This feature was originally published May 10, 2016.
“Daddy, why did you hurt that man?” The question carries a worrisome tone, spoken by a three-year-old girl who just watched Nathan Drake blast an advancing enemy with three quick pistol shots. These words came from my daughter Evi, who quietly snuck up on me while I was playing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End for review. “Don’t hurt people,” she adds, her eyes fixated intently on the TV screen. From just a quick glance, I can tell she doesn’t like what she sees.
I’m mortified, disappointed in myself for not hearing her open the door, and I react to her inquiry poorly – by lying. After pausing the game, I tell her that I was shooting tickle darts at the other people and they laughed so hard they fell asleep. In the moment, I’m proud of the yarn I’ve spun to protect her from the grisly truth, but she doesn’t buy it. The suspicious look cemented on her face tells me I need to come clean, but how much do I reveal to someone this young and impressionable?
She understands the concept of particular things in life being for adults only, such as alcoholic beverages, knives, the lawnmower, and dozens of other objects we’ve removed from her hands or told her not to even think about engaging. I tell her this is a video game for adults, and that a lot of it can be scary and intense, but that doesn’t sate her curiosity. She repeats the question: “Why did you hurt him?” She points a finger at the screen. “He fell down. He needs a Band-Aid.”
I want to tell her about war and violence and how Nathan Drake is a morally gray character that kills for his own selfish gain, but I again refrain from telling the truth, because none of that sounds like something a three-year-old kid needs to know. I say he needs lots and lots of Band-Aids, and someone will come along shortly to give them to him.
Although I’m trying to shelter her from this violent imagery, my explanation doesn’t bring closure to our discussion. I suspect she now thinks Nathan and the enemies are playing some kind of game with each other, and that what she’s watching may not be much different than the make-believe doctor games she plays with friends and family.
“I want to play it,” she says to me anxiously, with a little bounce in her step. At this point I realize I’ve royally messed up, and I’m either going to say something I’ll regret or she may stomp away in a tantrum.
My wife Kelly and I have tried our best to hide the horrors of the world from her, but as she consumes more media, this task becomes increasingly difficult, and maybe it is something we shouldn't hide from her any longer. Most Disney animated films are filled with traumatic deaths, either of parental figures or villains. Explaining what happens to these characters has been difficult. She’s going to learn about death soon, but I’m afraid of being the one that has that conversation with her. The last thing I want to do is scare her or make her question a life she’s found to be wonderful up to this point.
Here I am trying to quickly remedy the solution with lies to protect her innocence. “I’m a horrible father,” I tell myself.
I honestly have no idea what I should say to her, so I finally do the first smart thing since she asked the question – I do nothing. I put the controller down, and take her outside for what ended up being a fun afternoon playing with the dogs and sandbox.
She wasn’t ready for the talk. Actually, I wasn’t ready for the talk. We’ll likely have this discussion with her soon, but I need to talk to Kelly to figure out how we want to approach this subject.
I no longer feel like a bad dad for not having answers for her. Being a parent is tough, and I’m glad I didn’t foolishly fill her brain with horrors in the heat of the moment. The days of successfully hiding stuff from her, like violent video games, are likely behind us, especially if she can move across carpet like a ninja.
I thought I would be having talks about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny before games like Uncharted 4, but given my career and how it spills into our household, the talk about violence is right around the corner, and I have no idea what I’m going to say.