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?