Doom was my first ultra-violent video game, as it was for many of my generation, but Doom wasn’t really about the violence. It was a horror story portrayed through an action lens, and looking back from our era of hyper-realistic military shooters, it was almost shockingly tame to have caused the stir it once did.
Really since the events in Connecticut last December, I’ve found myself thinking about violence far more than I ever have before. That’s not to say I’m connecting violent media to the events of that horrible day. I have no interest in the larger debate (if it can be called such a thing) about the influence of violent media on children — at least not from a legislative perspective.
But from a personal point of view, I am very cautious about exposing my children to most violent media, whether that be a television show, a video game, the nightly news or even a commercial. I don’t believe that, if they somehow get their hands on a Call of Duty, they will be predisposed somehow to commit some atrocity or lose their ability to empathize for others. No, the reason I make my choice — a choice I demand be left to my discretion as a parent — is that I simply want to let them live in their childhood world as long as they may. Someday they will be older, and it will be irresponsible of me to inhibit their understanding of a too-often unforgiving world, but my boys are still young and live in a world where magic is possible, where they feel safe in their own beds, and where someone cares enough to run interference between them and a world sometimes seemingly obsessed with tragedy and pain.
I make the personal choice about violence and exposure to violent content, one that does not impart an imperative on anyone else, because as I look back on the comparative innocence of Doom, I wish that I had lived longer in a world freer from horror and fury. You see, I believe that something precious is lost once you cross through the veil of a certain innocence to see what the world can really look like.
Innocence is a luxury. It is an illusion. It is in fact the very illusion itself, a fictitious word that is in the end only a lie. A lovely, loving lie we tell those that we think we might be able to protect.
I remember the day I feared that my son had been abducted. I remember a part of that fear and sadness was that all of of that carefully guarded innocence, all of that certainty and comfort of a knowable world populated by beneficent people, might be ripped from him in the worst possible way. We all lose our innocence; some lose it slowly and in manageable chunks over years, others in the time it takes a bullet to travel a handful of yards.
You see, I think violence and the way we deal with it are a very, very personal thing — a thing where there is no right answer, no universal solution, no one way to deal with it. Every year I find myself with less tolerance to violence as an entertainment medium, not because I have some kind of moral authority, but because it is an adversary against me and the illusion I try to weave. I understand that others can draw a clearer distinction between violent entertainment media and the truer horrors of the world, and their interest in a photo-realistic tale of horror and pain has no impact on their ability to empathize with those who suffer. Hell, I used to be able to do that. I have gleefully played some of the most violent games of all time, and slept easily that same night.
I can’t do that anymore. My relationship with entertainment and my threshold for casual violence have changed. I think part of that happened when I became a parent, only because I could hold something so fragile in my hands and feel the both wonderful and terrifying responsibility of being a shield against the world. At some point I would play one of these games or watch one of these movies that had previously been a comfortable abstraction, and unbidden to my mind would come the thoughts that connected these on-screen representations to something real. Once the connection bridge was built, it could not be undone, and over time I could not escape the idea that something horrible happening on screen had happened — and possibly at that very moment was happening — to someone.
It wasn’t that I felt that I was shaming someone’s memory or being callous by taking some kind of pleasure from something that in the real world would be horrible. It was more that I had less and less desire to live in virtual worlds that echo and remind me how cruel we can be to one another. I miss the innocence, or at least the illusion of innocence that I once carried. But there is nothing I can do to get it back.
The last solution I have is to let my own children keep their innocence as long as they may. The world will win eventually. It will break through this wisp of a wall I’ve built, and more than likely they will anxiously and voluntarily walk through to see what is on the other side. They will, in the end, likely be willing participants in deconstructing all of this useless smoke I’ve put in their way. They will play their first violent shooter. They will go see their first horror movie. They will find out in books, on the web and on the television what we are capable of doing to one another. And I will sit on the sidelines and watch as their eyes are opened, and I will try to guide them through to whatever understanding I can offer.
I dread it, frankly, because I know in the end that I am helpless. I’m as helpless as I felt on that horrible day when I feared all that innocence I had nurtured for nine years would be snuffed out. All I can do is feather the brakes and try to control the long, slow crash. I am angry at that fact, and that inevitability is mirrored to me in every torture porn film and every game that revels in shock violence as a pointless crutch to lazy storytelling. So my tolerance is diminished; my capacity for finding joy in those things, so much less than it had once been.
