Disclaimer *** I’m sure some who read this post will disagree with our reasoning, and that is completely fine. I would encourage you to leave respectful comments below with your thoughts on this issue, as frankly it was not an easy decision for us.
After our recent trip to Cambodia, one of our friends recently commented, “there is old magic in that part of the world.” After dwelling on that statement for a few minutes, I couldn’t agree more. Few places we have been have left us such awestruck as Cambodia did. The rawness of the place is addictive: the culture, the kindness of the people, and the beauty of its ancient monuments completely sucked us in. One can’t visit Cambodia, however, without feeling that little corner of your mind reminding you of the horrible things that happened there. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime committed unspeakable atrocities, systematically imprisoning, torturing, and murdering MILLIONS of people in one of the worst genocides in human history. It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people were executed, making up somewhere between 25-30 percent of the population of the entire country.
No matter how unpleasant, it is of the utmost importance to learn about the horrible things that happened there, in an attempt to ensure that they never happen again. With this in mind, we knew we needed to take the time to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Khmer Rouge Cheung Ek Killing Fields during our time in Phnom Penh. The problem is, how do you take your 1 and 5-year-old kids to a place where tens of thousands of people were tortured, and (literally) a million people were killed and buried in mass graves? Was it disrespectful to those who lost their lives there? Would it be mentally damaging to our children? Maybe it would be better to find a babysitter and have them stay back at the hotel…
We debated this for several weeks leading up the trip, but in the end we ultimately decided to take them. Here’s why:
While we do our best to protect our children, they need to know that they live in an imperfect world.
The decision to take Penny (1-year-old) was easy, nearly everything would be above her head and as long as we kept her occupied and quiet with toys/objects she would be completely unaware of the horrible things that happened where we stood. Miles (5-years-old), however, was a different story. It’s our job to make sure that our kids are sheltered from the worst parts of the world until they are old enough to process it. However, there is no instruction book telling you what age that happens. In reality, life/circumstance forces you to start addressing the harsh realities of the world. Last year Miles made a point of asking why a young boy selling goods at a night market in Thailand was out in the street by himself. “Where are his parents?,” he asked. It broke my heart at the time to hear his innocence shine through, but it was a great opportunity to explain to him how not everyone is as fortunate as we are. Similarly, when he asked about the 8,000 skulls in the memorial at the killing fields it gave us a perfect opportunity to illustrate how people can be scared of those who are different, and why it’s important to accept and learn about people who don’t look, act, or worship like you do.
It’s possible (turns out, even easy) to modify their experience to give them age-appropriate memories that will help them remember what they learned.
At both the genocide museum and the killing fields, there are audio tours which are absolutely perfect for this (we highly suggest you pay the extra to have the audio guide – they are VERY well done). While we donned our headphones and listened to the history and first-hand accounts of the horrible things that happened, Miles and Penny were able to play quietly with a few toys and walk next to us looking at bugs or follow around the rooster that resides at S-21 (the former school turned prison where 20,000 were imprisoned and tortured).
We let Miles choose what he wanted to ask us about, and when he got bored, he went right back to the cheap ($1USD) plastic racecars we got him at a local market before we came. We took turns going into the rooms where people were chained to beds or kept like cattle in brick cells – one of us would stay outside with the kids while the other ventured in. We tried to focus the conversation on feelings rather than the actual objects in front of us. “How does having this barbed wire around all of the walls make you feel?” or “How do you think you would feel if someone took you away from your family just because you wore glasses or went to college?” This allowed Miles to start the conversation at his level, making it easier for us to know how deep to dive in.
In the end we felt that it was more dis-respectful to hide them from the events that occurred there than to teach them (in a controlled environment) why it was important that we can’t forget about it.
We don’t take it for granted that it is a luxury to have the option of sheltering your kids from evil. Far too many children in the world today are abused or exposed to very adult situations at a time that is far too early for them to process or control. We also feel that is completely irresponsible to shelter our children from anything that might have some chance of being harmful. If you never let your kids watch TV, then some day when they are finally able to watch it for themselves it is going to be irresistible. Similarly, if they go through life thinking that everything is rainbows and unicorns, then someday they will find themselves in a situation where it is most certainly not. At that time, it is only their past experiences and what you have taught them that keeps them from making the wrong decisions.
Obviously, our kids are young, and broaching this topic with a young teenager would potentially be way more difficult than it was with our 5-year-old. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find out what you are comfortable with and what your kids are mature enough to handle. We hope this at least helps you form a framework to analyze your own thoughts on this issue and others.