Sunday, March 01, 2009

A fairly shocking realisation for a three year old

We've been kind of shielding ThingOne from death. I mean the subject of death, obviously we've been sheilding her from actual death by trying to teach her road sense, keeping toasters away from the bath, etc.

We've avoided a few questions here and there, mainly when ThingOne asks where my dad is. We thought this was for the best, but people have told us that this isn't helpful and kids are pretty resilient when it comes to this sort of thing.

I'd been on the side of a woman in this Jon Ronson article, who tells her child 'You won't ever die' to which he responds 'What about you and daddy? Will either of you ever die?' And she says, 'No. We will never die, either. None of us will ever die.'

It sounded fair enough to me. Why would you subject a young child to the truth. It's just not necessary.

More and more of ThingOne's stories feature death in some, usually tangential, way as she gets older, and we've just been ignoring it, and changing a few words in the stories here and there. Kids tend to take in only what they understand so the questions never really came up, but we've been wondering lately how to answer the questions when they come.

A death in the family last week made us bite the bullet and go for it. We decided to broach the subject with dinosaurs, talking about how they lived on the planet before people did, and they all died out. I talked to her about this a bit, and she seemed not very interested. I then got a bit tangled in knots trying to explain how we evolved from creatures that were around at that time, and how we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees. This was a mistake and I soon left the evolution propaganda behind to concentrate just on the death thing.

A mention of it here and there over a week, and it seemed to be going fine. I'd rather she hadn't chosen a Bambi story book from the library on Sunday, as I didn't want to have her reading about mummies dying, but I figured she's got to face the cold harsh facts one day and at just-over three she's been coasting on Easy Street far too long.

On Saturday evening we put on a Charlie and Lola episode in which their pet mouse dies ("I Will Not Ever Never Forget You, Nibbles"). It's an impressive bit of children's TV. They held a small funeral for their pet, and we wanted to explain to ThingOne where we'd be going when we go to funeral on Monday (the kids are staying with my mum). ThingOne seemed fine with this and accepted that the mouse had died.

This was easy, I thought.

As I put her to bed that night we talked through her day, which is our nightly routine and is either a good way to end the day, or, on her part, a delaying tactic to hold off bed time for a little longer. Suddenly, as we got to the Charlie and Lola bit the penny dropped. Her tone of voice changed to one of mild panic.

"Do people die?" she asked, quickly sitting upright.

Gulp. I don't think I've ever seen a leap of understanding manifest itself so clearly.

"Yes ThingOne, they do. When people get old they die". I figured I'd leave young deaths, murder, massive disasters and accidents to another day. I wonder if Charlie and Lola have done episodes covering those?

ThingOne burst into tears and I fought to hold back mine. "But I don't want you to die Daddy". She threw her arms around me.

"It's OK ThingOne, I won't die for a long long time."

"But who will drive the car if you die?"

What's this? Is this my role in this house?

"Who will put me in my car seat if you die Daddy", she continued, twisting the knife as I realised I have been reduced to a chauffeur in my own home. She did then come up with a more generic "Who will look after me?" but it was clear the car was her main concern here. It's not as though we go out in the car very often. We chose to live near a city so we wouldn't have to. And her mum can drive!

It was a very sad moment for me as I realised a pleasant obliviousness had disappeared for ever, and three seems like a very young age for this to dawn on her (but then I have no point of reference). One of the things I've found most enjoyable about having a toddler is teacher her things, but this wasn't enjoyable at all.

I figured she may be awake and upset for a while now, but in fact she quickly calmed down and talked about her bath and bedtime stories, so all was well.

She's not fretted about death too much today, and asked reasonable questions when Anne explained to her today that someone had died and we were going to the funeral.

I'm sure we're worrying too much about the impact of this on ThingOne, though I suppose it's natural to want to shield a child from the sadder things in life. My guess is, as with many things, as the younger sibling ThingTwo will have a much less controlled introduction to the concept. I expect it will be ThingOne who tells her that people die, and that her dad is little more than someone to drive them about.


Anonymous said...

tears in my eyes from crying with laughter, along with the sad fact that Lils is growing up and will have to front up to all that is natural and not necessarily nice in life. Next thing, she will understand that my tattoos aren't actually Auntie Linds drawing pictures on herself...

Stephen said...

I can see it now:
"Sometimes Lily, people like to draw pictures on themselves that can never be removed (without surgey) and they think they'll still like those pictures in twenty years..."

The trick is to remain impartial!