The fact is, how we interpret violence and how we deal with it are extraordinarily personal. It is shaped by the way we perceive the world and how we manage to live on it. It is an abstraction for some and a dagger through the heart for others. What we see within it may be nothing more than a ghost story told over a campfire, or it might be the catalyst for a hated memory. We can’t talk about violence within entertainment media in generalities, because it is not general. It is specific, and it is personal.
For me, though, it is an unwelcome guest who will eventually wedge a foot in the door and take that which I value most. So you will forgive me, if I am not on good terms with the monster who is to come.
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I'm with you all the way. My 7 year old son has a lifetime to learn how harsh the world is; I see no reason to rush into subjecting him now to all the things he will surely discover later. I try to be very conscientious about what he watches and plays, and I feel real guilt when something slips through because I wasn't paying attention. Just a few weeks ago, I started up the Goonies, my memory having whitewashed the film to a G rating. About 20 minutes in, when the old lady threatens the kids with a knife, he got scared and we turned it off. So maybe he's sheltered, but his having such a negative reaction to any kind of violence that isn't abstracted or cartoony is okay for his age, I think.
"Come, amigo, throw away your mind." --Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
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It is, I think, totally OK for an adult to have a negative reaction to violence.
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I really liked this one.
Every time the topic of media violence comes up, everyone seems to assume the case for limiting exposure is all about the God-bothering or censorship. No one ever points out that there are other reasons to pace your child's access to things, or for a grown-up to make the choice to avoid those things for themselves.
I used the same approach with my gang. I used the analogy of putting a new fish in a tank. If you just chuck it in there, it will probably die. However, if you float it in it's baggie in the water, protecting it while it acclimates, when you let it out it's got a much better chance to cope with being set loose in a new world.
Kids are the same. If you just let them go, they will end up in things and they may or not be okay. But if you ramp them up, teaching them what's out there and how to cope with it and metering the access, when the time comes to let go they have the tools to make their way.
Maybe this issue is best debated amongst the people who need to get off my lawn. - JoeBedurndurn
Can't help but read it in Graham's voice after the latest CC comments.
I'm playing through Skyrim right now, and find myself of two minds when it comes to violence in the game. On the one hand, I have no problem committing acts of violence against those I find evil in the game - the Forsworn, the Imperials, the various Bandits. Nor is it a problem against the aggressive wildlife (including the dreaded dragons).
But when the Thieve's Guild asks me to rob a decent person, or forge the numbers for a good person's business, I'm having trouble executing those tasks.
I haven't stumbled upon the Dark Brotherhood yet, but am a little worried about what they're going to ask me to do.
You should be worried.
"Come, amigo, throw away your mind." --Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
I too have been thinking about this of late. And I feel like I'm an oarsman in the same boat as Elysium. I can't speak to his life experience, but for myself, the Venn diagram of me and violence are two distinct circles that don't seem too fond of one another.
In short, I've led a privileged middle-class existence. Short of a number of playground scuffles I can count on one hand and witnessing the occasional drunken brawl (which is part of every English lad's coming-of-age experience in pubs), my world hasn't been violent. Thankfully, there's been no abusive family members, no-one I've been close with has been to war, and I'm honestly hard-pressed to think of a single example of violence that has left enough of an impression to be memorable. I got head-butted by a random drunk douchebag one Saturday lunchtime when walking down the street when I was a teenager. That's about it.
And I can't help but wonder if that's what's going on here. It's not so much about an active attempt to, as Sean puts it, "weave an illusion" as it is a stark discord with the reality of my life experience. The normativity of the more-violent ends of the entertainment spectrum simply clash with my (admittedly limited and self-selecting) worldview.
Don't get me wrong, I've played (and will continue to play) violent games. But that's because some of them are good games. Those are decisions that are predicated on the quality and artfulness of the game design, not on the choice of subject matter. Sometimes I'm able to appreciate the slickness of the game, while still recoiling from the theme (Call of Duty), while other times I'm able to embrace the artistic license in play and accept the violence in context of the story being told (GTA4).
