Is It ok to Read Tragic Stories to Children?

This question came up recently, and it is a really good topic to think about.

When is it ok to read books full of tragedy to children? How much trauma is too much trauma? Is it fine to read them books about death? What about kidnapping? Or murder? Oh! It’s all just too dark! But wait…

We live in a fallen world. There is sin and darkness on every side. Death happens every day. Yes, our job as parents is to protect, but it is also our job to educate and enable. One of the best ways to do this is through books. As a dear friend put it, “{Good} Stories are such a great way to gently expose our children to hard truths about real life.” Children need healthy examples of walking through such hardships with grit and grace, and to come out on the other side a better and stronger person.

Children should be taught early on that life is not all sunshine and roses. And do you know where you can start? The Bible. Just think about the accounts of Joseph being sold as a slave by his brothers. How traumatic is that?! Or David killing Goliath and cutting off his head. Gross! Young Hebrew children being taken captive and turned into slaves. Despicable! And what about the most important story of all…the crucifixion. The Bible says Jesus was beaten up so badly, you couldn’t even tell he looked like a man! All tragic? Yes. Traumatizing? Possibly.

THE KEY to reading stories with tragedy is to FIND THE ONES THAT END WITH HOPE—the ones where the character comes through his tragedy... Sad? Yes. Hurting? Yes. But a better person for going through it. These are the types of stories that grow us, that make us better people. These are the types of stories we should be reading with our kids.

Disclaimer: I am not advocating reading junk. There are a lot of dark stories that are filled with too many details and too much description of darkness. Stay away from those. I’m advocating for finding the good and beautiful stories that are full of both tragedy and hope.

I remembered Gladys Hunt’s book, Honey for a Child's Heart, and how many, MANY amazing quotes just stir the heart about this topic! Here is some food for thought:

Childhood is so brief and yet so open and formative that we must not neglect our responsibility to furnish it with what we know is good. Impressions are taken into maturity; we are shaping a future.

Good books are the stuff that makes up life. Most books are about relationships—siblings and friends, parents and children—and the emotions these relationships engender—joy and sorrow, hate and love, admiration and envy, anger and hope. This is essentially true of fiction and nonfiction and even fantasy.

Every child needs to see the possibilities of being human, watch the consequences of choices, and have their hearts stretched by goodness and courage in action. A good book has a profound kind of morality—not a cheap, sentimental sort that thrives on shallow plots and superficial heroes, but the sort of force that inspires the reader’s inner life and draws out what is noble.

What kind of books? ‘Stories that make for wonder. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir one within with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.’ These wonderfully descriptive words from Ruth Sawyer excite me as a book lover. A good book is always an experience containing spiritual, emotional, and intellectual dimensions.

{Excerpt from Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt}

When I put this question forward to my Instagram audience, the responses were extremely insightful and thought provoking. Here are what a few of you had to say...

Stories are such a GREAT way to gently expose our children to hard truths about real life. Children have an uncanny way of being able to internalize truths without taking them personally. Reading stories where parents die, a house fire destroys everything a family owns, a child is left crippled after an accident, etc. reaffirms something our children already know--bad things happen to the people around us--and even us. The key takeaway from a book like this is that even though sad and tragic things take place in our broken world, at the end of the day, the main character is OKAY. Sad? Probably. Different than when the story started? Most definitely. But still okay, and probably a better person than at the beginning.


I personally think it depends on the child's background. My daughter who is 7 I think would struggle with it. She has experienced a time when her mom could've died with leukemia and a stem cell transplant. She remember it! She still struggles with fear of my health, even over 4 years later. My son, on the other hand, was a baby. He doesn't remember it. I don't think he'd be bothered by it. Eventually my daughter will be ok with things like this, but I have to keep a check on her. Of course, talking about things and being open helps. It's the discretion of the parent. They know their child best.


I generally prefer to introduce a difficult topic via a read aloud so I can gauge their reaction and discuss. Depending on how they handle it, I then introduce it in independent reading.


I think it's important for children to understand that life has joy and sadness and that God is the one who gives meaning to it all. We can't possible shield them from all sad and unpleasant things. I think that's to their detriment. They need to see healthy examples of how to deal with pain and sadness.


Absolutely agree that books are an amazing way to teach empathy...not just for kids. I have grown so much in this area by reading memoirs!! My kids have always responded very well to stories about hardships in other people's lives without worrying the same will happen to them. Of course books CAN portray a story in a "dark" way that would invoke fear. But we aren't reading those kinds of books. Some extra conversation about certain stories or parts of the story is beneficial and isn't that one of the reasons we read with our kids anyway? To "naturally" provide these opportunities to be able to have deeper conversations with our kids.


This has been such a fun conversation, and if you have any more to add to it, let me know in the comments below!

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