 16:00
  • If a child by 9 hasn't had exposure to the banality of evil, they have been incredibly sheltered. Value such discussions, because this is when they learn about good, evil, and fortitude under pressure – pojo-guy Oct 10 '18 at 1:45
  • Time to teach her Sturgeon's law ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law ) and that it also applies to people… – user188421 Oct 10 '18 at 16:21
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The approach I prefer is to answer with the truth, in as much detail as will make sense for the child, and as much as I myself understand. But when you reach the point that you don't know the answer, or don't know how to put it in a way that makes sense to the child, be honest about that too; saying "I don't know why they did it" is a perfectly reasonable answer.

My children are only a bit younger than your cousin (5 and 7) and ask some tough questions as well, including about the holocaust. I've told them what happened, though not in detail yet (as they haven't asked), and when they asked "why" I simply said, "There are some bad people in the world, and bad people sometimes are able to convince regular people to do bad things."

I also told them that there were lots of good people, too, in Germany as there are everywhere; the countless stories of Germans helping to hide Jews and others from the authorities, even sometimes at the cost of their own lives. (This discussion happened when we were on the plane going to Germany, to visit a family member stationed there, so it seemed particularly important!)

A child, especially a younger child, tends to see the world in black and white, and this will make things like the Holocaust seem impossible to understand to them. Remembering this may help in those discussions, because adding in the shades of gray is helpful - but also hard for them to understand, that the far majority of people are neither evil nor good, but somewhere in between.

One other thing to consider is to frame the answers in ways that help the children think more. Whys about atrocities like the Holocaust can lead to thoughtful conversation about not staying silent in the face of wrong; while we can hope the child will never be faced with that level of difficulty in their life, they may well see other children being bullied or mistreated, and it's something to think about as a parallel: do you speak up for those who have no voice?

There's also several resources on the internet for answering any given hard question. One tip from this Huffington Post article on young children asking hard questions applies to your cousin as well, I think; answer what is asked, but don't expand beyond it. It's easy to read more into the question (because you know so much more) than what is being asked.

For the Holocaust specifically, of course, there are a lot of resources. This article has a take I like.

  • +1 for telling them just what they need to know, when they need/ask to know it. And for "I don’t know" being an acceptable answer. The only thing I’d add for this particular question (ie the holocaust) is a reference to the Milgram experiment. Most people (I hope) are not "bad", just susceptible to human tendencies. – Pam Sep 8 '18 at 15:53
  • @Pam are you sure about the Milgram experiment? I found it very troubling, to the point of frightening, when we discussed it in eighth grade: it holds the suggestion that I might not have free will, at least not to the extent that I think I have, but instead might be compelled to obey blindly a command I would in normal circumstances disagree with. Sure I developed an almost dogged "think for myself" attitude, which isn't a bad thing, but to hang that on a 9-year-old? To teach a child that he cannot trust people in authority - wouldn't that put him in a very insecure place? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Sep 8 '18 at 20:19
  • @Galastel, I guess it depends on the 9 year old and how it is explained, you’ll know best yourself. Some already have a healthy disrespect for authority, so telling them that sometimes adults get it wrong, too, isn’t adding anything new. But it helps to explain why so many people did such bad things. They weren’t ALL simply bad people, just following typical human behaviour. – Pam Sep 9 '18 at 10:29
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Parents aren't necessarily omnipotent. Try to tell them as much as you know, and when they ask more than you can answer, be open and honest and tell 'em: "Sorry darling, but that's as much as I know". They'll still respect you.

If you're worried about the fact causing racism (sorry I can't think of a more appropriate word) on them, emphasize on it being a hostorical event, and the present generation of German people have realized what their ancestors did and they regret it. This may be unavoidable but you can try to ease it.

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To this type of question I would simply answer that "bad people do bad things".

Not meaning that Germans are bad people, but that the people who did this were bad people.

I think it's important that you qualify that it was not the "Germans" who did this. It was the Nazi's who did this.

There are atrocities being committed all the time, all over the world. Granted the scale is not the same, but the mentality behind it is.

If a person can deliberately torture a person, or take another persons life, for no other reason than their own perverse satisfaction, then given the opportunity, I'm quite sure they would as easily kill 6 million people.

The Nazi's were no more evil, than any other sadistic killers. They were just sadistic killers with means and opportunity to kill more people.

  • "Granted the scale is not the same..." 25% of Cambodians dies under the Khmer Rouge. There are horriffic examples if you allow your self to see. But I'm not sure this answer would be helpful for a child. – anongoodnurse Sep 7 '18 at 3:23
  • @anongoodnurse I don't dispute this. This isn't my point though. The number of people killed doesn't have any bearing on the mindset of those responsible. It doesn't get you any closer to finding a meaning, or a reason. It is just about having the means and opportunity. As I said, "bad people do bad things". This is the reason why all violent crimes occur. Whether there is one innocent victim, or 50 million. – user1751825 Sep 7 '18 at 4:16
  • I believe It's a mistake to try to convey the message to a child that 'evil', is something that happened "over there", or "back then". Some people are just bad, and will do harm to others whenever the opportunity arises. They could be a dictator in a foreign country, or the creepy person lurking in the shadows in your local park. – user1751825 Sep 7 '18 at 4:20
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    I think this kind of question is exactly where such simplified, generalized answers are a bad choice. – Stephie Sep 7 '18 at 6:19
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    Having a 9yo at home, I still think “bad people do bad things” is too simple and too black-and-white. And yes, I think it is possible to explain at least to some extent about politics, society and human behavior, no matter which specific historic or contemporary event is discussed. As far as the specific example of the Holocaust goes, I am probably biased, being German and raising children in Germany. – Stephie Sep 7 '18 at 9:10

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