You've never known true joy until you've shaken a lich stick at someone.
I agree completely, but one important point I might add:
You mostly talk about gun violence, but that isn't the thing I'm most concerned about right now (as a parent of a 5-year-old). I'm much more concerned about swords and fists.
A neighbor's kid was shown Star Wars at the age of 3 or 4, and immediately started becoming interested in hitting things with sticks.. and hitting people with sticks. Kids learn from stuff they see. Playing pretend-guns is actually pretty safe compared to playing pretend-lightsaber.
This neighbor kid was a bit of a bully: on arrival at the kid's 4th birthday party, my kid came running to us after twenty seconds or so, and the little jerk told us boldly that "I punched him." What amazed me at the time, perhaps even more so than his violence and bluster, was that he even knew the word for 'punch'. That to me spoke to the fact that the behavior was learned, not just boys being boys.
In the long run, I'm going to avoid gun violence too. It's well known that being able to draw bead on a human-shaped target is something that the last generation couldn't easily do that we do with ease due to desensitization of video games... but the simple solution there is simply to instill my own distaste for real guns. But we'll see how it plays out when we get there.
Hello all. Long time reader, first time poster. I'm always nervous posting on forums as I don't like to be the fellow that gets flamed. So is life in the world of the internet I suppose. I was prompted to pipe up on this subject as it hits very close to home. I work in the law enforcement field and see violence almost on a daily basis and it's effects on the people around me. My soul mourns to see the majority of folks today being desensitized to violence, just plain taking it for granted. As a father of four beautiful daughters, I feel it a duty and privilege to do all that I can to fight against this desensitization, to help folks see, in whatever proper way I can, that violence in any form is destructive in nature, especially to our youth. I wholeheartedly agree that it is primarily parent's responsibility to teach their children the importance of treating others with respect and avoiding violence. I agree that more mature folks can enjoy blowing off steam playing games with violent content but to see a child engaging in such activity turns my stomach. I think we all agree that violence is all around us and is part of life. Why, though, shouldn't we do our best to lower the flood of violent content available to the youth? Laws are debatable ways to do this. I think the most effective way is to be an example, to show our young ones that we won't support media that is inherently violent for violence sake, to not spend our money seeking violent "entertainment". Teaching is most effectively done by doing, not just saying. If more and more people stopped spending their money for violent content than there would not be a market for it.
I apologize for the above run on paragraph, heh. I appreciate the opportunity to share my views with fellow game lovers.
Let me first say that I fully support any decision parents make on how to raise their child. That's my strongest feeling out of anything that I am going to say here.
I couldn't really pinpoint the exact moment my innocence was taken from me. It could have been watching Prowl, Ratchet, Brawn, and Ironhide get summarily executed by the Decepticons in Transformers The Movie. It might have been watching Duke get speared through his chest by one of Serpentor's snakes. It could have been many incidents around when I was 7 or 8 or so. I still can't really watch some of that stuff without getting depressed a little.
But what those events had in common was my parents weren't there to see me through it. That is, I witnessed all of this alone with my own two eyes left alone to process how to react. My kids and I have watched some of those violent scenes, but they've mentioned to me how me being there made it different for them. Now I don't expose them to R rated movies or anything nasty like that, but I have watched that same Transformers the Movie with them and it made a difference because of the relationship we have.
I'd love to shelter them and I know it's a losing battle. But I want to be with them and make sure they know how not to let it haunt them. They have nightmares over what they see, but it's stuff I unfortunately wasn't able to see them through and to help them rationalize. I love telling them when something scary comes along that they should call for a friendly force to help them (Superman, Batman, etc.). They know the difference between right and wrong. They have morals and compassion.
I know they have the rest of their lives to figure out how harsh the world is, but I think the most important role of myself as a parent is to know that for (hopefully) many decades, they have someone who they can commiserate with about that harshness. Right now, I have a hard time with that and for some things I can't even share that with my wife. I don't want my kids to ever feel that alone.
I feel like I am just beginning my journey into the less tolerable to violence realm. I agree that some of it starts with having children, my son is 3. I also agree that recent events have made me wonder why it's so prevalent in video games.
