"Actually, Valerie, that's not a real trash can. I know people have put trash in there, but it's not a very good place to put trash, because there is no way for the trash to get out and into the garbage truck."
"I can get it out, mama!"
Valerie starts pulling trash out of the hole. I didn't stop her at first, because I thought it was a good citizenship thing to do. But as she got lower into the hole, the trash started to get ickier.
"I think it's a good thing that you're trying to help out, but I don't think I want you touching the trash anymore. There are some pretty icky things in there."
"I just want to get one more thing."
"No, sweetie, that's a cigarette butt. That was in someone's mouth, so it has germs on it."
"But I can touch the OTHER end!"
"No, the other end is dirty from the smoke."
"But what about the middle? The middle wasn't used for ANYTHING!"
"Valerie, I don't want you touching cigarette butts. Thank you."
Valerie thinks for a minute, and then she asks, thoughtfully, "Mommy, when I'm older, can you buy me my own cigarette butt so I can blow smoke from my mouth?"
"I don't want you to smoke cigarettes, Valerie, not even when you're older. The smoke goes inside of your body, and it makes your body sick."
"Oh, so only bad people do it?"
"Well, not necessarily. Cigarettes are also 'addictive'. That means that your body thinks you want them, even though your brain knows they are bad for you. That's why it's important to never smoke cigarettes, not even once, because then your body might start to want them."
At this point, Valerie climbed off the bench and under the table. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me I had scared her. I explained to her that I wasn't trying to scare her, I just wanted her to know that this is something important. Sometimes mommies have to tell scary stories to help their kids be safe. She wasn't responding though, so I let her mope for a bit. She wandered over to some steps, and sat down, still looking forlorn.
I waited a few minutes, then I went over to her, and asked if she was still sad. She said she was. I asked her why she was sad, and she said, quietly,
"Because I still want a cigarette, and I don't know why."
I hugged her, and we talked about how sometimes your brain or your body want things that aren't good for you, and that's why it's important to listen to your conscience. I explained how knowledge is power, and knowing the scary things can help you make the right decisions when you want to do something bad. A light went on, and Valerie said,
"I know! It's like how my bum wants to pee through my underpants, but my conscience says to go in the potty."
"Last night, I dreamed that I was an old man, and I wanted a cigarette, but I didn't know they were bad. And the cigarette made me sick, and I was so sad when I woke up, because I thought the dream was real and I was still sick."
I don't know if other kids do this, but Valerie's primary way of processing new information is to create a work of fiction incorporating what she has learned. I hugged her, told her I was proud of her, and encouraged her to think about happy things, now.
"But I'm still sad, and I don't know why."
"I know how you feel. Sometimes, I feel sad for no reason, and nothing can cheer me up. But it will go away eventually, you just have to try to think about other things."
"But what if it never goes away, and I'm sad forever?"
"It always goes away eventually. Do you want to go home and read some stories?"
"Imagination stories work better. Can you tell me a story from your head?"
So I told her a story of a magical playground that comes to life with fairies and elves at night, and a little girl who met the fairies, and was whisked away to the fairy realm for the funnest day of her life. And as I told the story, the sad, sick old man sitting beside me melted away into a joyful four-year-old who could imagine those very fairies living in this very park.
I don't know if there is a *right* age to have these hard conversations with your kids. My approach so far has been something along the lines of, "When it comes up, and I have the time/energy to address it, as honestly as possible, in terms she can understand." As her level of understanding increases, so does the difficulty of these conversations. I'm glad she is possessed of such a powerful empathy, but it makes it even harder to introduce her to suffering and evil in the world. I'm just glad she's young enough that I can still spin a little magic to ease the transition.