Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Talking death at an early age

Will has a deep-seated fear of animals visiting our house – especially when he’s sleeping. So I’m generally wary of introducing anything fearsome into his mind. Yesterday when he asked to read The Story of Babar (originally published in 1933), I skipped right over the part where Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter. (Do they write these kinds of children’s books anymore?)

“Hey, you forgot to say the hunters killed his mother!” Will protested.

“You’re right,” I admitted and retreated to the first page to read about the incident in full.

Then Will launched some of his story-telling with his imaginary friends as main characters: “One time a hunter killed me and Ally and Puff,” he said.

“Do you mean he hurt you?” I’m interested in knowing what he meant by kill, but not so eager to offer up an explanation of killing.

“Yes. And then we woke up.”

“Oh…” I’m relieved that he’s come up with this impermanent sense of death for now. And who knows -- maybe that is how it works.

Our first encounter with hunters and killing was much more real – and yet obviously still puzzling to Will. While we were visiting friends who live on a large swatch of property in rural South Georgia, one of their friends came over for an evening round of wild hog hunting. He came back to the house with a dead boar strapped to the back of a four wheeler, and Will wound up viewing – and even touching -- the hog’s body up close. He talked occasionally over the next couple weeks about how that big pig never moved.

I’m still fumbling for the explanations of death and killing that would be appropriate for a boy Will’s age. For now, when I spot a flattened tree frog or squirrel in the road, I try to point the stroller, and Will’s eyes, away. Sure it could be a good illustration of why we “Look both ways before we cross the street.” But I’d rather stall on the gruesome stuff a little longer.

Hospice Net offers lots of insights about discussing death with children at this site (including how children tend to view death at various stages of development and whether it’s wise to bring children to funerals – obviously not the dilemma I’m facing with a simple reading of Babar). Here’s a quote that jives with Will’s story of being killed and then waking up: “Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. For example, preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion.”

Any ideas or stories about navigating discussions of death with kids?


Phillip said...

Sorry if this is a bit unsolicited...I somehow found this site during a search on boar hunting (the hit in the midst of your story), and was a bit taken by the content of your post.

Anyway, point is...

I was a little at a loss as to how to introduce the concept of death in my own daughter's early childhood, but the fact that I am both a hunter and outdoors writer pretty much put it right out there. Those creatures that come home in the back of daddy's truck are not "sleeping".

My personal approach has been not to hide or sugar-coat the real things, and it has worked pretty well.

I'm hardly an expert on early child development (I was a certified teacher, but that means little when it's your own baby, right?), but I've found with my daughter, nieces and nephews that young children actually adapt to the idea of death pretty easily.

There may be a certain unreality about it at first, or at least until they lose the first pet or relative. But they accept it as just another fact...no different really than the sunset every night. Things live. Things die.

I'm not suggesting that they accept it coldly or without empathy. Heck, I cried when my dog died last summer and I've been around a lot more than three years. But they accept it and understand (albeit a less mature kind of understanding) that it is the way things are.

They will wonder, "where do things go?"...and that's a tricky one that you have to answer your own way. Some people rely on religion for that one, and some rely on science. This question, however, is the source of eternal myth and will always be a challenge.

I guess this was driven home to me when my daughter and wife were heading out to shop or something one morning, and came across a bird that had broken its neck on the glass door of our home. My daughter stooped to look at it, and my wife, ever protective, tried to divert the reality of the moment. My daughter fixed her square in the eye with a very logical, "it's pretty dead, mom."

I will be the very last person in the world to tell someone else how to raise their child, or to suggest that you're somehow "doing it wrong."

At the same time, my feeling has always been that, by sheltering children from the realities of life, you are leaving them unprepared for the eventualities. If you're lucky, your boy will not be exposed to death until he's much older and more mature. But you really have very little say about that. A solid groundwork now may very well help to avoid confusion and possibly even a loss of trust ("Why didn't you tell me about this before, mommy?") later.

Annie Addington said...

Glad the boar lured you in Phillip. I agree fully with you that honesty and forthrightness are the best approaches with kids. That's why I wanted to talk about my hesitancy on this subject. Will's nighttime fears and night waking issues make us tend to be protective (even Will asks us to put books with tigers in them "up in the attic" where he doesn't have to think about them). But I know I need to arrive at a simple, honest explanation of death just as I do for any subject that arises in my reading and talking with Will. I'll work on it next time we confront the elephant hunter or the flattened squirrel.