I find it very difficult to find a game void of violence that I want to play. It's rare to find a AAA title without a 'T' or 'M' rating slapped on it for example.
Weighing the types of violence in games that I'm willing to expose my son to seems silly. It makes me wonder why I'm more comfortable exposing him to Legos shooting and punching each other, but not Halo 4. These questions, and any questions I can imagine my son asking, put me in an uncomfortable head space. Why do I enjoy playing violent games? How desensitized am I, and is that "Okay" for an adult and parent that thinks of himself as moral, and empathetic? Can the same entertainment be presented in a less gruesome mannor? When my son sees me lightsaber (yes that's a verb, just like photoshop) someone because he's a bad guy, does it really make a difference?
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I don't disagree, but the content has to be invented. The Portal games are magnificent, but there just aren't that many of them. I like 'em, I'm always happy to have kid-friendly games to play, but they don't always scratch the itch.
(And frankly, sometimes I just want to blow some **** up. After the kids are in bed.)
Really great post.
I feel the same way about my two girls, who are about the same age as yours. I want to protect their childhood as long as possible.
I can remember exactly when violence pierced my childhood innocence. I was watching a Chinese movie with my parents on TV, and at one point these tough guys beat up this man, and they punched him until he fell to the ground, and they kicked him a few times, and when they did that he coughed out some blood. I must have been 7 years old. That really disturbed me, when I realized what they were doing to him, and that he was bleeding inside his body.
My parents were there to help me deal with it, mostly by trying to tell me that it was fake, they were just acting, it wasn't real blood. I'm not sure it was very reassuring, because it wasn't what I saw that bothered me as much as what it represented in human beings, that darkness, and the frailty.
I'm not sure what I'll say to my own children when the time comes. Probably I'll have more of a discussion about it, rather than just try to point out it's not real. They are older than I was, too, so that will help.
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Interesting article and very thought provoking Elysium. I feel like a horrible parent because my 4 year old knows about Star Wars, laser guns and low grade comic book violence (think Superfriends or Phineas and Ferb). We've been working with him not to go too crazy, but sometimes he wants to go fight with tubes as if they are light sabers or make guns out of Legos. It doesn't help that one of his friends at daycare has taught him the word "kill" and also told him about zombies. So while I think some of his fascination with mock violence is natural, I'm also worried about peer pressure much sooner than I thought I would have to.
I've also reached a point where super realistic violence in modern games is a turn off. I can't play GTA or Sleeping Dogs or Spec Ops The Line, but I can still find fun in games like Left 4 Dead or Mass Effect or even Skyrim because the violence is somewhat removed from an everyday setting.
I am not a parent, but I feel myself also becoming less and less able to tolerate violence in the media I consume. Don't really know where it came from, but it's been building over the past couple years. I guess a lot of the shootings and general violence in the news has got me thinking about where the idea that problems are best solved by violence comes from. I don't know...it's something I need a lot of time to think on.
These things happen to other people.
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I am not sure what "I can't do that anymore" refers to. Can't sleep easily at night after playing violent games? Or does it reiterate the line, "Hell, I used to be able to do that", in that you can't draw a distinction between "violent entertainment media and the true horrors of the world" anymore and that violent video games affect your "ability to empathize with those who suffer" in a way they didn't before? Perhaps the answer is all of the above.
Yet I would say that it is those whose enjoyment of photo-realistic violence does not have an impact on their ability to empathize who are less capable of empathy than yourself, whereas you seem to suggest the opposite is true. I think you've actually become more empathetic, not less, as the last section I've bolded clearly shows. Of course it's not the violent video games that have heightened your sense of empathy, but parenthood and perhaps a bit of "having seen the world" as well. The games just let your empathy become manifest.
I think I am on similar path, but headed toward a slightly different destination. Watching my 9-month-old son react to the world I am so used to is shocking at times. It disrupts my sense of reality, but also provides revelation, even when (or especially when) its something as mundane as his startled cry after 10 seconds of Gangnam Style. As such, any TV show, film or game with even the slightest wisp of not just violence, but intensity, is put on hold until he's lying in his crib, eyes closed, breathing steadily. At some point I may throw in the towel on the violence altogether, but more likely it will remain a late night indulgence. There are also experiences containing violence that I had (like the original Star Wars) that I hope to share with him, but not until I think he is ready. And I will be there to hold him or cover his eyes when needed, the way I covered my own watching ROTJ in the theater every time the Emperor appeared.
On violence in general, I recommend reading Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. It's a very profound analysis of and contemplation on the meaning of violent imagery, and the impact and implications of its proliferation.
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Vigorously nodding in agreement here.
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mee too : ) !
I'm probably not in the mainstream on the subject of Doom, but for me it was not really about the *violence*. Instead, for me, Doom as about the *agency*, the cause-effect relationship between pressing a button the keyboard and being rewarded or punished for my ability. Doom was about the gestalt of that tight feedback loop and filled to the brim with the guilty pleasure of instant gratification.
Steam ID: Itsatrap
I recognize the feelings captured here. Yet I am also glad that, when my kids began to become interested in the thrill of a good horror movie, or truthful answers to difficult questions about the way the world "really is," that I didn't err on the side of caution.
Most of the parents of my kids' friends who have taken this approach have simply ended up hidden in their own haze of false innocence, while their kids find other sources for their answers or forbidden media.
Keeping it forbidden, in fact, seems to heighten its appeal. By keeping "the conversation" honest between ourselves and our, now much older, kids, we were able to be there for their early experiences and new understandings, and be able to help set up some context for what they had seen or experienced.
I wouldn't change a thing.
Here's a pro-tip: after the horror movie, watch the "making of" extras. This is a boon to parents, compared to the VHS days. It's a very good tool to demonstrate the difference between "movie reality" and the reality of making a movie.
My son is 6. I don't find it particularly difficult to shield him from the uglier end of violent media since I'm not very attracted to it myself. As for cartoon violence - and I would include such things as Star Wars movies and most video games in that category - I don't see much harm in it. Kids - especially boys - like action. They see a sword or a gun and they understand its purpose. Yes, I cringe a bit when my boy speaks of the "chopping off" or "shooting" of heads, but I don't think that's a product of bad parenting or a sign of lost innocence. That's just his imagination at work.
Most kids and adults do not consume violent media for the violence itself. For most of us, it's just about a little escapism from everyday life or the enjoyment of overcoming a tactical or strategic challenge. Most children are capable of superimposing a moral framework on violence. They like to divide the world into good and evil and see evil vanquished violently, especially when they're doing the vanquishing. It makes them feel safer in a way. Maybe the innocence we preserve is their belief that good always triumphs over evil and that there are such things as heroes.
Having said that, different kids will have different reactions to violence. Some kids do develop violent tendencies or other emotional problems from exposure to it. Whether violent media is the root cause of these problems is doubtful. But if they're going to consume violent media, it's better to do so together to make sure they see it in the right perspective.
Really well written piece Sean.
I've struggled with this as well trying to delay the days before my child learns too much of reality to be truly innocent. While I too limit what they can play or the movies they watch, it's too often the real world that they rightfully have the hardest time understanding. Video game and movies monsters are contained by the frame of the TV or the movie screen and can never really enter the room and are trapped to fight against the heroes that are inevitably locked in that domain as well.
It's the slow chipping away at their innocence that hurts the most.
- The day my oldest realized that not too long ago her parents wouldn't have been able to marry just because of the differences in their skin color and worse that because she looks different enough from her brother that they might not have been able to sit together on a bus.
- Days like the one you already mentioned in Connecticut where I have no acceptable explanation and can't pretend to find a convincing one for my kids.
Often it's those days I find myself at night looking to escape into a world where if things go bad I just have to reload from the last time I was saved.
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Beautifully written. It is an interesting and complicated topic. I've never seen it presented quite this way before. I don't care for shooters much myself although I have played my share. My problem with games like Grand Theft Auto, despite great production values and stories, is that they are made to take place in the real world. When a game like GTA is as huge as it is, there is no doubt that it has some effect, however small, on peoples perception and acceptance of violence in our society. This is the reason that I just can't bring myself to play any Grand Theft Auto game to this day (although I have watched friends play them enough to know what I'm missing).
I wish a talented and amazing game company like Rock Star would take all that talent and ingenuity and create a world that is not of this world. That to me would be so much better than glorifying the gang like warfare and senseless violence that happens in the real world. It just seems like such a cop out to me. Sure you can say companies like Bethesda and Origin (back in the day) have done it. But none have done quite what GTA has done with open world games. Perhaps Skyrim or Ultima 7 are the closest examples I can think of. And even those had violence! Hell, in Ultima you could murder anyone you wanted just like GTA. But at least that violence was otherworldly. Does that make it less bad? Ultima 7 was my GTA 4 lol... Oh well... Just my 2 cents.
It's an interesting perspective. In some ways, I wish I had the luxury of indulging my children in illusions. However, I find that I cannot. One day, I will be dead and that day could very well be today. All of their caretakers could be dead today and they will have to fend for themselves.
They need to find food and shelter without succumbing to the everpresent and cunning child prostitution rings.
They need to navigate education and training on the road to wealth and power and not fall prey to indentured servitude rackets.
They need to be able to witness a violent killing at point blank range and have the strength of mind not to be mentally injured and the presence of mind not to betray their location or weakness.
They have to avoid the cycle of poverty and violence that will leave them dead on the streets ala Grave of the Fireflies.
Every day, I ask myself, can they do all these things by themselves tomorrow?
If I and all my adult family die today, they will have to. Every day since they were born, the answer has been "No," and so everyday I have to accept that I've failed them as a father yet one more day. I do not wish to shield them, because as a shield, I am weak and useless. I wish to arm them so that when the time comes, they can be their own shield.
"...mahal ko ang longganisa!" - Demosthenes
Get off Sean's lawn!
My wife and I are yet to have kids, but as a member of the armed services I intend that my children will be very aware of both properly respecting others and properly respecting force. Only in the US and a few other places can we pretend that violence isn't an everyday part of life, and there's no predicting where any of us will go, so best to be prepared with a courteous smile and with a warrior ethos.
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Yeah, I wish I live in a country that allows the luxury of allowing children to remain innocent. When I have children as soon as they are able to stay on their feet they need to learn to defend themselves, and the reasons for that.
The trick is to make sure they understand when and why they are to resort to violence.
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Violence is the last thing I'm prioritizing in terms of instruction. Children are generally small and physically weak. They need to be fearless (or at least brave) before they need to be proficient in dealing hurt, since they're unlikely to be in a position to use that effectively; whereas the ability to ignore the debilitating effects of fear is always useful.
Presence of mind, cunning, fearlessness, and risk assessment are all top lessons for my kids at the moment.
"...mahal ko ang longganisa!" - Demosthenes
I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one on GWJ who has similar views. I'm also former military (1993-99), and while I wasn't in Iraq/Afghanistan, I saw the ugliness of real human nature on the Korean DMZ and while peacekeeping in the Balkans. Six months in Bosnia was a crash course in what the real world is all about.
That being said, it seems to me violent online games tend to teach the precisely wrong lessons if you want to prepare your kids for the real world. I want my son to be able to defend himself but also be respectful and use violence as a last resort. Certain online games teach kids to shoot first and be as offensive and nasty as possible. Not a good combo.
Some interesting, different perspectives here.
I'd like to think the home, for a limited time, if you're in the right situation, can be a safe and magical center for a kid, a place where love and generosity can flourish and you can establish a baseline of kindness in a kid's heart. I can understand what people are saying about wanting a kid to be fearless and ready for a frequently unkind world, but I think a parent's love (and, in many cases, the special nature of a mother's love in particular) and a sheltering of innocence for as long as is practical and possible, is important.
I think it helps a kid grow up to be a family-centered person, seeking long-term, stable relationships that create that same sense of "security among loved ones." This will be healthier and, in effect, safer for them. And not to be too dirty, smelly hippie but I also think it's important to establish the desire and hope for making "the dream world" a reality, i.e. crafting a future where mankind continues to evolve and become less brutal towards itself.
But, yes, many parents confuse this process with sheltering their children in service of their own insecurity and fear--as if you could actually keep your kids safe by truly separating them from all bad things in the world. Doing so is, of course, impossible. But keeping some of the childhood "dream world" of safety and innocence intact for as long as possible is good for kids too.